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Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

Southern Utah’s ‘Turkey Empire’ Started To Fall After One Somber Thanksgiving Almost 60 Years Ago

A photo of turkeys on a farm.
Courtesy of Washington County Historical Society
Barlocker used to be one of the largest turkey farmers in the country and was located in St. George and Enterprise, Utah.

Nearly 60 years ago, a national tragedy near Thanksgiving led to personal tragedy for the head of what’s been dubbed Southern Utah’s “turkey empire.”

William “Bill” Barlocker was a potato farmer turned turkey farmer and politician from the southwest corner of the state. He started small in 1939 with 600 birds but 20 years later his business processed 3 million pounds of turkey annually. However, a presidential assassination is said to have started his empire’s decline.

A photo of various men.
Courtesy of Utah State Historical Society
Utah turkey growers in 1959, William Barlocker is pictured top right. Barlocker was the head of Southern Utah’s “turkey empire.”

Life-long St. George resident Jerry Empey said he would sometimes work for Barlocker during the holiday rush. He said he remembers the business being a big part of the town’s identity.

“There weren't that many jobs for people to have, so that supplied a lot of jobs that otherwise wouldn't have been,” Empey said.

W. Paul Reeve is the Simmons professor of Mormon Studies at the University of Utah and wrote about the history of the town of Enterprise — where Barlocker first started out. Reeve said what made it an empire in the 1950s and 60s was he integrated all the parts of turkey farming into his business — from raising them, to selling their eggs to making feed.

“It was just simply a stated fact that he was the global leader in turkey production,” he said. “No one sold more turkeys than Bill Barlocker.”

Barlocker had also became a political figurehead at the time, he served as the mayor of St. George for three terms and made a serious run for governor in 1960. He ended up losing to Republican incumbent George Dewey Clyde by less than 1%, according to The Spectrum.

But Reeve said the assassination of John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963 marked the start of the turkey farmer’s financial troubles.

“That was just six days before Thanksgiving, Barlocker had over 350,000 turkeys in cold storage just waiting for the Thanksgiving rush, which really didn't develop,” he said.

A somber holiday nationally plus some big loans led to his downfall. For the four years after that, Barlocker lost half a million dollars on average, each year. He eventually gave up turkeys to herd sheep in the nearby mountains and then worked at Dixie College for a decade before his death in 1982.

Turkey Sales This Year

This year, Utahns find themselves on the eve of another Thanksgiving tinged by a different kind of tragedy.

As of Wednesday, COVID-19 had claimed the lives of 836 Utahns, and state health officials are warning of superspreader holiday meals.

A photo of several turkeys.
Claire Jones
Against the backdrop of the pandemic, the collapse of Southern Utah’s “turkey empire” is not on track to repeat itself.

But against the backdrop of the pandemic, the collapse of Southern Utah’s “turkey empire” is not on track to repeat itself.

“We’ve pretty much sold out of all of our small birds,” said Todd Jensen, the executive vice president of sales at Harmons. “It goes to show that people are still having Thanksgiving but in a smaller capacity.”

The Utah grocery chain has contracts with turkey farmers all over the state, and Jensen said turkey sales are up significantly this year.

For a vendor like Harmons, those sales come as a relief.

The grocery chain has to place its Thanksgiving turkeys orders in the spring to give farmers time to raise the animals, he said. He added his company used Easter ham sales to inform its Thanksgiving strategy but said this year’s projections were still essentially “a shot in the dark.”

“I’m glad turkeys are still moving and people are still celebrating,” he said. “Hopefully, they’re following advice and doing it safely.”

Lexi is KUER's Southwest Bureau reporter
David is a reporter and producer working on Sent Away, an investigative podcast series from KUER, The Salt Lake Tribune and APM Reports.
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