MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) – The turkey grower who helped Alabama celebrate Thanksgiving for more than 60 years has died.
Bill Bates, of Bates Turkey Farm, died Monday at his home near Fort Deposit. He was 89. His daughter, Becky Sloan, said he had heart problems.
Bates started an Alabama tradition 63 years ago when he took one of his large tom turkeys to Alabama Gov. Jim Folsom shortly before Thanksgiving to promote eating turkey. Each year, as Thanksgiving approached, Bates took a large white turkey always named Clyde to the governor and got it pardoned. Then Bates would present the governor with a dressed turkey from his Lowndes County farm.
It was a tradition that almost didn’t get started.
Former Gov. Jim Folsom “tried to kill that first one we brought. He got loose and flew all over the office,” Bates said in a 2004 interview with The Associated Press.
Bates was active in the Republican Party long before it began to dominate state politics, but politics never came up at the pardoning ceremony, even with four-time Democratic Gov. George C. Wallace.
“I gave George Wallace so many turkeys, he told me once, ‘You’re the only Republican I really like,” Bates said.
Sloan said the family plans to continue the pardon tradition.
Bates’ father started the turkey farm in 1923, and Bates started running it after returning from service in World War II. He raised free-range turkeys on a natural diet. His daughter said he was always coming up with new ideas to help the business, even in his final days.
She recalled that some fellow turkey growers questioned his decision when he decided to start selling smoked turkeys that were ready to eat, but it was a huge success.
“He said most of these ladies don’t know how to cook turkey, and I want them to have turkey some time other Thanksgiving and Christmas,” Sloan said.
She said the farm faces U.S. 31 and people used to stop by to buy turkeys until Interstate 61 replaced it as a major north-south route through Alabama. Bates decided to open Bates House of Turkey at the Greenville exit of I-65 to sell turkey dinners, turkey sandwiches and smoked turkeys to tourists headed to Alabama and Florida beaches. His restaurant is now one of Alabama’s best known.
Gov. Robert Bentley stopped by the restaurant for lunch with Bates last summer.
“Bill Bates was one of the finest men I knew. A veteran of World War II, Bill served his country with honesty and integrity. He was a member of the greatest generation, who loved God, his family and his country,” the governor said.
Bentley said he’s glad Bates’ family will continue Alabama’s Thanksgiving tradition, but he said, “This year’s ceremony will not be the same without Mr. Bates.”
Funeral arrangements are pending.
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