Horace Vose, a ]Westerly, R.I., turkey farmer, sent his turkeys to 11 presidents for four decades of Thanksgiving dinners and drama.
Every year, the Associated Press sent off a brief dispatch from Westerly, R.I.: “Horace Vose, following his annual custom of long standing, has sent to the White House the choicest turkey brought in for Thanksgiving.“
Vose was born in 1840, 23 years before President Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday. He began raising turkeys with his uncle at the age of 15. Vose increased his flock and became one of the most prominent turkey men in the country.
The White House turkey tradition started in 1873, when Vose sent a spectacular 38-pound Meleagris gallopavo to President Ulysses S. Grant. A picture of the bird is still preserved. Vose treasured the handwritten thank-you note from Grant and kept it in his safe.
From then on, Vose every year looked over the best flocks in Rhode Island and Connecticut. With great care he selected the presidential bird, according to The White House Historical Association. He shipped them express in a box addressed to the president.
In some years, drama surrounded the turkey delivery. In 1910, the New York Times reported the Tafts’ turkey had arrived – but the White House hadn’t confirmed the delivery to Horace Vose.
Scandal and Consternation
“Consternation grips Rhode Island,” blared the headline, but then reassured the reader. “This year’s turkey, one of the finest which the Rhode Islander ever sent this way, arrived today. Fears were entertained that the White House would have to go to market and buy its own turkey for this Thanksgiving.”
Roosevelt’s secretary William S. Loeb, Jr., issued a strongly worded denial: “The article states that the children released the turkey and chased it all over the White House grounds, plucking at it and teasing it, and yelling and laughing, until the bird was well nigh exhausted, while the President looked on and laughed,” wrote Loeb.
“As a matter of fact, the turkey was dressed when Mr. Vose sent it, and was used for Thanksgiving dinner. … No such incident as that recounted has ever taken place since the President has been in the White House, and nothing in the remotest degree resembling it has ever taken place.”
He went on to attack the Herald correspondent for inventing – and the editor for commenting on – incidents without the flimsiest foundation in fact.
The agricultural press made Horace Vose a star, referring to him as ‘Horace Vose of White House turkey fame.’ In an interview with Michael Boyer, Farm Journal poultry editor, Bose argued the turkey was the most patriotic bird.
“It is purely American, and for stateliness, courage and energy it is an emblem of our American people,” wrote Boyer. “For that reason he thought and hoped that some day a Big Bronze gobbler would replace the American eagle on our silver.”
In addition to his Thanksgiving offering, Vose also sent smaller turkeys to the White House at Christmas. During the Taft administration, the press reported ‘the poultry king of Rhode Island’ sent a 35-40 pound turkey to grace the presidential table, alongside ‘’Aunt Delia’s goodies.’ Taft’s Aunt Delia Torrey of Millbury, Mass., always sent ‘Nephew Will’ a package of apple pies, jellies and jams grown on her property.
Horace Vose occasionally had competition. One year, someone from Georgia sent a 26-pound opossum to President Taft, along with a 50-pound pie from a New Yorker.
In 1913, Kentuckian South Trimble, clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives, sent a turkey to President Woodrow Wilson. Trimble’s turkey weighed 30 pounds, seven pounds lighter than Vose’s bird. Trimble said his bird tasted better because he fed it a diet of red peppers. Sadly, the choice of the Wilsons turkey for the 1913 Thanksgiving is lost to history.
Horace Vose died shortly thereafter, on Dec. 20, 1913. Farm Journal reported, “He lived a life of usefulness and was loved by all who knew him.”
This story about Horace Vose was updated in 2018.