Turkey Price Trend in Chattanooga, 1900 - 2005

Wednesday, November 23, 2005 - by Harmon Jolley
Buehler's Grocery was started by Christian Buehler, whose will specified that store profits be given to charity.  Click to enlarge.
Buehler's Grocery was started by Christian Buehler, whose will specified that store profits be given to charity. Click to enlarge.
- photo by courtesy of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Library

In college, I briefly considered becoming a business reporter. Economic news and trends still interest me, even to the point of wondering recently how much that the price of turkey has changed in Chattanooga over the years.

So, I chose six different years to research:

* 1900 – the pace-setting year that began the 1900’s
* 1925 – midway through the prosperous Roaring 20’s
* 1933 – deep into the Great Depression
* 1942 – first Thanksgiving with the United States in WWII
* 1974 – I’ve always liked that year.
* 2005 – no time like the present

If you studied Economics in college, don’t worry. There are no supply/demand graphs or interviews with retiring Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan about turkey prices in this article. Along the way, however, we will also look back at the observance of Thanksgiving.

* 1900 *

With many families living on farms just outside the small urbanized area of Chattanooga, most apparently served home-grown turkeys on the table at Thanksgiving. In the pages of the Chattanooga Times in the days leading up to Thanksgiving dinner, I was able to find only one advertisement for a merchant who sold turkey. A. Booth’s at 13-15 Carter Street sold turkey, along with fish, wild game, other poultry, and cranberries. Booth’s did not advertise their prices, though.

Turkey was in the news, but with a different meaning to the word. The November 20, 1900 Times’ headline read “Our Claims on Turkey.” The word caught my eye as I scrolled through the microfilm. The article wasn’t about the local newspaper staff’s demands to be served a meal in the homes of readers. Instead, this was about a bit of gunboat diplomacy, with the United States dispatching the Battleship Kentucky to Smyrna, Turkey in conjunction with demands for repayment of damages to a mission in that country.

On Thanksgiving Day, most area churches held services. At First Methodist (whose steeple remains at the intersection of McCallie and Georgia today), Dr. Cadek’s orchestra opened the services with the “Star Spangled Banner.” A unity service for area Baptists and other denominations was held at First Baptist Church at Oak Street and Georgia Avenue. At Second Presbyterian, the proclamation of Thanksgiving from President William McKinley was read.

Churches also carried the spirit of Thanksgiving out into the community. The ladies of Centenary Methodist provided a dinner for the children at Bonny Oaks.

* 1925 *

Most turkey appears to have been sold through local meat markets. Prices were said to range between forty cents per pound for a live bird (“on the hoof,” according to the Times report) to fifty cents per pound for a dressed, “feather-picked” turkey.

The City Meat Market at 340 West Ninth Street beckoned readers to visit them, because “you will want the best meat and poultry.” The Central Market House was staying open until 8:00pm on Thanksgiving eve. Sharp Brothers Meat Market at 402 West Ninth Street noted that “Mr. Turkey may not join us in our enthusiasm on Thanksgiving Day.”

R.O. Bennett at 212 East Main Street sold a variety of meats: turkeys, chickens, rabbits, possums, oysters, and hams. “I believe that I’ll let you have my share of that possum” may have been mentioned in at least one Chattanooga home.

For after-dinner entertainment, the University of Chattanooga football team was matched against Oglethorpe University.

* 1933 *

Advertisements for grocery stores filled the pre-Thanksgiving pages. The Great Depression had caused turkey prices to fall. Buehler Brothers, which opened in Chattanooga in 1911 and is still with us today, sold live turkeys for sixteen cents per pound, and dressed ones for eighteen cents per pound. The Shop Easy Grocery, with two stores in North Chattanooga on Frazier and Spears Avenues, sold turkeys “on the foot” for eighteen cents per pound.

By this time, restaurants had begun to lure folks out of the kitchen to a prepared meal served by wait staff. The S&W Cafeteria, which opened in the city in 1931 as the seventh unit of a Charlotte-based chain, said “Let us serve the family’s Thanksgiving.” For twenty-five cents, one could dine on turkey, gravy, walnut dressing, rice, cranberry sauce, celery, and bread.

Howell Loo’s Chinese restaurant offered the alternative of turkey chow mein.

An All for Benevolence community sing was held at the Memorial Auditorium on Thanksgiving eve.

Over the long holiday weekend, there was also dancing at the entrance to Ruby Falls, where the Jimmy Cox Cavern Castle Orchestra entertained. James Cagney was starring in “The Picture Snatcher” at the Cameo Theater, while Jean Harlow was in “Blonde Bombshell” at the Tivoli.

* 1942 *

The American entry into World War II had caused food prices to double. Turkeys at Stringer’s Grocery at 2300 Bailey Avenue were selling for forty-two cents per pound. The store said that the price was good for “any size, will dress, fancy, milk-fed” turkey (I did not know that turkeys drank milk.).

The Red Food Stores, started in 1908 by Frank McDonald, sold turkeys for forty-five cents per pound. Red Food told customers to “invite a soldier and serve turkey this Thanksgiving.”

* 1974 *

The modern era of supermarkets had arrived as of this first Thanksgiving following the 1973 oil embargo and ensuing inflation. The latter soon prompted the federal government to issue “WIN” (Whip Inflation Now) buttons.

However, as of 1974, turkey prices were little changed. There were many competing grocery stores. Here’s the market basket report:

Kroger: 39 cents per pound
Shop-Rite: 39 cents
Pruett’s: 45 cents
Red Food: 45 cents
Gibson’s: 49 cents
Willie’s: 49 cents
Winn-Dixie: 49 cents

* 2005 *

A local store circular advertised frozen turkeys for fifty-seven cents per pound. However, stores have also offered free turkeys to customers who buy enough groceries each week during the promotional period. The purchases are tracked electronically.

In the community, we see and hear evidence of what my pastor calls the holiday season of “Hallow-thank-mas,” where the last three holidays of the year are all mashed-together like the pumpkin in pies. I heard John Lennon’s Christmas tune today on the radio. When he sang, “So this is Christmas,” I replied, “No, it’s not. It’s Thanksgiving.”

CONCLUSION

So, what does Thanksgiving have to do with the price of turkey, you may ask. Well, actually, very little. It was just a thought that came to me one day when I had the rest of my work caught up, including sorting my pennies by mint and year.

Thanksgiving doesn’t have to include a big meal centered on turkey. One can be very thankful as a vegetarian, or sitting behind a plate of barbecue. A local restaurant employee told me yesterday that her family serves barbecue because there are fewer leftovers.

Thanksgiving is a whole lot more about everything else that you read about in this article. It’s about folks stopping to count their blessings, to give praise, and to share with the less-fortunate, like the ones in 1900 did. It’s about people enjoying time with one another and counting that as a blessing, like the 1925 Moccasins’ football fans did. It’s about being thankful even in times of adversity like the country experienced in 1933, 1942, and 1974.

One can be thankful throughout the year, and not even worry if Thanksgiving is on the third or fourth Thursday of November. By the way, even that was debated for a few years in Congress.

What to say of the celebration of the Thanksgiving spirit in 2005? I’ll reserve that space for you, the reader.

If you have favorite Thanksgiving memories, please send them to me at jolleyh@bellsouth.net.


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