Turkey Notes

Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s Turkey Note time!

What on earth, you may ask, are Turkey Notes?

Turkey Notes are a Davenport Thanksgiving tradition full of mystery and glamour and fairly bad poetry. They are said to have been around for over a hundred years (though this cannot be confirmed), and are considered to be strictly a local custom.

No one knows for certain why or how or when this tradition started, though the general consensus has the first ones appearing around 1890.

Some say an unnamed local family wrote them once for a large Thanksgiving dinner, and the guests and/or the adult children took the idea home to use the following years, thus spreading the tradition.

Others claim that German immigrants brought the tradition to Davenport and used it to celebrate their first truly American holiday.

A third hypothesis suggests that a savvy teacher invented the Notes in order to keep her holiday-minded students under control.

All of these theories are plausible, interesting and, so far, unable to be confirmed.

So what is a Turkey Note?

Simply put, a Turkey Note is a short, three- or four-line poem, using “Turkey” as the first word of the first two lines. Purists use colors for the second word of these first lines, but this is not strictly necessary.

The poem can be a compliment, an insult, or just funny—depending, of course, on your sense of humor:

Turkey Red,                                     Turkey Juicy
Turkey Blue,                                    Turkey Dry
Turkey says,                                    Turkey says,
“I love you!”                                  “Please pass the pie!”

Turkey Samuel                                      Turkey on the farm
Turkey Sam                                           Turkey in the Dell
Turkey cries,                                          Turkey says
“Please choose the ham!”                     He thinks you smell.

The poem, which is usually left unsigned (and no wonder) is rolled into a tube and wrapped in colored paper, which is tied at both ends with string, yarn, or ribbon. These are left by the side of each plate at Thanksgiving dinner or are passed out to friends, like Valentines.

Except, you know, turkier.

And in case anyone scoffs at the enduring influence of Turkey Notes, we would like to share with you an e-mail we received from a gentleman who read the related article on our website. The subject of his message is “Turkey Notes from the Davenport Diaspora”:

Hello,

My Grandpa, Robert Herzberg, was raised in Davenport but moved to Wyoming before World War II where he finally settled. He liked to tell stories of his days in Davenport working at a place called the Sugar Bowl across from one of the schools (which of them I don’t remember)… how he loved the buttery popcorn, and how bananas came in wooden crates from Central America. To me, the stories were interesting because of the time in which they were set, not necessarily the location. But it turns out that our family’s long tradition of writing Turkey Notes for Thanksgiving dinner can be traced back to a single place on the map.

This year, as I was composing some Turkey Notes in advance of the feast, I stumbled upon the Davenport Public Library web page where I discovered the origins of the Turkey Note. I was astounded. An entire city continues the tradition I supposed was unique to my family. We’ve been sharing Turkey Notes for as long as I can remember, but nobody could ever tell me the origins of the tradition.

What I find particularly interesting from the Library’s description of the Turkey Note is its strict format, a mere shell of which reached Wyoming with Grandpa. In our family, Turkey Notes often begin with “Turkey Says” before descending into the poorly structured, partially rhyming, stumbling poems they are. My Grandpa, who did most of the composing, would sometimes weave current family events into his Turkey Notes… something about me getting an A on a recent spelling test, or my cousin winning a ski race. He could tease with his Turkey Notes, poking fun at my father for buying a herd of cattle at the age of 42 (crazy idea!), or razzing me about a girlfriend. They could be serious too; when his wife finally lost her battle with cancer, Grandpa’s Turkey Notes became startlingly emotional and moving. Mostly, though, they were just fun.

I love everything about the Turkey Note. I love the colored tissue paper (ours are fringed on 3 sides and rolled so that the turkey note bristles with color), how the Turkey Notes lie temptingly near the plates until suppertime, and how only the author is able to read them cleanly without making a mess of it. Inevitably, the reader butchers the meter or the rhyme, leading to protests from the author and laughs from the lookers on. It’s a great tradition.

Anyway, I’d like to thank the Davenport Library for helping me solve the Turkey Note mystery.

Thank you,
Hunter Herzberg Nielson

p.s. I attach a photo I took of a Turkey Note my Grandpa had on display near his workbench since I was a boy. Judging by the 1980′s clip art and blocky font (and the typo), I’d guess I composed it when I was in elementary school.

***
So, for those of you who have continued the tradition, we salute you—write on.

For those of you who haven’t, why not try it? Literary talent is not necessary and can even get in the way!

And for those who think the whole thing is too ridiculous for words, we leave you with these words:

Turkey Eggs
Turkey Ovum
Don’t be a Turkey–
It’s just a poem!

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14 Responses to Turkey Notes

  1. Lou says:

    My mom talks about turkey notes every year at Thanksgiving. Everyone looks at her like she’s crazy, but now I understand! She was raised in Davenport! :)

    Turkey thigh
    Turkey drum
    Laugh at the pie
    But not at mum

    (Not if you know what’s good for you!)

  2. Amy D. says:

    We did Turkey Notes growing up in Davenport. My siblings and I spent the day preparing just the “right” saying for 20-plus relatives; then wrapping each in tissue paper. At dinner, each person had to read the note aloud with lots of laughing and good-natured ribbing following.

  3. CarolAnn Stolmeier says:

    Our family left Davenport in 1970 and since then have settled throughout the Pacific Northwest. We still enjoy our turkey notes, and the sillier the better! Our spouses and kids have come along for the ride, some more engaged than others(bless their little turkey hearts!) It’s a great way to keep the memories of yesteryear alive for my Mom, too. There’s nothing like a good turkey note to bring out the old stories. Only now, colored crepe paper is really hard to find and we have to recycle the fringed wrapping! Some of it has lasted for years. It’s all part of the fun.

    Turkey scared
    Turkey in a panic
    Everyone wants this turkey
    ‘Cuz he’s organic

    Until next year. . .

  4. Sue C says:

    My dad’s family lived in Davenport from the 1870′s onward. His aunts were young in the 1890s. We always did turkey notes when we had dinner in Davenport. When my sister sent the Turkey Note story link, I replied with and instant Turkey note: Turkey Blue, Turkey Red, Turkey got up on the wrong side of the bed. Still got it after 40+ years….Our notes always stayed with the color format. They were also wrapped in tissue paper with fringed ends.

  5. Sara Reichardt says:

    My older sister brought the first one home on assignment from her first grade teacher. It went to my dad:

    Turkey black
    Turkey gold
    You’ll be a Hawkeye fan
    when you’re 90 years old

    We have been doing them ever since, 30 years to be exact. Spouses and new family members are included. There is usually grumbling and “are we doing turkey notes this year?” from at least one person. It’s a tradition I would definitely miss and everyone has fun reading them. We have Turkey Note binders that contain the many notes we have shared throughout the years.

  6. Mary Rose Mooney says:

    Many years ago my friend Wilma sent me a turkey note that I still remember:
    Turkey fat, turkey thin.
    Turkey likes olives soaked in gin!

  7. Mary says:

    After college, I left Davenport in the 1980s and moved to Maryland for work. I was not able to go home that Thanksgiving and made dinner plans with other new employees who couldn’t travel home either. Imagine my surprise when no one at work knew what I was talking about when I mentioned Turkey notes! However, my family continues the tradition today. Fun!

  8. Laura says:

    I grew up in Bettendorf, Iowa (right next to Davenport) and we did them too! I had no idea it started in Davenport. Both of my parents grew up doing them (in Davenport) so I thought the whole country did!

  9. Diane Hall says:

    I too grew up in Davenport and learned of turkey notes at an early age although they were never used at dinner until I started the tradition when I had the family dinners. I usually put some nuts and candy in with the note and also personalize the message.

    I have introduced the idea to many people who move in from out of town. I used them in my English class. It was a hit. Now I am in Des Moines, IA, and am introducing the tradition here. This year I will be in Slovakia for Thanksgiving and bring turkey notes along. What fun!

  10. Megan says:

    I have always known that turkey notes were a German thing, but in explaining them to a friend from Alaska, I had to do a little research. My 89 year old grandfather has been writing ours for as long as I can remember and I’m nearing 40! I didn’t realize it was a tradition that was specific to Davenport. How beautiful! I’m so glad I found this article and was able to share it with my west coast friends! I can’t wait to share this info with my family this year… After our notes, obviously!! Happy holidays!

  11. Jim Burke says:

    I’m 65 and still write Turkey Notes for everyone at our Thanksgiving table. This year that is twelve. I enjoy doing this and now use computer graphics to spice them up with pictures.

  12. Sandy Tomkins says:

    I have carried the tradition on for almost 50 yrs. I grew up with turkey notes and all my friends thought I was crazy:) My parents were from Davenport and now I know why we always had little notes at our place setting with silly rhymes on them. I have passed the tradition on to my children and now I still hear…”don’t forget the turkey notes”. Our stories have evolved to the farmer and the turkey always at odds with each other and the turkey not happy about his calling.:) Here’s a sampling:
    Turkey Turkey not for sale
    Turkey’s lookin’ a little pale.
    Salt and pepper- a little juice,
    Guess we’ll eat the Christmas Goose.

    The farmer set the Turkey bait
    Now the stuffin’s on his plate.
    Potatoes, peas, and lots of pie
    Time to let the turkey fly.

    Turkey Turkey red and blue
    Turkey says…. I hate you.
    It’s just not fair
    I can’t get…… Obama Care!

    Have a great Thanksgiving

  13. Nis Alnor DC says:

    I came to Davenport in 1984 from Denmark to start on Palmer College. With me from home I had an address to distance relatives living I Davenport. I contacted them and we grew a tight relationship. I left Davenport and the USA in 1988 but every year on Thanksgiving I remember the Turkey Notes read by my Cousin Nancy.
    To me USA is = Davenport – Palmer – Bix festival – and Turkey notes and it all sums up to great memories :-)
    Thanks Davenport for a great time
    Dr. Nis Alnor DC
    Denmark

  14. Bri says:

    Now that I’m in college, everyone asks what I’ll be doing for Thanksgiving and I always explain that I need to write the Turkey notes for my family. I realized that it truly is a Davenport tradition! I’ve not met anyone else who was from outside of the QC area who has had any idea what they are. As far as I know, my great, great grandmother wrote Turkey notes, and my family continues to do it today. It is a wonderful tradition!

    A note for this year:

    Turkey drinks wine
    Turkey drinks beer
    Did Turkey see you driving a tractor
    over to John Deere?

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