Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Legend of the Golden Turkeys

Montana Department of Agriculture photo, circa 1924
By the mid-1930's, many Americans were beginning to see some relief from the Great Depression. On September 21st, 1935, the town of Helena dedicated a brand new, brick high school. And on October 5th, the Montana Grizzlies defeated the Montana State Bobcats 20-0. It was the Grizzlies' only victory that year, however, finishing dead last in the Pacific Coast Conference.

But on Thanksgiving day, 1935, the good people of Helena were thankful just to be alive after enduring dozens of harrowing earthquakes. Three of the quakes tipped the Richter Scale at 5.9, 6.3 and 6.0 on October 12th, 19th and 31st, and four residents lost their lives. Also, Helena's new brick high school was badly damaged, and the school's west wing collapsed.

On one hand, Helena's 1935 earthquakes damaged or destroyed more than 300 residential and commercial buildings. On the other hand, some of that rubble was used to build one of Montana's little-known legends - the legend of the golden turkeys.

Helena students in coach car classroom, circa 1936
The quakes left Helena without a high school, so the Great Northern Railroad offered up passenger coach cars as classrooms (which were used until early 1938). The railroad played a vital role in early Helena, and many business had sprouted around the railroad district, including one Helena grocery store with a very clever owner. This particular fellow looked especially forward to Thanksgiving because he took great pride in the turkeys that he himself butchered. But Thanksgiving was also auspicious because his turkeys held a secret. The dressed birds sold in his shop never included the gizzards, but that wasn't his only secret.

As the story goes, this grocer's turkeys were delivered by train from a part of Montana that bore the scars of many old placer surface mines. And as the turkeys pecked the ground around the mine tailings, they picked up small bits of golden gravel for grinding up food in their gizzards. Years of turkey gizzards yielded a pile of gold that the secretive grocer kept hidden in a large jar, safely buried in the basement beneath his store.

The first quake to hit Helena destroyed many buildings, including this unfortunate grocer's store, which collapsed in upon itself. The nearly-full jar of "turkey gold" was buried for good, lost under a massive pile of bricks and debris.

As legend has it, to this day all of that turkey gizzard gold is still buried somewhere beneath the Helena railroad district. So perhaps there's one more chance to strike it rich in the "Queen City of the Rockies." But if not, then you can still enjoy your non-golden Thanksgiving turkey while giving thanks for all of your non-monetary riches.

Businesses that were damaged but survived during the 1935 Helena earthquakes