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``Where Turkey is King,`` SOUTHERN PLANTER, No. 10, 1 October 1939.

Thanksgiving is right around the corner. I am sure some people are thinking about gathering together with family and friends around a big table where the centerpiece is a turkey or maybe some other culinary masterpiece of your preference. Maybe you or your children will even sing about Thanksgiving:

A turkey is a funny bird,
His head goes wobble wobble,
All he knows is just one word,
Gobble, Gobble, Gobble. . .

The first Rockingham Turkey Festival, held in Harrisonburg, spanned two days, and was designed strictly to pay homage to the turkey. Rockingham County boasted a large poultry industry at “350,000 birds valued at a million dollars,” most of which was, you guessed it, turkey. The festival, by design, promoted the large poultry industry in that part of Virginia.

In September of 1939, folks in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County, Virginia, decided they wanted to celebrate the turkey. Why just gather around it for dinner? They wanted to name turkey “King” of the birds.

The Rockingham Turkey Festival would become an annual event that would earn Harrisonburg and Rockingham County nationwide attention. According to the 5 May 1939 front page of The Highland Recorder newspaper, the two-day festival would be “the only event of its kind in the United States.” The article went on to state that the festival would “honor the bird that roams the ranges of Rockingham by the hundreds of thousands” and that “for two days turkey will be ‘king’ in Harrisonburg and Rockingham county.” Events included a pageant, a parade known as the “Turkey Trail,” and a coronation of the Turkey Queen.

The Rockingham Turkey Festival became an overnight sensation. For the third annual festival in October of 1941, the Virginia State Chamber of Commerce decided to join in the festivities and help promote the festival to a wider audience.

Numerous photographs were taken in honor of the fete. These same photos appeared across the country in different newspapers, including some as far as Missouri and California. Several of them feature little Kay Custer, including the one seen here, in The Berkeley Daily Gazette (Berkeley, California, 23 October 1941). As the caption notes, Custer “makes sure of her Thanksgiving dinner by clinging tightly to a hefty Rockingham turkey”:

This Rockingham Turkey Festival promotional photo showing Kay Custer holding a turkey ran in THE BERKELEY (CA.) DAILY GAZETTE on 23 October 1941.

Virginia State Chamber of Commerce Photograph Collection (008011-000 VCCN)

Many of the Virginia State Chamber of Commerce photos not only promoted the festivities, but also documented the occasion. Other photos were taken for sheer fun. Here are a few from the Turkey Festival to get you in the Thanksgiving mood:

The Virginia State Chamber of Commerce gave the Library of Virginia an extensive collection of photograph negatives, many of which have been digitized and are searchable from the new collection discovery page. Phil Flournoy was the primary photographer, where subjects range from dedication ceremonies to farming, harvests, and numerous local festivals celebrating Virginia agricultural industries. The collection is also searchable via the main Library of Virginia catalog and contains many fun, nostalgic photos such as those shown here.


“Where Turkey is King,” Southern Planter, No. 10, 1 October 1939, page 3.

“Turkey Festival,” Highland Recorder, No. 18, 5 May 1939, page 3.

“Kay Custer…” Berkeley Daily Gazette, 23 October1941, page 5.

“Thanksgiving, Hmm!” Henderson DailyDispatch, 24 October 1941, page 7.

Virginia State Chamber of Commerce Photograph Collection, Library of Virginia.

Amanda Morrell

Reference Archivist

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