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The Monroe County “Turkey King”

Turkey Story Turns Out To Be a Real “Tail” of Woe

by Herbert Skirvin Jan 8, 1983

Every time I sit down to a holiday feast, I think of Harry A. Axtell, Monroe County’s turkey king of long ago. I also recall a narrow escape I had from a vicious gobbler, bent on committing mayhem.

As most people know, nearly all of the turkeys now marketed in the nation come from farmers specializing in large-scale production of these big birds.

Axtell, a Bloomingtonian, established one of the first, if not the first, of these farms way back in 1926. It was located just this side of Ellettsville on the old Ellettsville Road (Ind 26). Some folks derided the venture as foolhardy but he and Father Time proved them wrong.

Axtell’s Bid idea evolved from his background: In the 1800s hunters wiped out all the wild turkeys in the county and in the early part of this century, up to 1926, domesticated turkeys were hard to find hereabouts. Anyone wanting to buy one for a roast had to put in an advance order at a grocery store or meat market.

The T-birds were scarce because the few farmers who tried their hands at raising them nearly went haywire with exasperation. They spread the word that the feathered critters were gluttonous eaters, ill-tempered and often downright mean, and tried to run away at every opportunity.

Because of these characteristics, they reported the turkeys created turmoil in the barnyards by bullying and harassing chickens and ducks, by frequently warring on the dogs and cats, and by making the cows and horses nervous.

However, with a couple of good lawyers, the T-birds could have made a strong counter-complaint against these farmers. As Axtell perceived, the farmers erred on two major counts: (1) their turkey experiments were too limited – each only had from 2 to 6 turkeys, and (2) they failed to recognize that trying to integrate the big birds with chickens and ducks was like trying to mix hard cider and buttermilk.

Harry Axtell, second from right, at the Garden of the Gods in 1904. photo from MCHC collection.

Thinking it out, Axtell hit on the solution: raise nothing but turkeys and do it on a large scale.

Axtell was born in February 1871, the son of a well-to-do physician, Dr. Andrew J. Axtell. Andrew was master of the Masonic Lodge here in 1880 and VIP in other community activities.

As I recall it, Harry was graduated from Indiana University. He studied law and became a lawyer and also later engaged in the insurance and real estate businesses. In the late 1890s he marred Jane Wylie, a granddaughter of Andrew Wylie, the first president of IU (also the first president of Indiana College, which became IU in 1828).

Shortly after the turn of the century, Harry headed the Mutual Savings and Loans Co., officed on the east side of the 100 block of South College Avenue. In 1909 this firm was taken over by Will Fee and moved across the street. Will’s son, Robert, later operated it for many years.

Harry Axtell and his wife owned and resided on an 18 ½ acre farm, adjoining what was then the eastern boundary of the IU campus. The boundary, starting at East 10th Street, just south on an approximately straight line to Third Street. The farm extended from 10th to about where Smithwood Hall is presently situated.

The Axtells’ large house was located about 100 yards south of 10th. Living with them were the three children they adopted, all of whom were orphaned in another family – two sisters, Jane and Ruth, and their brother, Allen.

In 1013 Harry and his wife sold the farmhouse and two and one-half acres of land to the Phi Delta Theta fraternity for $16,000. They then constructed a new home several hundred yards from 10th and moved into it. A small dirt lane, later part of Jordan Avenue, linked the residence with 10th Street.

A much bigger change came in 1925-26: The Axtells sold their farm to a group of developers and bought another farm, the one near Ellettsville. The developers with city help, paved Jordan Avenue from Third to 10th Streets. Fraternity and sorority houses, including the Quadrangle, were then built on the avenue by the group.

The first time I saw Harry Axtell was in the 1915-20 period. He was a tall, handsome, dignified-looking man. When I last saw him, in the early 1930s, before I left Bloomington to pursue a newspaper career, he was grayer but otherwise looked much the same. From what I heard, he made out fairly well, selling his turkeys. The Great Depression, however, hurt him, as it did everyone else. He died in 1948.

Now, about my boyhood encounter with an obstreperous turkey, a real meanie:

One hot day in early summer, 1917, when I was 8, my grandfather, Ballard Skirvin, talked me into going on a blackberry-picking expedition with him. He promised Grandma would bake us a fine pie if we came home with enough berries. At little after noon, we hiked out northeast of town, near the IU reservoir, across fields, through woods, up hills, down hills. While we were working though one patch, a bog coon dog, apparently AWOL, appeared and began following us. Along about 3:30, I had had it. I was burned by the sun, had a million briar scratches, and was tired to the nub and dying of thirst.

Heading for home, we emerged on the old Headley Road and came upon a run-down farmhouse. I persuaded Grandpa to stop long enough to let me ask for a drink of water and, as he stayed at the gate, I went to the back of the house, looking for a well. A few scrawny chickens were pecking around in the small barnyard. Sniffing about, the coon dog trotted behind the old ramshackle barn.

Just as I found the well, the dog started barking furiously, then let out a howl of terror. He came running around a corner of the barn with a huge tom turkey right on his tail. As they circled the barnyard, I ran out and threw a corncob at the turkey. Spotting me, the infuriated bird gave up on the dog and started after me. For an instant, I couldn’t believe it, then I ran for dear life.

Before the tom could reach me, the dog dashed in and took a mouthful of his tail feathers. The turkey turned and chased the hound again. They went over a low fence and disappeared at the far end of the hayfield.