For longtime Molena residents, turkeys weren’t just for Thanksgiving, they were a way of life. Starting in the 1940s, many Molena families began raising the birds. They became so popular the city named a Turkey Queen, entered parades and even dressed the turkeys in homemade costumes every year.
“Molena was just covered in white turkeys at one time,” said Betty McCrary. “It was a good business to be in because everyone could work together and make it a family business.”
There is some debate over who was the first family to start the turkey industry in Molena but there is no denying the number of turkeys in the small town far outnumbered other Georgia towns. The first turkeys, like those on Louis Lester McCrary Sr.’s farm, were wild, bronze turkeys, not the white turkeys later raised on commercialized turkey farms in Molena.
“My family had turkeys since before I was born. My grandmother would always raise them in the yard,” said Molena resident Jean Callaway. “My mother said my grandmother started the turkey industry in Molena when she gave my grandfather a tom and a hen. He started selling a few and found it to be a profitable business so he sold more and more. I remember we got up to 10,000 and it expanded from there. Nobody who raised turkeys had less than 10,000. I think my daddy got up to 100,000 at one time.”
Every year the governor of Georgia pardons a turkey, sparing him from meeting his end for Thanksgiving. Many believe President Harry S. Truman pardoned the first turkey in 1947. That is around the time Louis Lester McCrary Jr. presented Georgia Gov. Herman Talmadge with a turkey from his Molena farm.
“He presented a live turkey to Gov. Herman Talmadge in the late 1940s,” said Betty McCrary. “For a while it was a booming business in Molena and we were referred to as the turkey capitol of Georgia. There were just turkeys everywhere.”
Jean Callaway was a teenager when the turkey industry was booming in Molena. She was in charge of vaccinating her father’s turkeys and he often volunteered her to vaccinate other families’ turkeys.
“In 1948 my father built his business in Molena and started selling turkeys,” Callaway said. “It was a fun time because the growers sort of banded together and we’d have a parade in Thomaston or Griffin. A Turkey Queen was named every year and it was just a really fun time. It was a sense of community, neighbors helping neighbors.”
By the 1980s, the turkey industry in Molena had disappeared as the profit margin for growers shrank to little or none.
“They became so commercialized and they were sold for so cheap it cost too much to provide the grain to feed them,” said Callaway. “For a while there were around eight families raising turkeys, then it got down to just the McCrarys and us and then there was one farm left in Athens.”
The thousands of turkeys that once covered the farms in Molena required lots of land to roam.
“Turkeys could clean a couple of acres in no time. That protected the health of the turkeys,” said Callaway. “Now they want you to grow them in houses. I think they were much better when they could get out and be free.”