Jerry Browne and November traditions

There are lots of stories about the playful tradition that unites Thanksgiving, poultry, pardons and presidents. The connection between First Families and holiday gobblers goes back to the 19th century.

In the 1860s Abraham Lincoln spared a turkey destined for the dinner table when his son, Tad, begged him not to kill "Jack" who'd become a family pet. During Teddy Roosevelt's tenure, a bogus newspaper article claimed that his children had chased and tormented a Thanksgiving turkey until the poor thing dropped from exhaustion. Roosevelt's White House was home to dogs, cats, guinea pigs, a pony, snakes, lizards, a macaw, a bear, a hyena and a badger, so I doubt the children would have paid much attention to a turkey. In any case, the turkey in question was delivered dressed for the oven, rendering the report fiction.

Over the years many birds enjoyed photo-ops in the Rose Garden and were spared the butcher's knife, but it wasn't until 1989 that the tradition of actually pardoning a turkey was established by George H. W. Bush. That season's lucky bird lived out the rest of his presumably safe life at Frying Pan Park in Virginia. Since then, other turkeys have retired to places like Disney World, Disneyland and Mount Vernon.

I was surprised to learn that a Mystic man played a small part in this light-hearted American custom.

You've probably seen the pictures and read the articles about the old Perkins' place on Jerry Browne Road in Mystic. The house has a sad but commanding presence, and people are trying to save it. It was built by Randall Browne in 1878 and stayed in the Browne family until Chester Perkins bought it in 1940. The road is named for Randall's son, Jerry, who ran a successful farm there.

In 1862 Jerry was 21, just a kid, when he enlisted in the 1st Rhode Island Cavalry Regiment to fight in the Civil War, serving with the Army of the Potomac. The regiment fought in the Chancellorsville Campaign, the Second Battle of Bull Run and the Battle of Fredericksburg. During the Gettysburg campaign the regiment was trapped behind Confederate lines near Middleburg, Va., and was nearly annihilated. New recruits were brought in to augment the survivors, and the men served out the rest of the war defending the nation's capital, scouting along the Potomac and in the Shenandoah.

When Jerry mustered out in 1865, he'd seen more than three years of action, and he wasn't a kid any longer. He went back home to work the family farm and resume his life.

Among the customers for Jerry's farm produce was a Westerly businessman named Horace Vose. Horace, nicknamed "The Turkey King," had been sending big tom turkeys as gifts to the White House since Grant's administration. It probably was a savvy marketing move since the annual events were widely reported by media outlets as prestigious as The New York Times. In 1901 a turkey raised by Jerry was chosen to be sent to President Teddy Roosevelt. It would be fun to know if this was the fowl Teddy's children were accused of harassing, but I wasn't able to find out.

Horace Vose provisioned the White House every Thanksgiving from 1873 until his death in 1913. Jerry, who never married, continued running his farm, assisted by an extended family of siblings, in-laws, nieces and nephews. He died in 1911.

November is an especially appropriate month to remember Jerry and millions of other veterans who went to war for their country. They endured extraordinary hardships and horrors that their families and friends couldn't possibly imagine, and came home again - if they were lucky - to pick up the threads of their ordinary lives. They didn't ask for praise or fanfare; they just hoped that their sacrifices had made a difference.

American men and women continue to show this courage and character today. It's a tradition to be thankful for.

Carol Sommer of Waterford is a self-proclaimed history nut. She writes a monthly history column inspired by local street signs.


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