Turkey Trot Festival
Turkey Trot is an annual festival held in Yellville (Marion County) on the second weekend in October, all day Friday and Saturday. Like many Arkansas festivals, Turkey Trot was founded to draw attention to local natural resources as well as to provide community entertainment. However, it has also been a source of controversy due to the treatment of turkeys during the festival.
The festival originated just before Thanksgiving in 1946, when Yellville’s American Legion post, with help from local businessmen and professionals, sponsored a National Turkey Calling Contest and Turkey Trot. The day’s activities were intended to be a wild turkey–conservation activity, calling attention to Arkansas’s dwindling turkey population, which by the mid-1940s had dropped to only 7,000, very few of which remained in the Ozarks.
The “Turkey Trot” portion of the event originally referred to an activity in which event organizers dropped live turkeys from the courthouse roof. Festival attendees could chase and attempt to capture the birds, and those who caught birds could keep them for Thanksgiving dinner. In 1948, a local pilot began dropping the turkeys for the Turkey Trot from an airplane. This portion of the festival was so popular that the name was eventually adopted for the entire weekend’s activities.
In its early years, the festival included educational conservation programs, political speakers, turkey dinners, archery and other sporting demonstrations, square dances, and live music. Later, the American Legion post handed over organization of the festival to the Yellville Area Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber of Commerce added a parade, street dance, 5K run/walk, a popular lip-syncing contest, and the Miss Turkey Trot pageant, which includes a Miss Drumsticks division, in which participants are judged on the beauty of their legs alone. The majority of the festival’s events take place on the courthouse square, where streets are blocked off to make room for food and craft vendors, game booths, and the stage for the live music and other entertainment. Recent notable entertainers have included country musicians John Conlee and Jeannie Kendall of the Kendalls.
A December 1989 article in the National Enquirer brought notoriety to the festival. The article, which referred to the festival as “sick” and “bizarre,” featured graphic photographs of the turkey drops, which inspired outrage from people all over the country. Event organizers defended the drops, arguing that wild turkeys are able to use their wings to glide gently to the ground. In response to the criticism, the Yellville Chamber of Commerce officially stopped sponsoring the airplane drops, but the tradition was continued by an unidentified private citizen, popularly known as the “phantom pilot.” The turkey drops came under further scrutiny in 2011, when the organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) offered a $5,000 reward for the arrest of the phantom pilot. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has also weighed in on the issue, saying that pilots caught releasing birds from an airplane risk losing their license. For several subsequent years, live turkeys were dropped from the courthouse roof.
However, in 2015, for the first time in eight years, a pilot dropped turkeys from a plane during the festival, eliciting cheers from the crowd below. The airplane turkey drops were again performed in 2016; two turkeys were reportedly killed in the drops. Those drops were done from the plane of Mountain View (Stone County) pharmacist Dana Woods. In 2017, turkeys were dropped from a plane registered to Aldino Raimondi of Yellville. On April 6, 2018, the Yellville Chamber of Commerce announced that it would no longer continue to serve as organizer of the festival, citing “safety concerns, rising costs, and loss of funding.” The Mid-Marion County Rotary Club, later that month, voted to take over sponsorship of the festival provided that no turkeys were dropped from airplanes.
For additional information:
Berry, Earl. History of Marion County. Little Rock: International Graphics Industry, 1977.
Lowery, Annie. “Tossing a Bird That Does Not Fly out of a Plane.” The Atlantic, November 20, 2018. Online at https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/11/yellville-turkey-trot/576184/ (accessed September 13, 2019).
Turkey Trot. Mid-Marion County Rotary. https://www.midmarioncountyrotary.org/turkey-trot/ (accessed September 13, 2019).
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Last Updated: 11/26/2018