A Real Turkey Shoot

by Malcolm Macdonald, January 25, 2017

A couple of corrections from last week's piece. The four to five stacks of lumber usually present, and visible out to sea, in the Mendocino of 1879 were piled south of Ukiah Street, between Rundle and Heeser Streets, not Rundle and Kelly Streets. Even today Rundle and Kelly are pretty much squeezed together as they were 140 years ago.

My rough draft for the last piece stated that on New Year's Day, 1879, rifle fire from the south could be heard in Mendocino; however, by the time I turned the article in, through no fault but my own, the gunfire transformed to revolvers and shotguns. Rifles were the weapon in use that day as they were in this notice posted throughout Mendocino about two weeks later. “A Grand Turkey Shooting will be held at this place on Wednesday, January 22nd, 1879. Fifty turkeys will be put up. Distances, turkey's head, off-hand, 80 yards; turkey's head, with rest, 100 yards; turkey's body, off-hand 150 yards; turkey's body, with rest, 200 yards. Fun for all! The use of rifles of any make allowed.”

Firing rifles 200 yards would lead us to the conclusion that the match took place on the Heeser headlands; the broad U-shaped property that today is nearly encircled by Heeser Drive. In 1879, William Heeser, editor and publisher of Mendocino's then thriving newspaper, owned much of the property west of Lansing Street and north of Ukiah Street. Spring, summer, and fall much of that land was consumed by a large potato patch. Heeser ran a more or less constant advertisement for the purchase of potatoes, by the one hundred pound sack (87 ½ cents per sack in late 1879). The potatoes were stored in dark corners of the newspaper office for easy selling purposes.

Fifty turkeys meant that the fowl had to be brought in, since turkeys, in that number, were not wandering the fields and woods nearby Mendocino in 1879. Sometimes local knowledge is greater than history books, and personal knowledge can trump (if I may use that word as a verb) documentation. The source for turkeys in that quantity at that particular time and place would have been one of my great grandfathers, John Robertson, who specialized in not only cattle (usually oxen for woods work) drives, but, also, turkey drives from Little Lake (think southern half of Willits) to the coast.

That particular turkey drive (sometimes clipped-wing turkeys were carried westward in caged boxes stacked on wagon beds) must have been a bitterly cold one if the weather west of Willits was anything like that described by William Heeser's newspaper in regard to the thoroughfare we now call the Orr Springs Road during that same part of January, 1879.

“The driver of the Mendocino and Ukiah stage experienced a rough drive from Ukiah to this place last Sunday. When he reached the top of the mountain he found the ground covered with two inches of snow for a distance of some twenty miles, and numerous trees had fallen across and obstructed the road. The driver, seeing the impossibility of getting through with the coach, left it and the two passengers and rode to the Half Way House where he procured a 'skeleton' wagon, returned and brought his passengers through to this place by 6 o'clock.”

The Mendocino Coast's potential for isolation in serious rain storms hasn't changed much from the 1870s to the present day. If you want contrast, imagine the uproar if a rifle shooting contest (at live turkeys no less) was held today on the Heeser headlands. Having descended from Scots cattle and turkey herders I'd forego any protest and opt for the profit made in supplying the fowl.

William Heeser reported on the January 22nd, 1879 turkey shoot results in this manner, “The turkey shooting which took place in this city Wednesday drew a large attendance and was much enjoyed in the forenoon. In the afternoon the wind rose to a perfect gale, bringing with it rain, which somewhat 'dampened' the ardor of our sportsmen. Very good shooting was done, and many turkeys carried away.”

Though robbery, fire, murder, and the fickleness of fate would have their way in Mendocino throughout 1879, then as now, the bottom line of day to day life, despite protest and vile epithet, was/is ruled by Mother Nature and the most pagan of weather gods.

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