(Excerpts from Bernice Keech in History of Gill 1943-1993 - Vol. 2)
While it wasn’t the first turkey farm in Gill, Franklin Turkey Farm on Franklin Rd., is the one that is most often thought of in recent history when one thinks about their own Thanksgiving memories growing up.
William Otterbein and his wife Frances on River Rd. were the first to raise and sell turkeys in Gill. They purchased the property in 1919 from Frank Zak and raised turkeys for many years. Everyday Mrs. Otterbein could be seen leading the flock from one area of the farm to another. They sold the farm in 1943.
Several other turkey farms popped up around town. According to the Greenfield Recorder, in 1949 more than four turkeys per person were raised in Gill. In 1962, only two farms remained in business, but had much larger flocks and production increased to 15 turkeys per person. (The town population was about 1,000 residents).
Francis Remillard of West Gill Rd. was one farmer who began raising white turkeys in 1949. He first worked for Arnold Studer on his farm during the holidays, but when Arnold decided to retire, Francis decided to go out on his own and called it “Turkey Land” He started with 100 birds but several years later increased to about 1,100 a year. In the 1950’s about a week before Thanksgiving, 10-12 local women would help “de-feather” the birds with a pay wage of 50 cents per hour.
About 50-75 birds were done each night retailing at 79 cents a pound dressed and 35 cents per pound live. Grain was expensive and one year it led to quite a few complaints when the grain company used too much fish oil in their feed. Customers complained that their turkeys tasted “fishy”! After that he bought grain that was custom blended to his specifications at Dunnel Grain Store in Bernardston. - no more fishy taste.
Starting Out. In 1947, Irving Franklin of Franklin Rd., aware that the Studer Farm would be closing, decided to raise turkeys. Irving was a dairy farmer all his life, but he was convinced that turkeys would be less expensive to raise than cattle because turkeys would be ready in six months’ time and would pay for themselves much quicker.
Franklin Turkey Farm started out with 600 birds to raise in an existing shed and fenced in area. Because there were no other buildings available at the time, they were brought into the home’s cellar to be hand picked for Thanksgiving. This was no easy task!
The next year the number of turkeys more than doubled to 1,500 and by 1949 to 2,500 birds. At this time a new building was needed, and construction started with a walk-in freezer, cooling room and processing area. Mr. Franklin had a right-hand dog “Flack” – a Doberman Pinscher to help on the farm. Flack was an excellent guard dog (he was army trained) and herded the turkeys to the range or back into the barn. Very few birds were lost to business thanks to Flack - only by an occasional fox or by natural causes.
Catering Added in 1954. In 1954, the business expanded to include barbeque turkeys. A man in Lenox, Massachusetts had a thriving business and Irving learned how to expand to include the cooked versions of his turkeys. There was nothing like this available in the area. A new building was added to accommodate this venture. Through months of trial and error, he learned to successfully barbecue the birds. Customers loved the convenience of the cooked birds and were amazed that the delicious BBQ flavor came from just self-basting with nothing added. As business increased, more basting machines were added. Throughout the year BBQ turkeys were available with stuffing or without. In 1977, barbeque hams were added. Soon local churches and other organizations purchased cooked birds for their suppers and other events. In 1977, Bernice, Bob andseveral other family members decided to set up a booth at the Franklin County Fair serving turkey sandwiches, turkey grinders and turkey-rice soup. The response was overwhelming and sold out quickly!
Seasonal Employment. Cheryl Mayrand Dyer wrote, "Recollecting seasonal employment at the Franklin Turkey Farm over 50 years ago will be a challenge!" when a GHC member was curious about her working there.She also included another former “Gillbilly” and classmate’s recollections who attended a recent TFHS Reunion and they enjoyed reminiscing and sharing their insights of the Franklin Turkey Farm and the family who ran it.
"Bob and Bernice Keech operated the Franklin Turkey Farm for her father, Mr. Franklin. They hired many of the local men, women, and teenagers to help prepare the turkeys for the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons. As a young girl I worked at the Farm for a couple of seasons when I was not old enough to get a part-time job at the local market or other business. I lived a road away from the Farm and quite often walked to and from work for my Saturday or Sunday shift. Because Saturdays were sometimes date night, we girls would put our hair up in curlers because the workroom was very moist from all the turkey processing. The processing was started with an adult (usually male) ending the turkey’s life, additional processing, an then it was put in a machine to defeather. The bird was opened, internal cavity cleaned out, and heart, liver and neck bagged to reinsert for the customer’s use in stuffing or other wonderful Thanksgiving dishes. Making sure the inner cavity was cleaned, the body inspected for left over pin feathers, and a final rinse before bagging were all jobs to be done. Some were easy, repetitive jobs…great for teenage workers who wanted to earn a few dollars other than babysitting or lawnmowing. Pay in the 60’s obviously was not a lot, maybe 50 cents or a dollar an hour, but a little spending money for the movies was always welcome.
Speaking with Jerry Hastings, who also lived in Gill and worked on the Farm, he helped the Keech’s with haying the fields to be used for the many other animals on the Farm. He also spoke of the best fertilizer which came from the Farm for gardens, which made a prolific production of vegetables in any garden. The Farm owners were very involved in 4-H in the area, so they were very knowledgeable in many things for homesteading beyond turkey farming. As outgoing as the Franklin Farm was to the neighbors and townspeople, they were not to be taken advantage of. When it was discovered that a neighbor was stealing turkeys from the field, the Town Constable confronted the neighbor about the thefts. The Franklin Farm did not press charges but instead requested that restitution be paid for the birds taken and that the theft would not happen again.
Needless to say, all the teenagers did their jobs but not without some mischief and tomfoolery (even with some adult participation), all under the watchful eyes of Bob and Bernice. Having a high respect for the Keech’s brought the local employees back seasonally for many years."
The End of an Era. In 1961, Irving Franklin retired at the age of 65 and his daughter Bernice and son-in-law Bob Keech took over the business. The last turkeys were raised on the farm in 1989. In 1991, after a successful run, it was hard work as they aged and agreed it was time to retire. Neither of them wanted to go through another Thanksgiving season where they would cook round the clock Monday morning through Wednesday with only a few hours’ sleep each night. Plus, there was the time-consuming paperwork that was now required that only increased over the years. In January of 1991, the last turkeys and hams were cooked, the last catering job complete, and Franklin Turkey Farm, Inc., after 45 years in business, once again became Franklin Farm devoted to raising hay and firewood.
To learn more about Franklin Turkey Farm or other stories of Gill, you can order the History of Gill 1943-1993 for a suggested donation of $10.