County Turkey Gobbles Up Fame

Local Bird Hams It Up For Presidential Family

Posted: November 23, 2012

President Barack Obama reacts as daughter Malia, 14, (right) refuses an offer to pet Rockingham County turkey Cobbler during the annual “pardoning” ceremony at the White House on Wednesday. Also in attendance are Steve Willardsen, president of Cargill’s turkey processing business (left), and the president’s 11-year-old daughter, Sasha. (Photos by Nikki Fox)
Cobbler struts his stuff on the White House grounds. He’ll live out the rest of his life at George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate.
Presidential daughters Malia, 14, (left) and Sasha, 11, listen as President Barack Obama fires off some turkey one-liners at Wednesday’s official “pardoning” ceremony.
WASHINGTON — Cobbler’s 15 minutes of fame didn’t even last 15 minutes.

But he made sure the seven minutes he did spend Wednesday afternoon in front of dozens of cameras from media outlets worldwide camped out in the White House Rose Garden were entertaining.

After all, Cobbler is no stranger to the art of selling himself, having won the coveted position as this year’s National Thanksgiving Turkey.

The 40-pound, 2-foot tom raised in Rockingham County won a heated Facebook war against his adversary, aptly named Gobbler, with more than 2,800 “likes” and 600 “shares.” Students at South River Elementary School in Grottoes had the honor of naming the two turkeys.

While his opponent is known for his traditional love of corn, the 4-month-old Cobbler is described as a cranberry-eating, Carly Simon-loving “strutter” on the White House’s Facebook page.

Under an unusually bright November sun, President Barack Obama announced this year’s winner.

“The only cobbler anyone’s eating this Thanksgiving will come with a side of ice cream,” Obama said.

While Cobbler was the only tom strutting his stuff in front of the crowd, both he and Gobbler were “pardoned” and will live out the rest of their relatively short life spans at George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate.

“The American people have spoken,” Obama said. “These birds are moving forward.”

As if on cue, a loud “gobble” could be heard from a fanned-out Cobbler, which left more than 100 journalists, the president and his two daughters, Malia and Sasha, all smiles. But as it turns out, that popular turkey rumble wasn’t too far from being scripted. 

Cargill poultry grower Craig Miller was introduced to the two toms — referred to as the “PTs” (presidential turkeys) — on July 13, when they were delivered to his Hinton-area farm.

Miller, 50, who has been raising poultry for 26 years, knew months before his most famous birds were born that his farm had been chosen to grow this year’s PTs.

“I really took it as quite an honor and a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” said Miller,  who attended the Wednesday ceremony with his wife, Nancy, 51, and their two children, Kelsey, 22, and Chase, 19.

Steve Willardsen, president of Cargill’s turkey processing business, is serving as this year’s chairman of the National Turkey Federation, a title that allows him to choose where the national turkey is raised.

Cargill also produced the last national turkey grown in Virginia in 1994. The national bird has come from the commonwealth seven times, including this year’s contribution.

The Turkey Selection

Both Cobbler and Gobbler have had luxurious starts in life.

The toms enjoyed their own digs, separated from the Millers’ other turkeys, all hens, from their first day on the farm.    

“It was an existing barn on the farm that we just remodeled,” Craig Miller said. “We call it the ‘Turkey Palace.’”

They were brought to Rockingham County among 40 contenders, but the pool was narrowed to just the two based on looks, health and personality.

The 38 other birds will be “processed,” to put it lightly.

The two final contenders needed to be the most, well, stereotypically turkeylike, complete with strong legs and good color.

In fact, a different bird was shaping up to be a White House contender, but his color never became as bright as the chosen two.

“Yes, it is a beauty contest, but it’s also a personality contest,” said Harrisonburg-based Cargill veterinarian Bob Evans, who had the honor of holding Cobbler for the White House ceremony.  

He visited the Millers’ farm frequently and applied various tests to the group of 40, including using strobe lights to imitate camera flashes and trying out different musical genres to get the birds used to the noise.

After leaving the farm Monday much like celebrities, with a grand farewell from the Broadway High School Gobblers marching band and cheerleaders, the toms spent two nights in the luxurious W Hotel in downtown Washington, D.C.

“These turkeys have been pampered and they’ve had a pretty good life,” Craig Miller said.

Although the entire ceremony surrounding the “pampered” birds was lighthearted, Obama took the opportunity to thank soldiers fighting overseas and to encourage listeners to help fellow Americans struck by Hurricane Sandy.

“[Thanksgiving] is … a time to remember those who are less fortunate, and this year that’s particularly true for our neighbors in the Northeast, who’ve lost their homes and their possessions and even their loved ones to Hurricane Sandy,” he said.

The president spoke about visiting New Jersey and New York in recent weeks.

“While I’ve seen entire neighborhoods reduced to rubble and heartbreaking loss and devastation, I have yet to find a broken spirit,” he said, before leaving the White House later to bring two not-so-lucky turkeys to a local food bank.

Contact Candace Sipos at 574-6275 or