Deep in the mountains of Blacksburg, VA, there is a quiet place set aside for two very special guests.

Presidential pardoning of turkeys is a strange, and fairly new, tradition. Since the Lincoln presidency, the White House has been receiving Thanksgiving turkeys from private donors (since 1861) and from the National Turkey Federation (since 1947). The first recorded pardoning of a turkey was by President John F. Kennedy in 1963. The 40 pound turkey arrived at the White House with a sign around its neck that said. “Good eating, Mr. President” to which the President supposedly responded, “Let’s keep him going.” While the President never used the word “pardon”, a Washington Post article at the time did use the word “reprieve.”

Years later, President Reagan joked about pardoning a White House turkey as a way to divert attention from the Iran-contra hearings but it wasn’t until George H.W. Bush, in 1989, officially pardoned his turkey. President Bush said, “…let me assure you, and this fine tom turkey, that he will not end up on anyone’s dinner table, not this guy. He’s granted a presidential pardon as of right now — and allow him to live out his days on a children’s farm not far from here.”

At the time, pardoned turkeys were sent to Frying Pan Park in Virginia. But, a year later, the turkeys were sent to Gobbler’s Rest, a special barn at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, Virginia. Every president since then has pardoned two turkeys and sent them to Gobbler’s Rest which is open to the public.

A few years ago, when my son was a Pre-Vet freshman at Virginia Tech, he took me to Gobbler’s Rest. It’s a very unassuming circular barn on a quiet farm, deep in the mountains. I was surprised to discover that the barn was unlocked and unguarded and anyone could go in and pet the turkeys at any time. That day, two turkeys (Peas and Carrots) were living in a modern “wattle” and they each had a presidential seal on their gate. Nearby, I saw two blue turkey carriers (like a dog carrier used on an airplane) plastered with multiple Seals of the National Turkey of the United States.

I wasn’t that surprised that the turkeys ended up at Virginia Tech. The university has a well-known vet school and the school’s mascot is a Hokie–a low-flying turkey. And, yes, turkeys can fly. But they fly so low, you have to be careful while driving around because they will fly right into your windshield. I know this from experience!

Anyway, as I was petting the turkeys, I asked my son, “How long do turkeys live as pets?”

He shrugged. “About 12 years or so.”

“Huh.” I went over to a nearby hose to wash my hands. “Don’t you think it’s strange?”

My son handed me a grungy towel. “What’s strange?”

“There are only two turkeys here.” I waved my hand around the room at all the empty wattles. “It’s March. And the only turkeys here are from last November. So what happened to the previous year’s pardoned turkeys?”

His eyes widened. “That’s a really good question!”

As we left the barn, I asked, “Virginia Tech supposedly has the best college food in the country.”

My son nodded. “The food is farm-to-table. And a few weeks ago, we had turkey.”

Our gazes met and we both laughed because we were thinking the same things. Maybe the turkey wardens release the older turkeys when the newer turkeys arrive. Maybe the older turkeys were adopted and sent to other farms. Or, just maybe, the pardon is only good for a year before they end up as food for hungry underclassmen.

Still, if you are ever driving through the mountains of Blacksburg, VA, stop and pet the turkeys. They’ll be happy to see you!


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