PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island’s most famous contribution to Thanksgiving was probably its turkeys – thanks to the efforts of a Westerly farmer named Horace Vose, better known as “the poultry king.”
Born in 1840, Vose became “known all over the United States as the man who has furnished the Thanksgiving Turkey to every President from Grant to Roosevelt,” according to a New York Times report in 1906. There was even a book published about him called “Turkey Secrets” – the magazine American Poultry Advocate called it “very interesting and instructive.”
The White House Historical Association explains the backstory:
Vose began raising turkeys with his uncle in the mid-1850s and in 1873 sent a splendid Meleagris gallopavo to President Ulysses S. Grant, beginning a tradition that would last for over four decades as presidents, their families and guests enjoyed Vose’s Thanksgiving and Christmas largess. After looking over the best flocks in Rhode Island and Connecticut, Vose, a major poultry supplier to the New York market, selected the presidential bird with great care. Vose’s chosen turkeys never weighed fewer than 30 pounds and sometimes topped the scales at 50 pounds. Vose always slaughtered and dressed the birds and then shipped them express in a box addressed to the president at the White House. Occasionally Vose had competition. In 1913, former congressman South Trimble of Kentucky, then Clerk of the House of Representatives, sent a turkey to President Wilson; Trimble’s turkey weighed 30 pounds in contrast to Vose’s 37, but Trimble claimed his bird, which had been fed a diet that included red peppers, was much more flavorsome. It is not known which bird won the “honor” of gracing the Wilson table that Thanksgiving Day.
(The presidents apparently didn’t pardon Vose’s turkeys, however.)
When Vose passed away in December 1913 – just a few weeks after Thanksgiving – it made the front page of the defunct Providence Evening News, which eulogized Vose as being “known throughout the land as the purveyors of turkeys for White House Thanksgiving dinners since the time of President Grant.” The New England Historical Society has more on his colorful life.
Alas, though, Vose and his fellow local poultry farmers ran into serious trouble around the turn of the century.
“Turkey-raising was at one time one of Rhode Island’s best-known industries,” officials at the Agricultural Experimentation Station of the Rhode Island State College (which later became URI) in Kingston wrote in 1910. “Now, however, this industry has almost vanished, since, with very few exceptions, the Rhode Island farmer has given up his attempts at turkey-raising.”
“The islands of Narragansett Bay are turkeyless, while from Block Island, which 30 years ago was able to supply the Thanksgiving market with no less than 20 tons of turkeys, not 500 pounds have been shipped annually for many years,” they wrote.
But why? “The main cause of this deplorable condition is blackhead, which was first noted in Rhode Island sometime previous to 1893, and which has all but annihilated the turkey-raising industry in New England,” they explained.
But the story has a happy ending, according to the R.I. Department of Environmental Management’s Division of Fish and Wildlife. An effort to restore the state’s turkey population, which began back in 1980, has helped bring the birds back in Rhode Island.
“The return of the wild turkey from near extinction in the early 1900s is one of the most significant success stories in the history of wildlife management,” the division’s staff declared in a 2013 report. There is now an estimated population of 3,000 wild turkeys in Rhode Island, according to the division.
RI colonists: ‘ungrateful or only stubborn’?
Not all Rhode Islanders have been as enthusiastic as Vose about Thanksgiving, however.
Back in America’s pre-revolutionary days – not long after the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe famously helped the Pilgrims in Massachusetts, leading to the first Thanksgiving – Rhode Island refused to join its fellow colonies in celebrating such days.
“There was apparently an aversion to official colonywide Fasts and Thanksgivings in Rhode Island, and the only examples on record are those that the colony was obliged to observe during the Dominion of New England, when Sir Edmund Andros, the royally appointed dominion governor, commanded Thanksgiving and Fasts for all the colonies, starting with a Thanksgiving on Thursday, Dec. 1, 1687,” James W. Baker wrote in the book “Thanksgiving: The Biography of an American Holiday.”
It didn’t go well.
“Whether the people were ungrateful or only stubborn is not known,” a disproving New England Magazine writer explained in 1904, “but it is said that when Governor Andros ordered them to appear, to celebrate certain days, which he set apart as days of thanksgiving, the order was so contemptuously carried out that several persons were arrested for disobedience of the King’s ordinances.”
Andros was deposed the following year, at which point “the colonies returned to their earlier practices, and Rhode Island lapsed back into avoiding colonywide providential days altogether.”
Rhode Islanders warmed up to the idea somewhat in the 1700s, when Baker reports the colony “began to appoint Fasts and Thanksgivings,” but as of the early 1800s the state was still out of step with its neighbors.
President Thomas Jefferson’s attorney general advised him at the time that people in the other New England states had “always been in the habit” of observing Thanksgivings, and added that “Republicans of those States … regretted very much the late conduct of the legislature of Rhode Island,” which had declined to have a day of Thanksgiving in 1801, according to legal scholar Philip Hamburger.
Much later, in 1939, Rhode Island’s Republican governor, William Vanderbilt III, was among the state leaders who refused to go along with President Roosevelt’s order to move Thanksgiving up a week to help retailers; critics called the alternative date “Franksgiving.” (The date for the holiday was set by Congress two years later.)
A version of this story originally ran in 2013 and 2012.