The man who helped establish Pelican Rapids as a “turkey town” died last week. 

Howard Carlson, who managed the brand new West Central Turkeys plant from the day it opened in 1956 until his retirement in 1991, died Oct. 31. 

Carlson could justifiably be described as one of the “granddaddies” of the local turkey trade. 

Carlson was probably the last participant and leader of  the post-World War II economic boom, at the local level.  The turkey plant he opened created a steady industrial food production payroll that continues to this day. 

Turkey also became closely connected to the local Rotary club he helped establish. The club’s annual summer turkey feed is a signature event in Pelican Rapids. 

Howard was a charter member of the Pelican Rotary Club, which chartered in 1959, and he had the distinction of being the longest, continuous member. 

Throughout his career with West Central Turkeys–and after retirement–Carlson took an interest in economic development, noted Don Perrin, Pelican Drug.  “We used to have Wednesday morning coffee meetings. People would just show up and present ideas, and Howard was a part of that,” recalled Perrin, who was also a fellow Rotary club member with Carlson. “It was really more of a think tank or a roundtable…We hashed over ideas.  It eventually evolved into the the city’s Economic Development Committee.”

Sometimes referred to as Pelican’s “Gobbler Godfather,” Carlson was honored as GrandMarshall of the Pelican Fest parade, in July 2017.

For nearly 60 years, he also raised turkeys as a side venture. He continued to follow the industry closely his entire life. In an interview with the Press a few years ago he expressed concern that turkey consumption appeared to have flattened out. 

A “godfather” of the Pelican Rapids area turkey industry, Howard Carlson, also helped establish the Rotary Club barbeque turkey tradition. An antique enthusiast, Howard is pictured here in 2014 with his restored 1941 Railway Express Truck. “Railway Express” was a company that essentially was a forerunner to UPS and Federal Express. The company delivered rail freight from the boxcar to the customer.

“I’m concerned.  When I retired in 1991, public consumption of turkey was about 18 pounds per capita in the U.S.,” said Carlson. “We’re down to about 16 pounds a year, per capita. We should be up in the 20s. We should be up by five pounds…It is the healthiest food in the American diet.” 

It isn’t because there isn’t good products, said Howard. “We have tremendous products.”  

He proudly noted that the operation he helped establish, West Central Turkeys in Pelican Rapids, is the “largest producer of turkey bacon in the world.  We’ve done a real good job in that arena.”

West Central was affiliated with a national cooperative of turkey growers and processors, manufacturing product under the “Norbest” label, said former West Central plant manager Don Lende.  The cooperative, grower-owned plant sold to Jennie-O in about 1991. Norbest Turkey Growers Association was based in Salt Lake City, Utah. 

Lende recalls Carlson as a “hands-off manager.” 

“He let supervisors make their own decisions and we were able to run our own operations.  That was his strongest suit,” said Lende.  “Whereas, at a lot of companies, decisions always came down from the top.” 

Roger Stephenson spent a career with West Central, starting when he was 18 years old in 1960–until his retirement 45 years later.  

“I was hired as a line employee, but worked up to into managment,” recalled Stephenson.  Though he didn’t have a great deal of dailycontact with Carlson, he said he had a “good working relationship” with Carlson. 

“He (Carlson) was upstairs and I was downstairs, but he always treated me fairly over the years,” said Stephenson. 

Of course, it wasn’t always smooth sailing at an operation the size of an industrial meat processing plant.  There were “tough times” when plant workers went on strike, about 30 years ago, noted Stephenson.  The tranisition and the cooperative board’s deliberations leading up to the sale to Jennie-O were also difficult, but Stephenson stayed on–working for Jennie-O over a decade after the acquisition.  

Pictured left in 2017, riding in the Pelican Fest parade as “grand marshall,” the late Howard Carlson.
A charter member of the Pelican Rapids Area Rotary Club, re-established in 1959, Carlson was honored five times with the Paul Harris Fellowship–one of the Rotary Club’s highest honors.

At the 1956 groundbreaking for the new West Central Turkeys plant, Howard Carlson was a young man, in a double-breasted suit.  Joining him with shovels at the ceremony were many civic leaders from Pelican’s past: Alf Anderson, Mel Trosvik, Ollie Erickson, Eddie Velo, John Utne, Floyd McDunn, E.L. Toftely, Alf Larson and E.L. Peterson. 

There were about 100 employees at the plant when it began production. Today, the plant is owned by Jennie O and parent company Hormel, and employs more than 600.

To meet the need for new employees,  Carlson hired women as early as  1958–somewhat uncommon at that time. To meet peak period labor demands, Carlson also hired residents from the state hospital in 1963. Dating to at least 1971, Hispanics from Texas were hired to fill the West Central roster. 

The Pelican Rapids 75th year history book printed this about West Central, when the plant was only a couple years in operation: 

“West Central secured Carlson, at that time assistant manager of Faribo Turkeys Inc., at Faribault.  Howard was born on a turkey farm at Parkers Prairie, attended the University of Minnesota and had 20 years of experience in various phases of turkey production and market. … The plant has had many compliments on putting up one of the finest turkey packages in the country and has a goal set for 40 percent increase in volume in the year 1958. This volume has come about only because of sincere cooperation on the part of business men, hatchery men, feed dealers and turkey growers.  Our workers too have accepted the responsibility of producing a finished product of which we can all be justly proud.”

Howard’s long career in the turkey business also parallels the history of the Pelican Rapids Rotary Club BBQ turkey feed–and the Rotary Club itself.  

Turkeys are cooked the old fashioned way at the Rotary feed–on rotating spits, over hot coals.  

The largest turnout for the feed Carlson recalled was the year the Lake Region Electric Cooperative celebrated its 50th anniversary. Nearly 2,000 were served, based on Howard’s memory. That was about 1988. 

The turkey feed was hosted by the Chamber of Commerce  or “Commercial Club” initially, with the cooperation of West Central, according to 1963 Pelican Press accounts.  More than 1,000 were served. Price? A buck for adults; 50 cents for kids. 

Funds raised by the feed in 1963 totalled about $275,  which was donated to the Pelican Valley Nursing Home–for purchase of one of those “new fangled” television sets for the nursing home residents.

Howard recalled that back in the early days of the feed, the birds were cooked on barbecue spits owned by the Minnesota Turkey Growers Association–an organization Carlson was active in for many years.  

For most of its history, the turkey barbeque has been a Rotary goodwill and fundraising project. 

“We have donated to just about everything that has existed in this community over the years,” said Howard.  Turkey feed proceeds have been donated to youth football, youth soccer, civic projects, and various charitable ventures.

Murderous tales from the turkey plant…

Breeding turkey hens became ‘dead ducks’ in a case of unintentional homicide at West Central

It’s never a good day when you begin an early morning down at the plant and start by accidentally  murdering a bunch of innocent victims.

A tale of mistaken identity, which took the lives of about 800 unfortunate birds, was one of the behind-the-scenes stories that surfaced following the death of longtime West Central Turkeys manager Howard Carlson. 

“Howard had a bunch of special breeder hens that were shipped to the plant.  They were parked in a truck in front of the door,” recalled Roger Stephenson, a plant worker and later supervisor from 1960 to 2005. 

“We came to work and assumed that was the first load that needed to be done,” recalled Stephenson with a chuckle. “So, we slaughtered them.” 

As it turned out, the hens were intended as breeding stock for local turkey growers–obviously, they were supposed to live to breed another day. 

“You know, Howard never said anything to me personally about the incident,” recalled Stephenson. “…But I’m sure he had something to say to somebody…”

Stephenson and Carlson had one final opportunity to reminisce.  Last summer, Carlson­ phoned Stephenson to talk about the turkey plant. 

“He thanked me for my years of service, and we talked about the old days,” said Stephenson.  “I thought that was very nice of him.”

—Louis Hoglund, managing editor