We Remember the 1940s, “When it was Turkey Festival Time in Gratiot County”

Headline from the October 23, 1941 issue of the Alma Record.
Herman Pinter, a St. Louis turkey farmer (on left) and employee Bob Campbell promote the coming of Turkey Festival to Alma in October 1948.
The 1947 Turkey Queen and her court give the largest dressed turkey in Michigan to Governor Kim Sigler. From left: Belva Thum (Ithaca), Donnavere Abbott (Fulton), Governor Kim Sigler, Turkey Queen Elda Crittenden (Breckenridge), and Donna June Cook (Ashley).

Author’s note: This article is a follow-up and an expanded piece based on a column that I wrote for the Gratiot County Herald earlier in November 2020.

When people hear about festivals that have taken place in Gratiot County’s past, not many people think about turkeys. However, during the 1940s, many throughout Michigan knew Gratiot County and Alma as the turkey capital.

It all started in 1941 when the Central Michigan Turkey Growers and the Alma Chamber of Commerce joined to hold the first state Turkey Fest in late October. A group of 200 people gathered at the Alma Odd Fellows temple and attended the first meeting thrown together in less than ten days. Upon the platform that night in the Odd Fellows Temple, a majestic tom turkey, weighing over fifteen pounds, sat inside his cage and oversaw the festivities. Judges crowned Ithaca High School students Colleen Townsend and Wanda Gabrion as the first Turkey Queens. The Gratiot County agricultural agent, C.P. Milham, was the person who endorsed the idea of a Turkey Fest, and he served as chairman of the program. On that night, H.S. Babcock, editor of the Alma Record, served as master of ceremonies. A professor of Michigan State College told the audience that Gratiot County then served as the largest turkey and chicken producing county in Michigan. He then added that an estimated 30,000 turkeys had been raised on 129 turkey farms in Gratiot County in 1941.

One of the things on the program that night in 1941 included demonstrating the proper way to carve a turkey. A magic show entertained the audience, then came the crowning of the two Turkey Fest queens. Participants who attended received balloon squawkers, and they could see balloon-shaped turkeys that sat on the decorated tables. Frank Cross, who owned the tom turkey on the stage that night, was given another big turkey as an award. Mrs. Carrie Cole, another area turkey farmer who did work with the program, also received an award. A total of sixteen turkey farmers who donated turkeys for the feast received recognition for raising more than 3,000 birds in 1941.  The hastily prepared first Turkey Fest appeared to be a success, and plans were launched for another one in 1942.

However, what Turkey Fest promoters failed to consider was how World War II would affect meat supplies due to the war. In July 1942, organizers started the plans for another Turkey Fest, and by late summer, the organizers set it for October 29. The banquet took place at Alma’s Odd Fellow Hall, and it was open to anyone who could pay the $1 admittance ticket. Those who supported the second Turkey Fest hoped that the Alma festival would eventually grow to rival the Tulip Festival or Cherry Festival. A total of 236 people attended despite tire rationing and a 35-mile speed limit due to the war. Miss Mildred Stehlik, one of three daughters of turkey growers who received nominations, was voted Turkey Queen. The evening’s surprise came when one of the fifteen donated turkeys went to auction and received a premium when bidders moved to purchase war bonds. Mrs. Homer Fulton of Alma first won the large turkey with a bid of $305. However, she returned the bird for a second auction. When the bird’s re-auction raised another $355 worth of bonds, the winner gave it back, and a final winning bid brought in another $315.  Suddenly, a member of the audience raised the bid on one of the auctions so that the second Turkey Fest raised $1,000 in bond sales for the war effort. After the meeting, a list of turkey farmers showed that Gratiot County had close to 40,000 turkeys in 1942.

Unfortunately, what Turkey Fest followers failed to imagine was how World War II would affect meat supplies due to the war. The government froze the turkey market, and that dashed plans for a 1943 festival. A similar situation happened the next year. Hopes were high that the Central Michigan Turkey Growers would hold the Ithaca festival in 1944, after being held in Alma the first two years. The Ithaca Chamber of Commerce and Ithaca Methodist Church planned to host and feed crowds on December 5. Within two weeks of the initial announcement, another notice ran in the Gratiot County Herald. It read that “due to events which were unforeseen a short time ago,” Ithaca had to cancel the program.

  Gratiot County would not see the “Turkey Festival” (the new name) return for another three years, but in 1947 things began to change. With the end of World War II and no more war ration and restrictions, Turkey Festival returned to Alma bigger than ever. Because of this, the Alma Chamber of Commerce sent out an announcement asking if anyone had extra rooms to rent for the many people coming to Alma. The advertisement for the 1947 Turkey Festival also was carried by WJR in Detroit. The fest also coincided with the annual meeting of the Alma Production Credit Association, which brought 750 stockholders to town.

For the first time, Turkey Festival debuted as Michigan’s first dressed turkey show, and it took place between the holidays. In this manner, the festival’s timing allowed turkey farmers to conclude Thanksgiving business and yet display finished birds. The Michigan Turkey Growers Association also canceled its tour through southwest Michigan. Instead, it merged with Gratiot County for the festival. Notices of a Turkey Queen selection went out to high schools at Ashley, Fulton, Alma, St. Louis, Breckenridge, and Ithaca. In each school, the student body would vote and choose their school nominee. Unfortunately, because Alma hosted the event, the high school decided not to elect a candidate. St. Louis High School then had a policy of not selecting a queen for any purpose. As a result, this year’s Turkey Queen candidates included Donnavere Abbott (Fulton), Belva Thum (Ithaca), Donna June Cook (Ashley), and Elda Crittenden (Breckenridge). In the end, judges chose Elda Crittenden as the 1947 Turkey Queen.

New events at the 1947 fest included the planned arrival of Michigan Governor Kim Sigler to preside over the activities. However, plans changed when Sigler underwent emergency surgery in Lansing. Hence, Lieutenant Governor Eugene C. Keyes came to Alma in Sigler’s place. After the Turkey Festival ended, Queen Elda Crittenden and her court traveled to Lansing to personally deliver the governor’s winning dressed bird. A picture shows the four girls with Governor Sigler wearing what appeared to be a hospital coat over his dress suit.

Activities welcomed those who entered the contests and those who just came to observe the festivities. Entries for the various turkey contests took place at Exhibition Hall, a recently constructed Quonset hut on the corner of Superior and Pine Streets. On the afternoon of December 4, a parade took place down the main street, led by the Alma College and Alma High School bands. Following the parade, a turkey race for boys and girls featured youngsters chasing their birds down the main street to the finish line.   Norman White and Bill O’Boyle claimed the $25 savings bonds as prizes.

  A turkey banquet and the crowning of the queen took place in the evening. On December 5, judging classes took place throughout the morning, followed by a demonstration for ladies on holiday foods.  For the first time, judges gave out premiums totaling over $600 to contest winners. Also, over at the Strand Theatre, anyone could get a free turkey sandwich.

When the 1947 Turkey Festival ended, a total of 130 turkeys had been on exhibit. Zeeland Hatchery had the largest bird at 37 ¼ pounds. Soule’s Turkey Farm of Jackson won four out of six championships. Gratiot County winners included Deloy Henney of Middleton, the Hoyt Turkey farm, Joe Pinter of Alma, and Mrs’ Clark Howland of Ithaca. Since Turkey Festival opened itself to more people from around Michigan, more non-Gratiot County turkey farmers entered and started winning more contests. Because of its success in Alma, Turkey Festival was again would place in 1948.

The Alma Chamber of Commerce proclaimed that “An even bigger and better Turkey Festival is destined for Alma in 1948 than (was) the one of 1947.”  As planning for the 1948 festival began, Turkey Festival attracted attention from places outside of Michigan. LIFE magazine inquired about the possibility of sending photographers to capture the event. A Chicago motor company contacted the city and asked for information about the Turkey Festival, and they were not alone. The Chamber of Commerce also reported that organizations from Ohio, Illinois, and California showed interest in the upcoming festival. There were even companies that asked for permission to help decorate the city. However, the Chamber proclaimed that the Turkey Festival’s focus would be to show that Michigan turkeys were as good or better than those anywhere else. Michigan could become the leader in turkey production.

The next Turkey Festival took place on December 7-8, 1948, and the banquet at the IOOF Hall drew over 300 people. The evening’s high point took place when judges chose Fulton High School senior Dorothy Ramsey as Turkey Queen. Her court included Doris May Kinney (Ithaca), Doris Neitzke (Breckenridge), Evelyn Shaw (Ashley), and Pat Anderson (Alma). Don Hoyt of Jeddo had the largest turkey, which weighed 37 pounds 8 ounces. Mary Haines of Vassar won grand champion Tom, New York dressed. For local winners, H.J. Pinter took reserve champion full drawn bird.  Again the Turkey Festival gave out $600 to winners in various contests. Most of the categories had as many as nine or ten entries, both locally and from around the state. Demonstrations took place on how to prepare turkeys. Panels taught farmers how to keep Michigan turkeys healthy. After presenting the awards on the second day of the exhibits, an auction sale for the winning turkeys took place.

In all, the 1948 Turkey Festival enjoyed another success as it had tripled in size from the previous year.  Entries came in from all over the state of Michigan. The downside of the festival’s success was that fewer Gratiot County turkey farmers competed in the contests.

Although people in Gratiot County did not know it at the time, 1949 would be the last time that a Turkey Festival would take place in Alma. Billed as being “still bigger and better than before,” this festival took place over three days (December 7-8-9). Alma College’s Memorial Gymnasium hosted the activities.

                Organizers emphasized educational events such as cooking demonstrations at Alma High School gymnasium where women learned how to cook a turkey by the piece. An informational meeting about turkey marketing in Michigan followed this demonstration. People who wanted free turkey sandwiches could get them at the high school. Twice as many exhibit booths as the previous year meant exhibits now had to be viewed inside the banquet hall.

                Early in November 1949, Fulton High School senior Connie Sanford became Turkey Queen. Her court consisted of Phyllis Kinney (Ithaca), Marilyn Stine (Ashley), Mary Anita VanAtten (Alma), and Leta Conklin (Breckenridge). This time Governor G. Mennen Williams came to Alma for the crowning of turkey queen during the banquet. Williams had his picture taken with the queen and her court. Governor Williams also auctioned off the grand champion and reserve champion turkeys. Williams’ auctioneering met with success when he sold the 32-pound grand champion for $9.50 a pound to Grant Hess of the St. Louis Park Hotel. For his help with Turkey Festival, Governor Williams received the largest bird at the show, a 43 pound Tom raised by Henry Preston of Quincy, Michigan.

When it came to contests, dressed birds remained the focus. After choosing the winning birds on the first day, they went to be dressed. On the third day, the turkeys appeared on display. For fun,  a 1949  “Fashion Show” took place with turkeys and chickens wearing different costumes.

Attendance increased so much that more people had to be turned away from attending the banquet. However, there had been whispers that the festival would soon move away from Alma. While many Michigan turkey growers said they would return in 1950, local officials feared that the festival would end. The officials were right.

When 1950 rolled around, Turkey Festival no longer was a part of Gratiot County. Newspapers appeared to be silent about the reasons why it would not be held in Alma. Probably the Michigan Turkey Growers Association and Michigan State College’s Agricultural department wanted other parts of Michigan to benefit from moving the festival. What had started with an idea in the early 1940s and then grew to an annual event to celebrate turkey farms in Gratiot County and mid-Michigan, quietly passed away.

Still, for a brief time, Turkey Festival had been the thing to see and do in Alma, and it became a part of Gratiot County’s history.

Copyright 2020 James M Goodspeed

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