News & Politics

Turkeys With Presidential Pardons Lead a Pretty Nice Life

Caramel and Cheese are spending their golden years in luxury at Morven Park in Leesburg.

Caramel, spared in 2013, is the oldest living pardoned turkey. Photographs courtesy Morven Park.

When Caramel and Cheese arrived at Morven Park, they couldn’t even walk. “They were ready to be processed to go straight to the table,” says Keith McMillan, who helps care for the turkeys, which President Obama pardoned in recent years. At Morven Park, an estate in Leesburg, Caramel and Cheese are fed locally sourced grains, provided with indoor and outdoor accommodations, and are given access to heat lamps in the winter and fans in the summer.

Turkeys bred for the table aren’t meant to live long. Caramel arrived to the farm in 2013 after losing to another turkey named Popcorn in the White House’s annual social media contest. Popcorn has since passed, but Caramel remains the veteran of the publicly accessible coop as he approaches his two-year anniversary at Morven Park.

“To our knowledge, he’s the longest living presidential pardoned turkey,” says Teresa Davenport, Morven Park’s associate director of development and communications. Caramel likes to gobble at people, falls asleep standing up (“like an old man,” says Davenport) and is supposedly a Lady Gaga fan. Cheese arrived in 2014, along with Mac, whom Cheese bested in the 2014 contest. Mac has also since died–turkeys like him are “very susceptible to the heat,” says McMillan. Cheese is quite a bit bigger than Caramel and has more energy. A Morven Park heritage turkey named Franklin shares their pen, which is up a path from the mansion.

The mansion at Morven Park.

President Lincoln may have been the country’s first leader to grant a holiday turkey a new lease on life. In 1863, his son Tad took a liking to a turkey destined for the White House’s Christmas meal. Tad named the turkey Jack and begged his father not to allow him to end up on the dinner table. Unable to say no to his young son, Lincoln granted the turkey clemency. Despite this, the tradition of granting a presidential pardon didn’t start until more than a century later. While President Truman was the first to pose for a photo op with a Thanksgiving turkey, he did not grant it a pardon. That distinction likely belongs to President Kennedy, though it’s disputed if he actually used the word pardon.

Officially, the quirky tradition began with President George H.W. Bush in 1989, who assured an awaiting crowd that, “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.” After the ceremony, the turkey was sent to Frying Pan Park in Herndon. For the next decade and a half, all the presidential pardoned turkeys were sent to Frying Pan Park.

An unlucky turkey addressed to President Harding, 1921 or 1922. Photograph by Harris & Ewing/via Library of Congress.

In 2005, President George W. Bush put his own stamp on his father’s legacy. At that year’s pardoning ceremony, he quipped that the two turkeys (Marshmallow and, his backup, Yam) were “a little skeptical about going to a place called Frying Pan Park. I don’t blame them.” Instead, he announced the two turkeys would be the Grand Marshalls at Disneyland’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and would spend the remainder of their lives there on Circle D Ranch. This continued until 2009, but was perhaps stopped due to concerns from an animal rights group that Disney was not providing the level of care these special birds needed. Next, the turkeys were sent to George Washington’s old residence and became part of the annual “Christmas at Mount Vernon” exhibit. But, starting in 2013, Morven Park in Leesburg became the turkey’s new home.

Morven Park was chosen as much for its history as for its ability to care for the turkeys. The thousand-acre historic estate was once owned by World War I-era Virginia Governor Westmoreland Davis. In addition to being governor, he was also a farmer who specialized in raising turkeys. In the 1930s, Davis’ North Turkey Hill Farm was one of the largest producers of turkeys in the United States. Davenport explains that they approached the National Turkey Federation in 2012 having done their research. They promised specialized care for the turkeys, their own coop and better visitors’ access. In 2013, they were granted the privilege of becoming the new home for the presidential pardoned turkeys.

Morven Park has four different people who look after the turkeys on a daily basis. The birds also have an on-call poultry veterinarian and a sponsor: local real estate broker Janeen Marconi, who helps fund the care, food and manpower needed. In other words, the turkeys are quite pampered. “I have privilege of picking up their poop,” McMillan says.

Franklin, Popcorn (RIP), and Caramel at Morven Park.

Davenport says the amenities are a small price for Morven Park to pay to have a piece of American history on site. And both birds “love children’s voices,” she says. “When they hear them, they get very vocal.”

Later this year, Caramel, Cheese, and Franklin will get a new coop mate–the 2015 presidential pardoned turkeys will once again be sent to Morven Park.

Matt Blitz is the head of the Obscura Society D.C., the real-world exploration arm of Atlas Obscura. He writes about discovering the world’s mysteries for Smithsonian Magazine, Atlas Obscura, and Washingtonian.