LOCKPORT LORE: Our national holiday bird has local roots


The photograph with today's installment of Lockport Lore depicts the Goss homestead surrounded by a flock of White Holland turkeys. Jacob Goss founded the 88 -acre farm, located on Crosby Road next to the Raymond School, in 1873. Jacob and his wife Mary Leinbach had four children. Their youngest son, Lucius, took over the farm. In addition to raising turkeys, Lucius grew a variety of crops. Legend has it he grew potatoes that weighed almost four pounds each.

The breed of turkeys that the Goss family raised was used to create the commercial turkeys popular today.

Let’s start at the beginning. Turkeys, native to North America, were domesticated by Native Americans, such as the Aztecs and Mayans, around 200 BCE.

In the early 1500s, Cortés and other early New World explorers shipped turkeys to Spain on their return voyages.

Turkey became a valuable food source throughout Europe. When colonists began settling America in the early 1600s, they brought these varieties of turkeys with them.

What is considered the first Thanksgiving occurred in the fall of 1621 as the pilgrims celebrated their first harvest with the Native Americans. Thanksgiving was observed sporadically over the next century.

The first national Thanksgiving was proclaimed by George Washington in 1789. He chose the last Thursday in November to acknowledge “... with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording [the country] an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.” (excerpt from his Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1789)

Seventy-four years would pass before the holiday was nationally celebrated again.

Sarah Josepha Hale, a writer from New Hampshire, campaigned for more than 17 years to make Thanksgiving a national holiday until she convinced Abraham Lincoln in 1863. He thought it might unify the country during the Civil War. Upon Lincoln’s proclamation, Thanksgiving became the third national holiday after Independence Day and Washington’s Birthday.

The White Holland turkey was one of the first breeds recognized by The American Poultry Association in 1874. It quickly became popular.

Consumers wanted more white meat in their turkeys; breeding programs in the 1930s began to develop these traits. One variety, the Broad Breasted Bronze, was briefly called Bronze Mae West because of its frontal heft. Fertility troubles due to the birds’ conformation caused breeding to become an artificial process.

By 1965, the Broad Breasted White turkey, bred from White Holland stock crossed with the Broad Breasted Bronze and others, commanded the market. It is by far the most popular variety and what is likely gracing your table today.

Happy Thanksgiving, Lockport!

If you are interested in learning more, check out The Turkey: An American Story by Andrew W. Smith.

Jean Linn is Lockport's town historian, as well as archivist and librarian at Niagara County Community College.

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