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Expressing a 27-pound holiday wish

Every Thanksgiving somebody around our table speaks with sentiment about Old Tom of recent memory, and to appreciate Old Tom you need to know about hen shows. In Freeport, Maine, where I grew up, the big event of the holiday season, coming between Thanksgiving and Christmas, was the Freeport Poultry Show. No such exhibition could be held today, because the beautiful varieties of barnyard hens then so common have waned. Perhaps some preservationist somewhere has kept the bloodlines of breeds like the Buff Orpingtons, the Silver Spangled Hamburgs, Brahmas, Partridge Plymouth Rocks, Silver Laced Wyandottes, Black Jersey Giants - but perhaps not. I'm willing to presume the American Dominique is extinct, and probably the Rose Comb Ancona.

But all those birds, and many more, assembled for the annual Freeport Poultry Show, of which my father was vice-president for several years. Then came the new days of Poultry Management, superseding ''keeping a few hens,'' and birds became hybridized and cloistered. Instead of beautiful plumage that won blue ribbons and big prizes (75 cents was first prize), hens now went for ''utility,'' and people didn't come to see them. The last big successful show in Freeport was in 1927, and after that pretty hens were gone geese.

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It was in the 1940s, after the Freeport Poultry Show had long expired, that my wife and I visited a turkey farm on a Vermont hillside and the notion struck us to buy a huge 27-pound tom turkey and ship it by railway express back to Freeport to gladden my father and mother at Turkey Time. Dad had once taken ''best in show'' with a Dominique cockerel at an International Poultry Congress in Melbourne, Australia, so birds by express were no novelty, and I knew we would need a crate, and a big one. It was fun to picture Dad coming to the back door to find Lee Soule, who was railway express agent in Freeport, lifting the holiday gift from the tail of his pickup truck. Surprise!

So we paid the farmer for his biggest turkey, and went into Montpelier to find a lumberyard and get some boards and slats. There was, and no doubt still is, an ASPCA rule that crates for traveling animals must be tall enough for them to stand up in, and as Old Tom was a good meter from ground to wattles we needed a container about the size of a piano. Packed and labeled, with food and water for his journey, Old Tom was taken to the Plainfield depot of the Montpelier & Wells River Railroad, where Wesley Willard was then the agent. Wesley relieved himself of a sarcastic pleasantry about furriners who had little else to do, and got down his tariff schedules to find out how much to charge us. Tom was one of these whimsys where price is no object, and we were ready for whatever figure Wes might quote.

But he didn't quote. He sat there at this desk thumbing the rate books, making notes on slips of paper, and now and then shaking his head. Twice he got up and went out to the platform scales to weigh Old Tom again. Old Tom would gobble now and then to echo up and down the Winooski Valley like a Swiss trumpet starting an avalanche in the Alps. We told Wes Old Tom was expressing his joy at moving to a more salubrious climate. And Wes kept looking at his tariff schedules, making notes, and shaking his head.

Then he said, ''It comes to 48 cents!''

Then he said, ''That can't be right!''

We agreed with him that it did seem somewhat out of line, and back he went again to his tables of express rates.

But that's what it was. Wes gave up and took our 48 cents, and Old Tom started his three-day journey to Maine, which was by way of Springfield and Boston. - a trip involving at least five railroads. Lee Soule did deliver as we envisioned, Dad was indeed surprised, and Old Tom made a memorable Thanksgiving.

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You see, some 50 years before that, the railroads had set special low rates on live poultry to Freeport, because of the hen show, and after the Freeport Poultry Show went out of business nobody thought to reschedule the tariffs. I have my doubts if anybody ever did change them, but railway express went its way , too.

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