Bates turkeys remain a tradition at Thanksgiving and year-round
By Carolyn Tomlin
After flying countless bombing missions in Europe during World War II, Bill Bates returned home and declared, “I never plan to stand in another line or ask anyone for a job.” Instead, he had one purpose in mind: To produce the finest turkeys ever to grace a table.
Many Alabamians are familiar with how the turkey farm business was started by Bill’s parents. In 1923, W.C. and Helen Hudson Bates, Bill’s mom and dad, received nine turkey eggs from his Aunt Mamie Bates as a wedding present. In 1935, with the Great Depression taking its toll on small farmers, this small gift became the source that saved the farm as the bank allowed the turkeys to be used as collateral. When Bill returned from the war, his parents needed help with the growing industry. He stayed, and the turkey business has grown significantly from those original eggs.
Known as “Mr. Bill,” the legendary Alabamian from Fort Deposit died Aug. 23, 2013, at the age of 89. “Throughout his life, this Southern gentleman was known as one of the best poultry ambassadors for Alabama,” says Huck Carroll, communications director of the Alabama Poultry and Egg Association.
Part of this legend started in 1949 when he presented Gov. James “Big Jim” Folsom a turkey named Clyde to pardon for the traditional Thanksgiving table. Each year this custom continues, and Clyde 67 will receive his pardon later this month. Today a member of the Bates family carries on this special presentation of the “biggest” and “best” bird.
Raising turkeys the old-fashioned way
The Bates family continues to raise flocks by the same methods they’ve used for years, producing about 100,000 turkeys each year.
“Sometimes the more things change, the more they remain the same,” says Becky Bates Sloan, who now manages the business with brothers John and Pete. Although technology has changed the way they handle the growing industry, they rely on methods that have been successful for years.
The Bates family believes in raising free-range birds. When the poults reach about 8 weeks, they’re moved to a shady pecan grove on the shores of a small lake. “We feed our turkeys only vegetable feed,” Sloan says. “We pay a little more for our feed, but we never use any feed with animal fats.” The family believes that the most succulent meat comes from raising the birds in a stress-free environment and feeding them a diet rich in nutrients and free of drugs.
Sloan knows that the turkey is an intelligent fowl. “For example, I tell our employees who care for the birds to never let them see you eat a pecan. Or else they would feast on the tasty morsels. Also, don’t talk when you are working among them. Otherwise, they will strut over, stand around, and hinder your work.”
Giving back to the community
Bates Turkey Farms is a vital partner in the community. Dedicated to cancer research, the Bates family is an active participant in the Butler County Relay for Life event. The company hires many young people, and several years ago the Bates family endowed a scholarship at a local community college for an employee of the Bates family enterprises. Safe Harbor for Children in Greenville also receives support and food.
An annual event for the community involves a small cedar tree planted by Mr. Bill about 35 years ago. On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, people from the area gather for the “Lighting of the Tree,” which is now 50 feet tall, followed by steaming cups of hot chocolate.
“We couldn’t run our farm without the support of Pioneer Electric Co-op and Quality Co-op in Greenville, where we purchase fertilizer, seed and other products,” Sloan says. “An electric fence protects our turkeys from predators. Our processing plant depends on electricity. And our freezers must have power. If we have a problem, they respond quickly.”
Bates Turkey Farm and the Bates family are longtime members and close friends of Pioneer Electric. “We value them as a business on our system and enjoy our relationship with the Co-op Connections Card program, where they give a discount (every Tuesday) at the restaurant,” says Casey Rogers, communications specialist at Pioneer Electric. “Their restaurant is a prominent stop on the interstate that most travelers acknowledge as a favorite stop along their way.”
Always an entrepreneur, Mr. Bill decided to expand the turkey business. Local people in Greenville needed a family-style restaurant. Tourists driving to the Gulf Coast on Highway 31 and Interstate 65 were searching for a unique food experience. And those traveling between Mobile and Birmingham were looking for a home-cooked meal, with no fried foods. Bates House of Turkey opened in 1970, with his wife Teresa in charge.
The restaurant serves everything turkey — old-fashioned roast turkey dinners with all the trimmings, Southern-style hickory smoked turkey sandwiches, open-faced turkey sandwiches, turkey cold plates, turkey salad, turkey gumbo and more.
“Bates Turkey restaurant is always a scheduled stop for my family when we travel south from our home in Birmingham,” says author and writer Denise George. “We look forward to a delicious, healthy dinner, kind and courteous service, and a friendly, comfortable dining room. Bates also serves up lots of smiles that make us feel like part of the Bates family. Knowing their incredible story makes the dining experience that much more enjoyable.”
In addition to the restaurant, Mr. Bill envisioned a delivery service where customers could call in or order online. He designed a unique Low-Boy Ice Chest that could ship a roasted turkey via UPS. Five years ago, the company changed the chest to one with thicker walls and which meets stricter specifications for shipping their products.
“One of the goals of our father, Bill, was to raise the healthiest turkeys possible for the consumer,” Becky says. “With five generations of Bates in the business, we plan to continue to produce the best turkeys on the market, while developing new recipes for turkey products.”
Do you know these turkey facts? A four-ounce serving of roasted breast, skin removed, contains:
- 153 calories
- 34 grams of protein (higher than many other cooked meats
- Riboflavin and niacin, important B vitamins
- 94 mg of cholesterol (lowest in cholesterol of popular meats)
- Nutrition needed for those watching their weight, diabetics and heart patients
Source: The Journal of the American Dietetic Association
For more information on Bates Turkey Farm, Inc. call (334) 227-4505. For the Bates House of Turkey Restaurant, located on Interstate 65 at Exit 130, call (334) 382-6123. Visit the farm online at batesturkey.com.