This time of year is full of advice for what’s best to eat and what’s best to drink at Thanksgiving. 

Whether you’re enjoying the traditional set-up of turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes or going off script with something entirely new, there are farmers to thank for the meal. That includes the people behind the wine, beer and cider you might choose to enjoy. The pumpkins and pecans, too. 

Here in Sonoma County we can grow pretty much anything, and we do. We also used to grow a lot of turkeys. 

Max W. Poehlmann is credited as one of the first commercial turkey farmers and a pioneer to boot. Born in 1890 in San Francisco, Poehlmann’s family moved to Petaluma in 1900 to set up a tannery business.  

After a stint as an Alaskan fisherman, miner and prospector, then service in World War I, Max came back to Petaluma to help his parents run their new hatchery business on Petaluma Boulevard North.  

When Frank Poehlmann passed away in 1922, Max took the business over with his mom, Bertha. In 1930, Nathan Thompson and Bill Warner took over Mrs. Poehlmann’s interest, becoming Max’s partners in the Poehlmann Hatchery. 

With the advent of commercial air transportation, hatcheries were able to sell products to Asia and South and Central America in addition to throughout the western United States. Poehlmann also ran a hatchery in Salt Lake City. 

According to research done by the Sonoma County Library, by 1937 the hatchery was producing one million chicks a year. That same year Poehlmann expanded by buying a 650-acre ranch to specifically raise turkeys in El Verano, a ranch once owned by the Carriger family.  

By 1941, hatcheries were considered the Petaluma area’s most important industry, with turkey eggs for hatching accounting for more than $100,000 a year alone. With no intense heat during the growing months of July, August and September, Petaluma’s climate was considered ideal for poultry of all kind.  

The Petaluma Argus-Courier from December 1952 stated that 15,000 turkeys were raised at the Poehlmann Hatchery’s Yulupa ranch in Sonoma Valley that year. About 1,000 birds were sold at Thanksgiving; another 1,000 at Christmas and another 3,000 selected as breeders. 

That year, Poehlmann’s birds won 10 awards at the Far West Turkey Show in Turlock. 

Around that time, replenishment of the stock came by way of George Nicholas’ turkey breeding farm, which provided 12,000 eggs to hatch at the Poehlmann Hatchery in Petaluma. 

In the 1950s, Nicholas perfected the breeding of broad-breasted, white-feathered turkeys (known as the Mae West), which soon surpassed the bronze turkey as the industry standard.  

Nicholas soon became known as the father of the modern turkey and operated Nicholas Turkey Breeding Farms in Carneros, where Scribe Winery is located today. He sold the business in 1978 to outside interests and the entire operation moved to West Virginia in 2004. It is now called Aviagen Turkeys. 

Poehlmann’s operation persisted until 1970 when he retired to Oakmont with his wife Nell. He died in 1980 at the age of 90. The Poehlmanns had two sons, but it was his nephew, Nathan C. Thompson and his wife Lois, who took over the operation and changed the name to their own. They also converted the historic family home on Petaluma Boulevard North to a restaurant called 610 Main.  

Today, nearly all commercially sold turkeys harken back to the broad-breasted white. A movement exists to bring back heritage turkey breeds via Sonoma County 4-H and Slow Food Russian River. 

So this Thanksgiving, raise a glass to the turkey farmers that contributed to Sonoma County’s agricultural legacy, a long-gone moment in time that changed the face of turkey farming forever.