Former President Barack Obama summers in a quiet part of Edgartown known as Turkeyland (sometimes spelled “Turkey Land”). Edgartonians were long mocked as “Old Town Turkeys” by our neighboring Nantucketeers. Our modern Island is swarming with gaggles of wild, marauding gobblers. What’s up with all the turkeys?
There is evidence, if a little scant, that wild turkeys may have once roamed the Vineyard. A 1960s inventory of three archeological sites on the Vineyard (one at Squibnocket, one near the Lagoon, and one near downtown Vineyard Haven) found a total of nine identifiable remains of wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris) in Wampanoag kitchen middens, more than any other species of bird. One bone was located in stratum dated to 375 B.C. (give or take 80 years). Now, it’s quite possible that their turkey dinners were imported from off-Island, as it’s well-established that the wild turkey was an important part of Native American culture across New England. Roger Williams of Providence wrote this about the natives of southern New England in 1643: “Many of them had a coat or Mantle, called Neyhomm (auashunck), curiously made of the fairest feathers of their Neyhommauog, or Turkies, which commonly their old men make; and is with them as Velvet with us.”
But it’s clear that if there ever were native turkeys on Martha’s Vineyard, they would have been extirpated in the very earliest years of colonization, just as they were in the rest of New England. Wild turkeys were a very rare sighting in the Northeast by the turn of the 18th century; the last known native Massachusetts turkey was shot on the slopes of Mount Tom in Holyoke in 1851.
The place name “Turkey Land” in Edgartown goes back to at least 1742. One tradition holds that the land was paid for in turkeys. However, historian Charles Banks suggests a more likely explanation: that the name derives from the planting of “turkey wheat” there — a colonial name for corn or maize.
The word “turkey” was also a common nickname for alewife or herring, harvested at Mattakesett and salted, pickled, and smoked in great quantities in Edgartown. It was so much so that when the cads from Nantucket derided residents of Edgartown (formerly “Old Town”) with the nickname “Old Town Turkeys,” it was not for any birds, but rather because, as one 1881 visitor wrote, “the herring, like the codfish on Cape Cod, is the Vineyarder’s Thanksgiving dinner.” (Nantucket residents, in turn, were nicknamed “scraps” by our local hooligans — a mocking suggestion that they ate nothing but leftover bits of whale blubber over there.)
Domesticated turkeys today are mostly descended from a Mexican variety brought to Spain in the early 1500s, and then carried shortly afterward to England via merchants from Turkey, from which, many believe, the bird gained its English name. Or at least that’s the working historical theory.
Major General Waitstill Winthrop, chief judge of the Massachusetts Superior Court, brought turkeys (as well as moose) to his private island of Naushon in the 1600s, as part of his plan to transform the island into a rich hunter’s playground. Naushon was later sold to the Bowdoin family, who similarly stocked it with the deer — quite likely the ancestors of the Vineyard’s modern deer population. But unlike deer, turkeys lack the means to island-hop without help.
Two centuries later, New Bedford businessmen George and Fred Homer did something similar on the island of Penikese. Beginning in the 1880s, the Homers would bring their wealthy friends over on their personal steam yacht to hunt turkeys, geese, and ducks on their private preserve, until the need for a state leper colony brought an end to this pastime in the early 1900s. Turkeys were also raised on nearby Nashawena by 1889, and Henry Davis maintained a prosperous turkey farm on Nomans Land until 1912, when he lost a court battle attempting to force the town of Chilmark to provide a teacher for his children.
It’s likely that domestic turkeys were raised in small numbers on the Vineyard since colonial times, as they were certainly eaten here for special occasions during the 19th century. But one 1932 article regarding the demise of the heath hens stated as fact that “turkeys were introduced on to Martha’s Vineyard” in the early 1900s, and went on to claim, “The turkeys brought in an epidemic to which the heath hens proved susceptible. The mortality was so great among the heath hens that the colony was reduced to 13 birds.”
When a wild ape was reportedly sighted across the Vineyard in 1915, it was George Eustis’s turkey nest at Hollyholm Farm in Chilmark that the fugitive primate reportedly raided in the middle of the night. James Look of Muddy Cove, West Tisbury, the boatbuilder who constructed the first speedboat on the Island, also raised turkeys for market. So did Dr. David Brush, the Vineyard Haven dentist.
In 1926, Ralph Hornblower of New York purchased a large swath of land in Squibnocket, where he was soon raising all manner of domesticated farm animals, including sheep, swine, and geese. Hornblower, whose brokerage firm, Hornblower & Weeks, reportedly handled more than 10 percent of the total shares traded in a single day on the New York Stock Exchange, also raised significant numbers of turkeys in Chilmark: One photo taken of Hornblower’s Squibnocket flock in the late 1920s or ’30s has a handwritten caption reading, “We raised over 500 Turkeys a season.”
But the first really big commercial turkey enterprise on the Island began in the 1930s: Burke Farms. Oscar Burke was a New York summer resident of Edgartown. His family, who made their fortune manufacturing Sweetheart Toilet Soap (“Youthifies the Skin!”), had previously financed Broadway actor Harry Odlin of Edgartown in his 1910 venture to patent a new one-seater airplane. Burke had been married to Princess Vlora of Albania, but their marriage ended after less than six months when she accused him of abandoning her on their honeymoon trip to Paris.
It was shortly after his divorce from Princess Vlora that the newly single Burke, fresh off the international gossip pages, decided to raise turkeys on Martha’s Vineyard. Burke tapped his property caretaker on the Vineyard, Azorean immigrant Joseph Souza Bettencourt (1901–88), to manage it. Land was purchased on Edgartown Road in Vineyard Haven, at the site of what’s now Hillside Village.
By 1939, Burke Farms was taking out advertisements in New Yorker magazine. For only 40 cents per pound (payable C.O.D. plus a small express cost), you could have a cleaned, oven-ready, 20-pound Vineyard turkey delivered to your apartment in New York City.
By 1942, under Bettencourt’s management, Burke Farms had amassed a flock of 18,000 birds — reportedly the largest in the state — and a state-of-the-art facility complete with “modern dressing equipment” and “electric killers.” Oak Bluffs farmer Elisha Smith was hired to raise barley, oat, and wheat at the 250-acre Katama Farm in Edgartown to provide feed. In 1952, after nearly 20 years of management, Bettencourt bought the farm from Burke.
Meanwhile, a second Island turkey farm was founded about 1950 on property owned by the U.S. Navy. Named Heathland Farm (after the late heath hen) and operated by Peter Mitchell, this enterprise filled a trio of three-story Navy buildings at what was also becoming the growing Martha’s Vineyard Airport. As Northeast Airlines flew DC-3s to New York overhead, the Mitchell family raised and sold chickens, turkeys, and eggs to walk-in customers, restaurants, and markets across the Island for about 14 years. Employees of Heathland Farm included Peter Look, Gene Bergeron, Nancy Hodgson (later Nancy Whiting), and George Schwab. Eventually, the farm opened a second property in Oak Bluffs, about where Thimble Farm is located today.
In 1964, Mitchell left the business, and George and Verna Schwab acquired and consolidated the two turkey operations into the one located on Edgartown Road. Preston Averill, Buddy deBettencourt, Robby Randolph, and many other familiar locals worked at this location.
“My mother started cooking turkeys for pickup,” writes David Schwab of Vineyard Haven, son of George and Verna. “She started around 1965, began as a Thanksgiving meal, but turned into year-round operation. She would start cooking turkeys at 5 in the morning, right until the end of the day. You would call and order your turkey, and she would give you a pickup time. For around one dollar a pound, you would get your cooked turkey with stuffing and gravy.” The business was scaled back after George Schwab’s death in 1967, and was shut down completely in the early 1970s.
By the 1990s, wild turkeys began reappearing in large numbers across the state, a success story of state wildlife biologists’ long-fought attempts to reintroduce Meleagris gallopavo silvestris to its original habitat. Today, the wild turkey population in Massachusetts exceeds 25,000 birds.
But not on Martha’s Vineyard. There were never any legally or scientifically sanctioned attempts to re-establish wild turkeys here on the Island. Nevertheless, by the mid-’90s, a mysterious feral turkey population had established itself on Martha’s Vineyard, and grown to the point of attracting national media attention. These were not wild turkeys, but rather some hybrid of domestic turkeys. Were they refugees from the old turkey farm on Edgartown Road?
“Urban legend,” responds Schwab. “We never had brown turkeys. My father only raised broad white domestic turkeys, which were normally white in color, but were bred for their meat. Also, the white domestic turkeys are unable to fly — too fat.”
Today, feral turkeys — genetically distinct from both the wild populations and the farm-raised ones — are common across the Island. Their origins remain a mystery. At least they’re not moose. Or apes.
Chris Baer teaches photography and graphics at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. His book, “Martha’s Vineyard Tales,” containing many “This Was Then” columns, was released in 2018.