Special Reports

When times were bad, turkeys were tossed

This time of year the Tri-City Herald publishes photos of folks being served Thanksgiving dinners at local churches and shelters. During the depression things were handled differently in the Tri-Cities.

Former editor and publisher Jack Briggs wrote a weekly column in the Herald for many years. This one was originally published on Nov. 28, 1974.

A recent news story must have awakened Thanksgiving Day memories for some old-timers in Pasco.

The story read that live turkeys would be tossed to a crowd from the roof of a Ritzville building as a chamber of commerce promotion.

Calls from the humane society, and concern someone might be hurt by a plummeting turkey, changed the Ritzville plan to one where a paper cutout of a turkey attached to a balloon was released.

The persons who caught the balloon then got to chase his turkey as it was released from the roof.

But in the early 1930s there was no active humane society in Pasco to stop a turkey mayhem.

Walt Oberst, editor of the Franklin County Historical Society's publication, recalls the Depression days turkey toss in Pasco was written about by Hill Williams, now a Seattle Times reporter, who was a boy at the time.

Williams recalls it as a "Thanksgiving I'll never forget."

"Local businessmen wanted to give some turkeys to the poor. Someone came up with the idea of releasing live birds and letting the people scramble for them. Make it a game. No one guessed how serious the game would be."

Williams wrote that the first bird was turned loose from atop a wooden scaffold perched on the city's dump truck in front of a downtown bakery.

"A young man ran it down," said Williams.

"Other men immediately jumped him and he lost his turkey. It wasn't very sporting, but sportsmanship is a luxury when a father is trying to give his family its first square meal in weeks.

"The tension must have grown with each bird. ... To compound the situation someone announced that the next bird would be the last. ... It was so quiet you could hear the wings beating as the turkey fluttered from the truck. I couldn't see, but I suppose the turkey changed hands several times as the crowd closed in.

"Then a solid knot of struggling men formed around the bird. I foolishly tried to wriggle in until a hard hand topped me backwards and its owner, not unkindly, said, 'That's no place for a boy.'

"He was right. It was no place for a man, either. Policemen and volunteer firemen finally formed a line and battled their way to the center. My particular hero, a volunteer fireman, and a Husky football player of a few years before, was the lead man. It was cold, but he wore no jacket. His shirt sleeves were rolled up. I could see his fists and elbows hitting heads, necks and faces as he drove through."

Williams recalled that once the knot of men was cut, it broke up quickly. "Those in the middle probably wanted nothing more than to get out. There wasn't any turkey left anyway. It had been torn to shreds. I don't remember that anyone was arrested and I don't think the event was mentioned very much later.

"We had supper that night. ... A typical Depression meal with very little meat and a lot of filler. Slumgullion we called it. But I'm sure it was more than was on the tables of the men who had been in the vacant lot that afternoon. My mother wept when she heard of the fight. I thought she was disappointed that I hadn't caught a turkey.

"Now I know that she wept for hungry people, and because of the desperation I had witnessed."