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The Comstock Rush of the 1860s brought hordes of prospectors to the Nevada mines during the late 1850s and 1860s.
Savvy entrepreneurs, like their California Gold Rush counterparts, discovered bigger profits in selling goods to the miners than in digging for gold and silver. One Placerville businessman took advantage of the reported lack of turkeys in the Carson City area, and during the holiday season of 1866, he brought the miners and townspeople living there a most unique gift.
New Englander Henry Clay Hooker, like tens of thousands of other men, came west with dreams of striking it rich during the California Gold Rush. He arrived in Hangtown (Placerville) in 1853 and quickly discovered that bigger profits could be made selling hardware and other goods to prospectors than in mining the crowded diggings along Hangtown Creek.
Hooker’s business thrived and with his hardware store profits, he invested in cattle. He drove his stock to Nevada and sold them to the highest bidder. Everything was going well until a devastating fire destroyed his Placerville store in 1866. However, the ever-optimistic Hooker found a clever way to rebound.
He purchased 500 turkeys with his remaining $1,000 and planned to provide a Christmas dinner to the turkeyless population of Carson City. Hooker went on to organize a most unusual event – a 70-mile turkey drive over the rugged Sierras.
To protect the turkeys from the cold and snow, Hooker had them walk through warm tar, then sand. Hooker, his companion, and two dogs trotted out of Hangtown at the beginning of December 1866 and headed for Nevada. The party moved along, often at a snail’s pace. Camp was made during the evening, whenever the turkeys decided to stop. Allegedly, the herding dogs hardly panted and Hooker’s horse put on weight.
While the fowl were difficult to control at times, the intrepid turkey trudge experienced only one noteworthy incident. At one point, the herding canines began to bark excitedly – causing a turkey stampede. The birds took a lumbered flight over a ledge. “I had the most indescribable feeling of my life,” Hooker recalled. “My finances were at a low ebb. Now my only earthly possessions were lost.”
Fortunately, instead of scattering upon landing, the cackling turkeys flocked together and waited below for Hooker and his crew. The poultry procession arrived in Carson City, intact. Hooker’s succulent holiday treats sold immediately to the hungry miners who looked forward to gobbling up something other than their usual diet of biscuits, bacon and beans. Hooker’s gamble had paid off and he returned to Placerville a rich and happy man.
Supposedly, Hooker moved his family to Arizona and put a down payment on a cattle ranch with the proceeds from this “historic” turkey drive. In time, the ranch he called Sierra Bonita encompassed 810 square miles and held more than 10,000 head of cattle. Whether or not the ranch baron raised the feathered fowl that helped him amass his fortune remains unknown. Nonetheless, to believe he did makes a good ending to this turkey tale.