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If you have lived in Arkansas long enough, chances are likely you’ve heard of the Turkey Trot Festival that happens each fall in the small town of Yellville. For 70 years, people have been coming from all over the state and surrounding areas to witness this unique festival in Arkansas. I was introduced to Turkey Trot nearly 15 years ago, when I started dating my husband, who is a Yellville native. I quickly learned how important this event is to the community, and what it means to be a part of it.
Zachary Dodillet shows off his turkey catch in 1999. Photo courtesy of the Yellville Chamber of Commerce.
What you probably already know is that Turkey Trot is famous for releasing live turkeys from airplanes flying over the town square during the festival. But what you may not know is how this unusual event came to be, and why. According to historical records, Turkey Trot was started around Thanksgiving in 1946, to help put turkeys on the table to feed local families. Live turkeys were thrown from the roof of the courthouse in intervals, while townspeople raced to catch them before taking them home to cook. And, in case you are wondering, turkeys can fly—so getting your turkey often involved a bit of running to catch it. The turkey release portion of the festival has had many formats over the years. There are usually about a dozen turkeys released during the event, and others are often used as contest prizes. Some years, the turkeys are let go from the downtown rooftops and some years they are let go from airplanes flying overhead.
Turkey Trot is not just known around Arkansas; it has had its share of national attention, too. In fact, there was even a 1978 episode of WKRP in Cincinnati that many people think was inspired by Turkey Trot.
Naturally, not everyone sees this event as just a good time. Over the years, there have been protests over the perceived ill-treatment of turkeys that halted the airplane releases a few times, but the festival never wavered. Even during years when event organizers would not allow the turkey release to happen, private citizens have taken it upon themselves to make sure it did. The Phantom Pilot has become quite a celebrity in recent years as the unknown person who now flies over during the event.
Today, the Turkey Trot festival has grown into a multi-day event that includes so much more than the turkey drop. One of the biggest events is a nationally-sanctioned turkey calling contest that brings in contestants from all over the country.
Aaron Barrett stands with his trophy for 2016 Local Division Winner in the turkey calling contest. Photo courtesy of the Yellville Chamber of Commerce.
Another highlight is the themed parade that showcases the winners of the Turkey Trot beauty pageant and the Mr. and Miss Drumsticks competition, along with high school bands, local dignitaries and other parade regulars. The Miss Drumstick competition was added to the festival lineup in 1953, while the misters were added much later. In this competition, the contestants’ faces and upper bodies are hidden behind a cut-out of a large cardboard turkey so that only their legs are visible to judges. The winners are declared to have the best-looking legs, or “drumsticks.”
The first Miss Drumsticks winner was crowned in 1953.
Photo credit: Roy Sizemore, courtesy of the Yellville Chamber of Commerce.
The 1974 Miss Drumsticks winner in the Turkey Trot parade. Photo courtesy of the Yellville Chamber of Commerce.
Turkey Trot is traditionally held during the second week of October, which is Oct. 7 & 8 this year. There is something fun for the whole family; in addition to the contests and turkey catching, you can find arts and crafts booths, games and live music around the town square all weekend. Here is the 2016 schedule of events. Look for my family standing front and center along the parade route!
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