CUERO – “Go, Ruby, go!” rang out from the mouths of children and adults alike Friday evening, just as the sun set on the rooftops of downtown Cuero.
A crowd of about 75 people gathered in the same spot where the tradition of Ruby Begonia was born and cheered on this year’s two prospects for the title.
Ruby Begonia will compete at the King Turkey Day festival in Worthington, Minn., and Cuero’s Turkeyfest against Worthington’s turkey named Paycheck. The times from both races will be added together to determine which town is the “Turkey Capital of the World” until next year, when the rivalry starts anew.
The two turkeys up for selection weren’t timed but rather observed for certain characteristics. Neither appeared to be in a hurry but stayed on course.
The first racer prevailed due to a certain je ne sais quoi.
“It can’t be too fat or too skinny and got to have a little bit of wildness to it,” said Kenneth Schley, the captain of this year’s racing team.
Cory Thamm calls that wildness “the right amount of crazy.” The former Turkeyfest president has raised the Rio Grande wild turkeys that become Ruby Begonia for more than a decade.
“We want them to know what a human is and that it is not the worst thing in the world to be standing a couple of feet away from one, but you don’t want them also just like, ‘Oh yeah, come pet me’ because then they won’t run away from you to go to the finish line,” he said. “Pseudo-tamed is what we’re going for.”
There is a rich history between Cuero and Worthington, rooted in the gobbler industry.
Turkeyfest hatched out of turkey trots that started in 1912, when an estimated 30,000 people flocked to see more than 18,000 turkeys herded down Main Street in Cuero on foot before the time of trailers and trucks, according to Turkeyfest’s history page.
Worthington’s King Turkey Day festival dates back to 1938. The competition between the sister towns began in 1973, a year after Cuero held its last turkey trot amid a dispersing turkey industry. The editors of both town’s local newspapers got together and decided they ought to settle which town is the “Turkey Capital of the World” with an annual competition between Paycheck and Ruby Begonia, and thus the race was born.
The rivalry, like all good ones, is a lot more of a friendship built on common ground than anything else, said Thamm, who has made the trip to Minnesota for the festival many times.
“People will have little parties at their house, and the ultimate goal at the end of the night is to get a Texan over just so they can hear us talk,” he said. “They laugh as soon as you say something, but we do too; they’re great, just wonderful people, you know? Some of my best friends are 1,200 miles away.”
Now that Ruby Begonia has been selected, the racing team will train her with Thamm.
“We practice at the same time because the bird gets practice being chased and the team gets practice doing the chasing, so it all kind of works hand in hand,” Thamm said. “And then when you’re doing it in a crazy environment on the street, with all these people screaming and hollering, hopefully Ruby remembers where to go.”
In addition to Capt. Schley, this year’s team is composed of handlers James Rath and Clayton Lantz. All three Cuero men have raced in previous years and are heavily involved with the Turkeyfest.
Ruby Begonia will travel with another turkey to Minnesota for the King Turkey Fest to help with her mood and temperament, Rath said.
“I mean, you wouldn’t want to go to Minnesota by yourself, right?” he explained.
Rath is a second-generation turkey racer. His father, Erwin Rath, has been involved in the festival since the mid-1990s, served on the board for six years and was part of the race team.
“I never thought I was going to be a turkey racer; that wasn’t exactly a goal of mine, but here I am,” Rath said. “I’ll say that it is an honor to carry on the tradition.”
Erwin Rath stood on the sideline Friday evening and watched his son with a smile. He said has enjoyed seeing the younger generation embrace their history.
“They kind of thought it was stupid, us doing all this volunteer work when they were younger, but now he is right in the middle of it,” Rath said. “It is good to see that the kids carry on what the parents did and keep this thing alive.”
AUSTWELL – Until recently, if you wanted to watch fiddler crabs skitter across the tidal flats at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, you’d have to be OK with getting down in the mud with them.
That changed when earlier this month a boardwalk opened, connecting two observation towers to where the Big Tree Trail meets San Antonio Bay.
Now, people can comfortably watch all manner of animals from above without needing a change of clothes.
Hurricane Harvey damaged a portion of the boardwalk in 2017, while refuge staff closed another portion before that because they felt it had become unsafe without handrails, said Laura Bonneau, the refuge’s visitors’ services manager.
“I’ve had so many visitors come in and ask, ‘Is the boardwalk back?’” Bonneau said. “It’s just a neat opportunity to see a habitat that you don’t necessarily get to explore otherwise.”
Now, the boardwalk has handrails and is wide enough that a visitor can navigate its turns while carrying a kayak.
In fact, it has steps leading down into the bay that kayakers can launch from. Bonneau said people may kayak or fish from there April 15-Oct. 14. Then it closes because whooping cranes make the refuge their home for part of the year and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service does’t want people to disturb the endangered species.
The boardwalk is one of many changes the refuge is undergoing, some hurricane-related, some not.
A contractor demolished the Claude F. Lard Visitor Center this summer while a recent newsletter called the “Aransas Matagorda Island Guardian/Orator,” or AMIGO for short, informed people they no longer needed to plug their noses when taking in a panoramic view of the refuge atop a 40-foot observation tower. That’s because a spiky structure was added to the telescopes there to deter vultures from perching on the telescopes and relieving themselves.
“Is this a new art installation on top of the tower?” the newsletter’s author, the Friends of the Aransas and Matagorda Island Wildlife Refuges, wrote.
To some, it might as well be.
Gisel Wybel flipped through a catalog, looking through pages of supplies teachers need, stopping every few minutes to read the item description.
Wybel, a first-time teacher at Shields Elementary School, will teach a class of second-grade students this year and wanted to find books for her class. The best part was that Wybel won’t have to purchase the books with her own money.
“I’ve never heard of something like this, where people buy supplies and do so much for teachers and a school,” Wybel, 25, said. “It’s really amazing.”
First United Methodist Church has chosen to partner with, or “adopt,” Shields Elementary School this year. By adopting the school, church members help teachers with classrooms supplies, provide items and gifts to the students, provide office supplies for school staff and volunteer throughout the year at the campus, said Linda Reeder, the chairperson of the school ministry at the church.
In the past, the church volunteered with F.W. Gross Elementary School, Reeder said. But because the F.W. Gross campus closed, the church decided to adopt Shields Elementary.
Thursday, church members hosted a luncheon for the entire staff and teachers of Shields at the fellowship hall at First United Methodist Church. Teachers and staff were treated to lunch; door prizes; and supplies for classrooms and offices, including backpacks with school supplies, hand sanitizer, paper, art supplies, notebooks and cleaning supplies.
Teachers were also given a “wish list” form to fill out along with teacher supply catalogs. The teachers were asked to list a few items they would like for their classrooms so church members could purchase the items for the teachers.
“This is our way of reaching out to the community and becoming a part of the community and helping teachers with the development of the children here,” Reeder said. “Anything we can do to help, we will be there.”
Shields principal Kelly Gabrysch is the former F.W. Gross principal. The adoption program with the First United Methodist Church was an amazing experience for the teachers and students at F.W. Gross, she said.
Throughout the year, volunteers would go to the school to read to children and would provide gifts for students at Christmas, she said. The church volunteers also funded field-day activities for the entire school, and a church staff member also hosted a mentor program for fifth-grade students.
“Anytime we needed anything, they were there for us. This is going to be such a blessing for the teachers and students at Shields, so I am excited for everyone,” Gabrysch said.