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"It All Started with 20 Birds..."

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Published on: Nov. 2, 2005

Last revision: Nov. 22, 2010

On a balmy Sunday evening early in April, 15 or 20 hunters gathered at Marty Jayne’s barn southwest of Kirksville to share a potluck supper that featured wild meats of every description.

The diners ranged from sprightly lads barely big enough to shoulder a gun to seasoned octogenarians. Their common bond was a passion for turkey hunting.

When the plates were put away and the sun was slanting low, a silver-haired orator stood and addressed the group.

“I’m a-goin’ to tell you the story of how we came to have wild turkeys in this country.”

The speaker’s given name was Gerald, but none of the thousands of Adair County residents who elected him to the offices of sheriff, assessor and public administrator over four decades ever knew him as anything but “Shag” Grossnickle.

Speaking skills honed during countless stump speeches were evident in his spellbinding cadences. Laughter danced in his eyes, and his restless glances hinted at energy undiminished by his 89 years. Shag was in his element, and his audience climbed aboard a time machine bound for 1960.

“I was in southern Missouri deer hunting, and a bird ran across in front of me in the distance, and I didn’t recognize what it was. When I got back to camp I asked a local about it, and he said, ‘That was a wild turkey. You should have shot it. That’s a lot better eating than that deer.’

“I thought about that on my way back to Kirksville, and I thought, if they’ve got turkeys in Texas County, why not Adair County?”

He posed the same question to the Conservation Department. The agency had been engaged in a turkey restoration effort for six years, trapping turkeys in the few areas where they survived and planting them like precious seeds in areas with suitable habitat.

Shag began hectoring Department biologists and administrators to put Adair County on the list for turkey stocking, but his overtures fell on deaf ears. Turkeys, they told him, were forest creatures and could not survive in northern Missouri, where most of the land was row crops or pasture.

That conviction was rooted in the fact that by the time restoration work began, turkeys had been eliminated from all but a few pockets of deep forest in the Ozarks. Turkeys were a scarce commodity, and biologists didn’t want to plant them in areas they considered unsuitable.

Shag’s conviction that turkeys could make it in Adair County was based on

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