Willoughby: A long Thanksgiving tradition
One of Aspen’s annual Thanksgiving events that ceased – turkey shoots – spanned eight decades. Locals, at least those who enjoyed hunting or target shooting, penciled the dates on their calendars.
The first one recorded in the papers was in 1891. This was billed as a turkey shoot of rival town clubs: Aspen and Carbondale. Carbondale hosted the event and bagged 11 turkeys to Aspen’s 9.
In 1892, one was billed as, “regular, old-fashioned Thanksgiving turkey shoot at Hallam Lake.” Aspen’s Rifle Club hosted the event, notifying contestants that there “would be matches for rifles with peep sights and open sights and shooting at the turkey’s head, if preferred.”
The 1896 turkey shoot was reported in the paper, but the train connections were the major story. The Aspen team traveled, by Midland train, to New Castle, but there was a 12-hour delay in Basalt where they changed trains coming home as that train was behind schedule.
For over a decade, Aspen’s best shooter was Fred Brown, especially with clay pigeons. He went on frequent hunting trips, especially for ducks. In 1898, he was part of an Aspen team that went to Denver for the July 4 shooting contest. He often supervised local turkey shoots but did not participate because he was a level above other shooters.
In 1905, a judge in Ouray ruled a prohibition of “this kind of sport.” The Colorado Legislature, the previous year, passed a bill that prevented events that were cruel to animals. This first test case involved a dog fight. From then on, turkey shoots were marksmanship events, with turkeys awarded to the winners.
The 1907 event took place at T.A. Smith’s farm that he advertised as “good old-fashioned turkey shoot” and promised “the turkeys are young and fat – its your fault if you do not get one or more.”
Many years there were more than one turkey shoot. Beginning in 1918, many were held at the Midland Ranch on Castle Creek where a shooting range had been constructed. That event promoted women participants and included a 50-yard event with small caliber rifles that the event provided.
The Savage Ranch, in 1923, offered 40 turkeys, 12 pigs, and 8 Plymouth Rock Roosters as prizes. The Midland Ranch outdid them the next year, offering “75 big turks and a lunch.” Billy Tagert was the big winner in 1927 at the Glendale Farm. He was a partner in the Midland Ranch and owned the largest livery stable in Aspen. He was an avid outdoorsman. In 1901, in February, he snowshoed above timberline on Mt. Sopris in search of game. He didn’t always win his turkeys shooting; in 1908, he won the Elks turkey roll, a dice game.
In the 1930s, there were even more turkey shoots each year at the Midland Ranch, Sam Letey’s Ranch, and one hosed by Paulich and Pecjak near the Hunter Creek Mill.
Bill Stapleton hosted events at his ranch in the1940s, and another set of events took place at the Snowmass Store.
The last decades, the ’50s and ’60s, were mostly at the Aspen Trap Club site near the airport (see photo). The club built skeet shooting apparatus, and contestants shot at clay pigeons with shotguns. They aimed over the field toward the Roaring Fork and McClain Flats. For many years, the Aspen Lions Club hosted the events, and in the later years, the Aspen Fire Department took over. Beck and Bishop supplied the frozen turkeys.
It you were skilled with shotguns or did not score high, you could still attend the Elks Club’s annual Thanksgiving turkey bingo games and, with luck, go home with your turkey.
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching at Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org