It’s a dreary, drippy, soggy day at Curbstone Valley, and the weather reports seem to suggest that we’ll be lucky to see the sun again by Christmas Day! So, while our fowl strive to stay dry amidst all this nasty weather, I’ve been cozied up indoors, near the fire, rummaging around the literature looking into Santa Cruz’s somewhat rich history in poultry production. Santa Cruz was a relative late-comer to large-scale commercial poultry production, but by the 1920s the county was the fourth highest egg producing region in California.
While reading through some old advertisements in the poultry journals, I came across an interesting piece of local folklore. It was claimed that a local back-yard poultry producer in Santa Cruz, California, had successfully managed to cross a Rhode Island Red Hen with a small Holland White Turkey Tom. This mutant chicken and turkey ‘creation’ became locally known as ‘Spencer’s Turken’.
The person reportedly responsible for this cross was Zachary Taylor Spencer. Spencer was born in March 1850, in Houlton, Aroostook, Maine, the son of a farmer, Joseph M. Spencer, and his wife Elizabeth. Before arriving in Santa Cruz, Zachary Taylor Spencer had lived in Wakefield, Massachusetts, New Berlin in Florida, where he was employed as a carpenter, and later in Brazoria, Texas, where he worked as a mechanic. Eventually he arrived in California, living in Suisun by 1910 working in retail , and in 1911 a reference shows “Z. T. Spencer” as one of numerous founding directors for the Clear Lake Railroad Company in Lakeport .
By 1918 Zachary, now almost 70 years old, had finally made Santa Cruz his home, and according to the census in 1920, he was working in a local furniture store.
It was soon thereafter that Spencer was publicly credited with creating his chicken/turkey cross that became known as ‘Spencer’s Turken’, which he advertised heavily.
I’ve taken more than enough biology and genetics courses over the years however, to be rather skeptical of the claims of this particular inter-species cross. The likelihood that Spencer had accidentally produced viable, and fertile, male and female hybrids through an accidental cross, seemed highly unlikely, so I dug further.
I found a pamphlet in the Cornell University Library that appears to have been part of Spencer’s advertising for the breed, where Zachary Spencer claims that on October 1st, 1921, his Turkens took 1st, 2nd, and 3rd prize at the Santa Cruz County Fair, in Watsonville.
In this pamphlet, Spencer explains the origin of the breed as follows:
“In 1918 a baby chicken and baby turkey were given to a little four year old girl as pets; these had the run of the yard and house until they became too large; then were placed in a small pen in the back yard. Never having any other associates these two became fast chums; and it was not until they were nearly grown that it entered the mind of any one that from these two might come a real cross. Thereafter every opportunity was given to that purpose with the result that 13 eggs were laid, fathered by the gobbler.”
It wasn’t long however, before others became skeptical of Spencer’s claims.
An article published in The Condor in 1922 emphatically declared that Spencer’s Turken was “in no way a hybrid fowl”.
Spencer however, continued to sell his Turkens as hybrids. Another article in 1922, published in the Poultry Item, claimed that Spencer’s Turkens were extraordinary, immune to lice and mites and blackhead, and remarkable egg-layers, and the article speculated they may soon be crossed with white leghorns for white egg production.
Clearly tongue-in-cheek however, below this same article the following paragraph was printed by the editor, who obviously had his own doubts regarding Spencer’s claims (not to mention quite the sense of humor):
“And as long as Nature has thrown down the bars in this mating of species, I would suggest it would be an interesting experiment to mate a Belgian Hare buck with a nice big plump Buff Orpington hen. This ought to result in a four legged chicken of rich golden buff plumage or hair and a market fowl par excellence. Two additional legs and second joints would certainly be appreciated by the man who sits at the head of the table and carves while the family make sarcastic remarks. However, we doubt if this offspring of a Hare and Hen would prove much of a layer. Fancy she would only lay at Easter.”
Despite the criticism, Spencer’s Turkens continued to be touted in a 1923 issue of Popular Mechanics, as excellent egg-layers.
In a 1923 issue of The American Poultry Advocate however, another article cast serious doubt on Spencer’s claims of his chicken and turkey cross, stating the birds, in all likelihood, were in fact a well known breed of Transylvanian Naked-Neck chickens from Eastern Europe, only recently imported into the United States, and not a barnyard cross between a chicken and a turkey at all.
None of this seemed to hamper Spencer though, who even as late as 1927, in an advertisement in the Breckenridge Weekly Democrat on September 9th of that year suggested that Mr. Spencer had relocated from Santa Cruz to Ben Lomond, but was still selling his turkens.
Sure enough, the 1930 United States Federal Census shows a Zachary T. Spencer residing on Margarita Avenue, in Ben Lomond, California.
This is where I finally lose track of not just Zachary Taylor Spencer, aged 81 years in 1930, but of any further references to ‘Spencer’s Turkens’. We’ll likely never know the real source of Spencer’s remarkable Turken fowl, but suffice it to say that as there were then, there are still naked-necked breeds of chickens popular with poultry fanciers today, but their naked necks have been a consequence of genetic mutation, NOT hybrid crosses.
The myth that Spencer’s turkens were created as a cross between a turkey and a chicken seems to have died along with Spencer. It was an interesting local tidbit to find in the old journals, and quite the marketing ploy for the day, albeit deceitful. I must admit though, part of me is rather curious as to how many of his purported Rhode Island Red/Holland Turkey crosses he sold over the years to gullible consumers. Unfortunately, I’m sure that has all since been lost to history. Regardless, it does prove the adage, especially important at this time of year, of buyer beware.
 United States Federal Census Records 1850-1930
 History of Mendocino and Lake counties, California, with biographical sketches of the leading, men and women of the counties who have been identified with their growth and development from the early days to the present