Turkey Day was invented in Villisca

WKRP Turkey drop

For those of a certain age, an iconic television series, “WKRP in Cincinnati,” broadcast in 1978 one of the funniest Thanksgiving episodes in TV history. In the episode, entitled “Turkeys Away,” the fictional radio station—in a misguided attempt to gain market share—dropped from its weather helicopter live turkeys on unsuspecting people on the street below. For those of a certain age, an iconic television series, “WKRP in Cincinnati,” broadcast in 1978 one of the funniest Thanksgiving episodes in TV history.

In the episode, entitled “Turkeys Away,” the fictional radio station—in a misguided attempt to gain market share—dropped from its weather helicopter live turkeys on unsuspecting people on the street below.  That seemed like just a funny TV story line at the time. But according to the Review archives, the original “turkey drop” was invented right here in Villisca, Iowa, back in 1921. The Villisca Chamber didn’t call it turkeys away, but they dropped turkeys nevertheless. Well, maybe a better description would be they “tossed” turkeys!

Anyway, they combined “turkey day” with their Bargain Day events, reaching “far” out into the surrounding countryside to draw potential shoppers into Villisca. Admittedly, the Villisca Chamber of Commerce didn’t have a helicopter from which to drop turkeys, but they made do.

In retrospect, the actual Villisca event seems just as amusing as the 1978 fictional one. Back in those days of the early 20th century, it was considered in bad taste for businesses to advertise Christmas shopping before Thanksgiving was celebrated. (It’s too bad that changed!) But those smart businessmen of Villisca pushed the envelop just a bit by combining both holidays into a Thanksgiving event—come to Villisca to get a free turkey and while you’re here, do your Christmas shopping at our Bargain Days sales.  The story of the original turkey drop—right here, in Villisca, Iowa—as reported by The Villisca Review follows:

“DAY BIG ATTRACTION
LARGEST CROWD IN VILLISCA IN MANY MONTHS SEES SCRAMBLE FOR
FREE TURKEYS AND GEESE
STORES GIVE BIG BARGAINS
Offer Usual List of Articles of Merchandise at Attractive Prices andHave Good Trade”

The headlines on the front page of the Nov. 25, 1921 edition of the Review set the stage for what was the newspaper later claimed to be the first turkey day anywhere. The article makes clear that unlike the people in Cincinnati who were unsuspectingly bombarded by turkeys, the people of southwestern Iowa were all in favor of this event.

“Villisca’s “turkey day” on Tuesday, when twenty-five turkeys and as many geese were given away by the business and professional men of this city, proved to be a great attraction, indeed all that it had beenhoped it would be, and one of the largest crowds that have been here in many months, was here during the afternoon of that day.

vintage thanksgiving turkeys postcard

“The special bargains in merchandise offered by the stores of the city also were a big attraction, and the merchants here enjoyed a fine trade during the greater part of the day. The bargain day, which has been held regularly once each month on Wednesday for the last several months, was set for Tuesday this time, in connection with the special feature of distributing fifty turkeys and geese among the people of this community. People from as far south as Clarinda and Hawleyville, from several miles north of Grant and from considerable distances east and west of Villisca were here to take advantage of the merchandise bargains and to enjoy the fun of the afternoon.”

And now the report on the actual turkey drop!

“At 4:15 o’clock, as advertised, the first turkey was put to flight from the top of the Economy garage, and a roar of yells went up from the crowd which watched with delight as the bird soared off gracefully and lit in a tree near the high school building. But his liberty was not of long duration, for an agile youth soon scrambled up the tree and grabbed himaround the legs as the first prize of the afternoon’s event. One and sometimes two birds were turned loose at a time, and as soon as they were caught, others were released, “Some of the turkeys flew nearly a block from the roof of the garage, sailing out over the crowd which was standing in the street in front of the garage and in the north part of the city park, some lighting in the trees where they were soon captured or on the ground to be caught after a lively foot race. A few flew to the top of the armory and other near by buildings, and one kept on the wing until he reached the roof of the Cozy theatre[on the east side of the square], where he was caught only after a hot chase on the top of that building.”

The pre-Thanksgiving giveaway featured geese along with the traditional turkeys. Goose was much more popular as a holiday dish in those days than it is today. But apparently they weren’t as much fun to catch, sounding much more like WKRP’s turkeys than Villisca’s.

“The geese were unable to make much progress in the air and all fell to the pavement a short distance in front of the garage where they were picked up after some lively tussling, in several instances, by that part of the crowd which waited for them there. One argument as to which one of two men was entitled to a goose which both had a hold on was easily and quickly settled by tossing a coin, and there were few, if any, other arguments as to the owners of the geese and turkeys after they were captured. “All the birds were caught within about fifteen minutes after the first one was turned loose, although many of them were hard to get. But the most difficult feat was performed by a Mr. Owens of Hawleyville when he caught the last turkey set free by climbing a large tree and swinging himself on the end of one of its highest limbs to the limb of a tree near by in which was perched a turkey which was being pursued by several boys who were climbing the tree in which the turkey rested. It was a trick which required both headwork and nerve, and Mr. Owens got well deserved plaudits from the crowd. Earl Kreiger of Villisca got the first turkey which was released during the afternoon.”

Back in 1921, the populace was much more used to making do than it is today. They didn’t have a helicopter, so the club members had looked around for a tall building next to the park. The Review article didn’t say if the Economy Garage,which was located at the northeast corner of the square, came with an access door to the roof, or if Ernest L. Peckham,the good-natured garage owner, allowed a hole to be made there. But the event was only possible because the club members could get two stories above the crowd in order to toss the future entrees into the air.

“Before the opening of the event the turkeys and geese were taken to the second floor of the garage, and as they were needed on the top of the building they were passed through a hole in the roof. W. H. Piper was spokesman, announcing the conditions under which the birds were to be caught, and then were turned loose by Mr. Piper, C. G. English, Cyrus Underwood, Harry Taylor, Earl Newton and Arnold Moore.”

Apparently the people of 1921 didn’t follow directions any better than modern day folk do. Simple instructions, easy to comply with, and yet nearly twenty percent of the winners didn’t do what they were asked to do.

“Mr. Piper announced that all who caught turkeys or geese were to register at the office of the Review, and after the chase was over forty-one persons gave in their names, nine failing to report.” Those who caught turkeys are G. L. Higgins, Paul Taylor, E. T. Pratt, Orville Beard, Howard Andrew, Florence Wendling, C.E. Edwards, Will T. Lloyd, Virgil Smith, M.M. Wise, Rolland Bontrager, E. B. Westernburg, Clark Neal, Fred Ingersoll, M. E. Madden, Earl Kreiger, G. W. Playfair, James. D. Anderson. Those who caught geese are E. L. Dow, Keith Jump, Fred Thorson, Glen Jillson, A. C. Nelson, Joe S. Gourley, Joe N. Larson, Guy Umphress, Orville Rains, Clyde Pershing, John Rossander, Everett Glackemeyer, J.C. Ritnour, Manley Madden, Frank Parcher, Ronald McPherren, Robert Sander, V. W. Quillin, Chas. E. Moore, Henry Howard, Madison Ross, Tom Stallings, Fay Still.”

And finally, just like in the televised WKRP episode, there was a word from the event’s sponsors:

“The turkeys and geese which were given away were paid for by the business and professional men of Villisca. A list of the men who contributed to this fund was given in last week’s Review, but through an oversight a part of the list was omitted. These names are as follows: R.L. Maxey, T.E. Wallace, Dr. O.E. Phillips, Dr. R.B. Smith, P.D. Minick, C.M. Orr, Oliver &Brodrick, W. A. Lake, Maurice Foote, T.J. Marvick, W.O. Zaelke, Moore Bros., Wm. Burnside, Carl Taylor, T.P. Woodward, C.H. Frame and R.J. Swanson, Dr. J.C. Cooper, Dr. F.M. Kelsay, H.F. Elliott, J.T. Myers, Ernest Peckham, Albert Sandosky, F.L. Ingman, Chas. Schiveley.”

In the end, Villisca’s Turkey Day turned out much better than WKRP’s did. Unlike that hapless radio station staff, those clever Villisca businessmen had a lasting hit on their hands. For the next 20 years, they repeated Turkey Day, in one form or another, to draw business to their stores and prosperity to their community. And it worked. Huge crowds showed up, good spirits abounded, very few people fell out of trees or got into arguments over possession of the fowl prizes, and each year fifty to one hundred lucky families got to take home Thanksgiving on the wing!

Here’s wishing readers a Happy, Historical Turkey Day of their own!

(This story was written by Linda Artlip Weinstein for her column “In Review”, published in the 2014 Villisca Review.)

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