The rise and fall of Wellman’s turkey industry

By Cheryl Allen
Posted 5/15/24


In 1923, a chicken farmer saw a flock of turkeys while on vacation in Minnesota. It sparked an idea, a vision, that would put his hometown on the map and bring it international attention. …

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The rise and fall of Wellman’s turkey industry



In 1923, a chicken farmer saw a flock of turkeys while on vacation in Minnesota. It sparked an idea, a vision, that would put his hometown on the map and bring it international attention.

That vision would bring financial stability to Wellman’s residents and farmers through the Great Depression. That vision would supply American troops during World War II with sufficient nutrition. That vision would give Wellman residents pride in a town no one expected to survive.

By 1956, the vision had run its course. In 1962, it was declared dead. In 1974, its ashes were scattered to the wind.

In the story of every business, there is much to be learned from its success. However, the more poignant lessons can be learned from its demise.

This used to be turkey country

If you look around Washington County for farmers raising turkeys today, you won’t find many. In the years spanning 1890 to 1923, there may have been more; a few times, the Wellman Advance reported a large number of turkeys being shipped by rail to New York City. But back then, commercial turkey farming wasn’t really a thing. Diseases were a problem.

When Arthur C. Gingerich took that vacation to Minnesota in 1923 and those turkeys caught his eye, he made a few inquiries. Soon he was introduced to Dr. William A. Billings, an agricultural scientist and turkey expert at the University of Minnesota.

Dr. Billings had figured a few things out that would make commercial turkey farming possible. He determined that proper sanitation methods – raising turkeys separately from chickens and away from roundworm-infected soil – would increase the odds of a disease-free flock.

Gingerich, who had been running a chicken hatchery on his farm north of Wellman, decided to see what he could do with turkeys. In the spring of 1928, he invested $600 in turkey eggs and raised 670 turkeys. He sold 220 of them and kept the rest as breeding stock. Thus, Maplecrest Turkey Farms was born.

The keys to successs

Once Gingerich proved he could raise a number of turkeys with the help of incubators, he enlisted the help of his Amish Mennonite neighbors to do the same on their farms. Amish Mennonite farmers had a reputation for being superior farmers, thanks in part to their strong work ethic. They were able to farm on a large scale and had good business sense. They respected Gingerich’s vision and followed his lead.

Maplecrest Turkey Farms quickly developed into an operation that took turkeys from egg to ready-to-cook birds. By 1931, market-ready turkeys were dressed at a plant in Wellman and sold directly to markets in the eastern United States. This model made turkey farming profitable for the farmers, giving them a fair price for their products, and brought money into the Wellman community.

People who thought Wellman “ain’t gonta last no how” suddenly found themselves at the turkey center of the world.

Maplecrest farmers settled on the Broad Breasted Bronze, a Bronze cross from English and American stock that was a large turkey with a lot of breast meat. A logo was designed, consisting of a circle with a strutting turkey in the center and a maple leaf in the background, which came to represent quality to discerning buyers.

President Herbert Hoover was sent a Maplecrest turkey in 1931. Fashionable hotels in New York City began serving Maplecrest turkey year-round.

In the decade spanning from 1929 to 1939, Maplecrest Turkey Farms grew. Hatcheries, office spaces, and processing plants were added over the years, all located in Wellman. In 1935, a large new processing plant was built where employees dressed turkeys for the autumn rush; the newspaper at the time gushed over the space for 225 employees, which included a dining room named the “Gobble Inn” and a piano for guest use.

By 1938, Maplecrest Turkey Farms reached peak production levels, shipping 640,000 processed birds, thus making Iowa the country’s fifth-highest turkey producer.

That was plenty for Gingerich. In 1939 he declared the business “big enough.”

“I only want to turn out quality turkeys at a price everybody can afford,” he said.

By 1940, Gingerich was known internationally for his pioneering role in the commercial turkey industry. Wellman was referred to in national media as “Thanksgiving Town” and the “Turkey Capital of the World,” although there were a few other towns with just as much right to that title.

Maplecrest Turkey Farms had so much clout that it kept the Rock Island Railroad line running locally longer than it would have otherwise. The business shipped carloads of turkeys east to the markets, and eggs were delivered to the hatchery by rail from the west.

Local unemployment was virtually eliminated in spite of the Great Depression throughout the 1930’s, as over 100 Wellman residents were employed year-round in various operations, and money flowed out to local farmers who raised both turkeys and the corn and oats needed for feed. Every August, locals celebrated their good fortune at Wellman Turkey Days events.

The end of an era

In 1945 a packing plant was established in Kalona, but production numbers had already fallen off their pre-war high. During the years of WWII, the number of turkeys shipped fell as low as 325,000; post war, they began a rebound, reaching 450,000 turkeys shipped in 1949, thanks in part to the new Kalona plant.

But times were changing. Turkeys began to be raised in large confinement spaces rather than on smaller farms. Raising turkeys also became a sideline, as farmers began raising more corn, beef, and hogs.

Smaller turkey operations began to be consolidated into large national companies, and Maplecrest Turkey Farms did not resist this trend. In 1956, Maplecrest Turkey Farms was consolidated with Protein Blenders Inc. of Iowa City, a turkey processing and feed business.

By 1962, Maplecrest Turkey Farms was dissolved as a separate corporation. In 1965, it closed its doors and its assets were sold. In 1974, the last remaining equipment was moved to Missouri and the Kalona and Wellman real estate was sold.

Walking around Wellman today, you won’t hear a single gobble.

The value of hindsight

This is the story of a visionary farmer who helped a small town prosper with the help of his hardworking friends and neighbors. He put Wellman on the map and developed a reputation for quality. Then the business was challenged by changing farming and business practices, and it didn’t survive its founding owner.

Today there are businesses in this area that operate on a similar business model. Farmers Hen House in Kalona contracts with over 50 Amish and Mennonite farms for eggs, and many of them are local. The business grades and distributes the eggs across the country. Customers equate the Farmers Hen House name with quality.

The same is true for Farmers Creamery, a business in the Open Gates Group, which also includes Kalona Creamery. Farmers Creamery contracts with farmers, many local, for milk. The products made from it – Kalona SuperNatural milk, half & half, yogurt, buttermilk, butter, and more – are shipped throughout the country. The brand name, also, is a marker of quality.

These businesses are mindful of the past. They aim to mimic what made a business like Maplecrest Turkey Farms successful and avoid what caused it to fail.

We hope they succeed.

The book “Maplecrest Turkey Farms Inc.: A.C. Gingerich & the Turkey Industry in Wellman, Iowa” by Gordon W. Miller was a key source for this story. The book is available in the Reference section of Wellman Public Library. The Wellman Heritage Society is also an excellent resource on the history of Maplecrest Turkey Farms, as is the Iowa Mennonite Museum and Archives in Kalona.

Wellman, Iowa, Maplecrest Turkey Farms