Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Range Turkeys and 10-Gallon Milk Cans


In the early years of the 1900s poultry production in the Shenandoah Valley was carried out primarily by farm wives keeping small flocks of backyard chickens (and sometimes turkeys) for meat and eggs for their own consumption.  The technique of artificially incubating and hatching chicken eggs had been developed around the turn of the century and by the 1930s there were numerous chicken hatcheries in operation serving local communities.  In some of the western Virginia counties there were some farmers raising small flocks of semi-wild turkeys in open fields and woods and herding them for miles along country roads to the nearest large towns with a railroad siding. 

Rockingham County in the central Shenandoah Valley of Virginia has been known as the "Turkey Capital of the world" for most of the past 100 years.  It got this distinction because of the work of one of its visionaries and innovators, Charles W. Wampler Sr.  It was the year 1922 when Wampler, then a county agricultural extension agent, contacted the head of the poultry science department at Va. Tech, A L Dean, concerning his interest in artificially incubating turkey eggs.  Up to this time it was commonly believed that turkeys were too wild to incubate and raise successfully.  With Dean's encouragement he built an incubator and successfully hatched 52 turkey poults out of 59 eggs at his Sunny Slope Farm.  Soon after he purchased for $7.00 a broad-breasted turkey tom and began a breeding improvement program, using small 12' x 14' brooder houses heated by kerosene fueled brooder stoves.  In 1927 he left extension to start the Wampler Feed and Seed business and to devote himself fully to farming and launching a commercial turkey production industry which, in 50 years, grew into a multimillion dollar business employing tens of thousands of workers, producing 240 million turkeys a year, and establishing his family's reputation as founders of the turkey production industry of Rockingham County, Virginia, the nation, and the world.

Charles Sr. and sons Charles Jr. and Bill continued to grow the business into what would eventually become the second largest poultry company in the nation. By the 80s and 90s the original family owned business incorporated, successfully fought off a hostile takeover by Tyson Foods Inc., went through several mergers, and was bought out by Pilgrim's Pride in the early 2000s.

It was the year 1945 (the end of World War II) when Dad got out of Civilian Public Service camp and went to work for Charles Wampler Sr. at Sunny Slope Farm.  At this time the Wamplers owned five surrounding farms totaling more than 700 acres.  Dad was the manager of the main farm at Sunny Slope.  I can remember the names of the managers of several of the adjoining farms--Warren Eberly, Reuben Rhodes, and Martin Strate.  I think, but am not absolutely sure, that Charles Jr. and Bill managed the other two. In addition to turkeys, the Wampler farms raised Angus cattle and Cheviot sheep.

By the 1950s the turkey industry started by the Wamplers was well established and growing rapidly.  Turkey statues commemorating Rockingham County's place in the turkey production "Hall of Fame" had been erected at the county line on both the southern and northern sides of the county along the principal highway 11 bisecting the county.  Several large hatcheries in addition to the hatchery at Sunny Slope were turning out millions of turkey poults and they were brooded for several months in small to medium sized brooder houses before being put out on free range pastures around eight to ten weeks of age.  The early broad-breasted bronze breed was being phased out in favor of white turkeys because commercial processing favored dressed turkeys without the unsightly black pin feathers.  For a while a smaller breed of white turkey, the Beltsville white, was produced because of a perception that they would be preferred by small households.  Beltsville whites were later phased out in favor of larger broad-breasted whites demanded by the restaurant trade and are now an almost extinct heritage breed.

Flocks of white turkeys were a common sight on Rockingham County hillsides in the 1950s and 60s.  Many small farms were growing out flocks of several thousand free range turkeys under contractual arrangements originally begun by the Wamplers several decades earlier and copied by other poultry companies later.  The company would provide the birds and feed.  The farmer would provide the labor and necessary equipment such as tractors, a farm truck, moveable shelters, feeders, waterers etc.  These inputs were relatively inexpensive for small farmers opting for free range poultry production and enabled many a small farmer in western Virginia and West Virginia to succeed financially.  On our farm, the raising of free range turkeys in the pasture fields helped to build up the soil fertility.  Unfortunately, it also brought in thistle seeds via the feed and left us fighting thistles for years afterward.  As on farm poultry production became large scale and shifted from flocks of several thousand to flocks of several hundred thousand, range production of poultry gave way by the early 70s to confinement raising of poultry in several hundred feet long houses with automatic watering and bulk feeding systems.

My childhood memories of my dad raising turkeys for the Wamplers in the 1950s and 60s were of his raising of turkeys on range.  For shelter and roosting we used simple home-made shelters measuring 10' x 10' x 8' high made of rough cut lumber built on 12 foot-long 4" x 8" sled runners. A sloping roof (sometimes made of repurposed roof from salvaged sheds) overhung the front by about two feet and the back by about one foot.  The back side (about six feet high) was covered by rough boards or old roof metal.  The other three sides were open. Inside these shelters was a sloping roost built of 2 by 4s and 2 by 2 rails spaced two feet apart.  We had about a dozen of these shelters and we would line them up side by side, preferably with the backs facing the prevailing winds.  We had ten or so wooden feeders 8' long, 2' wide, and 2 ½' deep with flip open lids built on 2"x 4" runners.  Each feeder when full would hold about eight 100lb bags of feed.  We would line them up in front of the shelters and use a John Deere B tractor with a logging chain to tow the shelters and feeders to a fresh area in the pasture fields about every two to three weeks.  For watering we used an old farm wagon frame with the bed removed and two repurposed 500-gallon fuel tanks wired to the frame.  We had six portable eight-foot long by four-inch wide by three-inch deep metal galvanized water troughs equipped with float valves which were connected to the water wagon by garden hoses.  A wagon load of water would last for several days in the summer before being taken to the barn for refilling.

About once a week Dad would take the 1 ½ ton Chevrolet farm truck to the Wampler feed mill and load it with 80 100lb burlap bags of feed.  I often rode with him on these trips which often included stops at hardware stores and sometimes at one of the other Wampler owned farms.  Upon arriving home, he would drive the loaded truck out to the pasture and alongside the feeders to unload the feed.  I was about ten years old when he taught me how to put the truck into the lowest gear and slowly pull it forward to the next feeder as he dumped the bags into the feeders.  It was also at this time when I first began to carry the 100lb bags myself from the back of the truck to dump into the feeders.  Within a year I could pick one up from the ground.

Dad and Warren Eberly both bought their own farms and stopped working for Mr. Wampler at about the same time.  Dad continued raising range turkeys on contract with the Wamplers for another ten years after leaving Sunny Slope Farm in 1956. Warren had a brooder house on the farm he bought and started turkeys for the Wamplers during this same period. Dad would take his truck to the Eberly farm to load up the eight week old poults into wooden crates (called coops) made of one-inch thick frame wood and 3/8" dowels with a quarter inch thick wooden bottom.  Each coop measured about 2 ½ feet long x 2 feet wide and about 18 inches deep and could hold about 20 young turkeys.  When loaded, the truck would hold about 50 filled coops
With around 1000 poults per load, two or three trips to the brooder house would transport a flock to our farm.  Several months later the mature and "ready to market" turkeys would be loaded into the same type coops (8-10 per coop) and hauled to the processing plant.  I remember helping to catch and load the young turkeys at Warren's brooder house and emptying the coops at our farm, but I don't remember as much helping to load the mature turkeys and hauling them from the farm.  I think larger trucks and other workers were involved.  

After the birth of his seventh son (my youngest brother Gary) in 1959, Dad decided to go into the Grade A dairy business with Shenandoah's Pride Co-op. That summer he built a three cow side-opening stanchion milking parlor and started producing Grade A milk with 20 Holstein cows. The cows entered the parlor from a 60-foot-long walkway on one end and entered the stanchions on a three-foot high platform on one side of the parlor.  There were three of these stanchions in a row, each one with a gate which opened to let a cow to enter and one to open allowing the cow to exit when finished milking.  The cow would then exit the parlor through a door on the other end and return to the barnyard via another 60-foot-long walkway. The man milking the cows stood in the pit beside the platform using bucket type milking machines set on small metal shelves beside each cow.  When a cow finished milking the milking machine was set down into the pit and dumped into a waiting pail.  This pail was then carried into an adjacent milk room and dumped into a strainer atop a ten-gallon milk can.  When the ten-gallon can was full, a compression lid was pressed onto the top and the can was then set into an ice bank cooler with circulating cold water constantly spraying over the filled cans. Today the ten-gallon milk can is a relic found mostly in antique stores and sometimes filled with concrete and used as a base for a mailbox post.  Six years later, the bucket milking machines, ten-gallon milk cans, and ice bank cooler were replaced with a pipeline system which moved the milk directly from the cow to a 400-gallon capacity bulk milk tank in the milk room.

From 1959 until 1967 Dad had a building project going every summer.  The next summer after the construction of the milking parlor, a large shed roof was built over the barnyard.  This was followed by the construction of feed bunks, additional hay storage lofts, loafing stalls, and concrete alleyways for the cows inside the barnyard shed, concrete stave silos, and a machinery shed over the next several years.  In 1965 a major remodel of the farmhouse was done while we lived in the house.  The next year an addition was built on the back side of the house.  This was the last year we raised free range turkeys for the Wamplers.

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