We speak with the mayor of Turkey, North Carolina about the small Sampson County town and how it got its name.
Turkey is the centerpiece for the Thanksgiving table, but did you know it’s also the name of a town in North Carolina? If you look at it on a map, the outline of the town actually resembles the shape of a turkey. But that’s not how it got its name. Mayor of Turkey Leon Clifton says a rafter of wild turkeys moved into the area during colonial times.
“There’s like a swamp near Turkey and it did have a lot of turkeys there, wild turkeys. That where it got its name, actually from turkeys.”
The rural farming community in Sampson County was settled in the 1700’s and was originally known as Springville. Among the early settlers was the Thomson family of Stirling, Scotland. They were followed a few years later by a colony under the leadership of Colonel John Sampson, and many chose to settle in this community. According to the Sampson County Heritage Book, many of the descendants of these families still own lands granted them by King George II. The town was incorporated in 1913. Turkey is located on highway 24, also known as Turkey Highway, west of Interstate 40 and east of Clinton. There’s not a lot in Turkey, just a post office and a general store.
“Down there is where a lot of people hang out and where they sell gas. Just a country store.”
It would be an easy town to drive by, except you can’t miss the giant water tower with a Turkey painted on it. Close to 300 residents call Turkey home, including Clifton who also runs a turkey farm in addition to his mayoral responsibilities.
“I have a hen operation. I’ve been doing this about 25 years. My turkeys are processed for the table. I raise about four flocks a year, not only at Thanksgiving, it’s a year round venture.”
Like Clifton, many of Turkey’s residents are involved in agriculture, a tradition that’s been passed down through many generations. In colonial and antebellum times, the main crops produced in Turkey included cotton and corn. But in later years, Turkey became known for its produce and raising poultry. The town had the distinction of being the world’s largest Italian pepper market during the 1940’s. Today, there are two industries in the town that provide jobs for locals.
“We have a plant right outside Turkey, a processing plant. It processes products like sweet potatoes, asparagus and different kinds of beans. We also have a plant right here in Turkey, it used to be a furniture plant. We have a lot of peanuts in this area. One of our big peanut farmers uses this place and utilizes it for storage of peanut there.”
In addition to agricultural ventures, Turkey was also the birthplace for noted historian, Claude Hunter Moore. Born in 1916, he was raised in Turkey and later became well known for his research on the Civil War. He was also a teacher, school principal and taught at Mt. Olive College from 1968 to 1981.
The small, quiet town doesn’t attract much attention, except during Thanksgiving due to their unusual name. The community usually celebrates their heritage each Thanksgiving with their annual “Turkey Day” event, but Clifton says there haven’t been enough volunteers to make it happen this year.
“For about 20 years, we had what we call a Turkey Day. It was first started as a fundraiser for the fire department. We had that until last year and they decided not to have it last year. And it was a real good festival, everyone loved to come here for that.”
The Turkey Day celebrations in the past have been an all-volunteer effort and have included a parade, entertainment, arts and crafts, and barbeque. Clifton says they hope to revive the Turkey Day tradition next year.