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Talking Turkey at Cornwell's Turkeyville

by Steve Grinczel

Published: Friday, November 19, 2021

It may surprise some to know that Patti Cornwell's favorite holiday isn't Thanksgiving.

Truth be told, it's New Year's.

However, before anyone accuses the marketing director at a place joyfully known far and wide as Cornwell's Turkeyville USA of blasphemy, it should be noted that her birthday also falls on Jan. 1 and without that set of circumstances, well

"I always say, 'I wasn't born a turkey, I married one,'" Cornwell said last Wednesday while giving a tour of what can only be described as a food, entertainment and shopping complex.

Besides, every day is Thanksgiving at Turkeyville. Consequently, what Cornwell's second-most-favorite holiday lacks in personal preeminence is more than made up with celebratory repetition over the course of the other 364 days.

Not only that, "Happy New Year" comes and goes in a day or two, but the entire month of November revolves around everything turkey, just as Cornwell's Turkeyville has just west of Interstate 69 in Marshall, Mich. for decades.

"I eat turkey twice every day," Cornwell said. "What changes in November is everything is more themed around Thanksgiving. We have lots of people calling in and placing orders and we bake tons of pies.

"There are companies that want a turkey dinner for their employees so we do a lot of big catering jobs. It's just Thanksgiving on steroids all month—there's always something turkey going on."

It all builds up to a crescendo on the fourth Thursday of November every year.

For eight years prior to the pandemic, Cornwell's also featured sit-down service on Thanksgiving Day, serving an astounding 1,500 family-style meals in five hours. Last year's dinner was cancelled due to health department restrictions and there will be no such offering this year for other reasons.

"Unfortunately, it obviously takes a lot of staff to do that and we just don't have it," said Cornwell, who can't expect her 17 current employees to do the work performed by 60 in the past. "It will be sad, and it's hard to say, and then I got yelled at three times on the phone yesterday because we're not going to be open.

"People get that mad and say, 'Well, what am I supposed to do with my family?'"

Many customers will take advantage of the restaurant's thriving take-out option and turn their holiday food prep over to Cornwell's chefs, who will produce some 350 complete to-go meals for pickup on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.

It should evident that from humble beginnings, Turkeyville has grown well beyond a niche market tied to any one season or holiday.

"It's become a destination," said Cornwell, who markets its agri-tourism business nationally.

And throughout Turkeyville's evolution, it has remained agri-centric.

"We're very bound to the past and our farming history in all aspects," Cornwell said. "There's no canned ingredients; it's all very fresh and put-together."

Cornwell's husband, Blain, is the grandson of Marjorie and Wayne Cornwell, who by the sounds of it had more than a little P.T. Barnum in him.

"He was quite the marketer," Cornwell said. "He was a city boy who married a country girl. In 1943, the cows he was trying to raise got sick and a neighbor gave him 12 turkeys. And then he said, 'I look about as dumb as they are, so this will probably work out great.'"

More prophetic words were never spoken.

The Cornwells were raising, processing and selling turkeys to a local grocery store when one summer, a nearby church asked them to prepare food for a fundraiser at the Calhoun County Fair.

"Everybody liked the sandwiches so much," Cornwell said. "That's how it all began."

Soon, Wayne and Marjorie added a lunch counter where the operation's ordering station, kitchen and display case for Cornwell's renowned pies are now located.

"It was really just this big," Cornwell said. "There three milk stools out along the bar. Grandma would make the food and Grandpa would talk to the customers. We started out with four (varieties of) sandwiches and a turkey dinner."

Because of USDA regulations, Wayne Cornwell moved the processing operation to another location, and eventually added a sit-down restaurant that served only during the summer. Another dining room was added when the family decided to stay open year-round.

Subsequent family-friendly expansions included another dining room, an ice cream parlor, a gift shop and a dinner theater with resident performers that attracts busloads of people from, on this day, as far away as Ohio and Pennsylvania.

The current holiday-themed show, "Dashing Through the Snow" is playing to sold-out audiences Tuesday through Saturday. A campground, allowing winter camping for the first time, is located behind the complex.

All of the Cornwell's Turkeyville food is made from scratch with natural ingredients. Cornwell's daughter, and complex general manager, Elyse Bibbings, is a "very old soul" who favors vintage recipes for menu items like puddings that predate her great-grandmother.

The Turkeyville experience features a flock of about 70 domestic, white turkeys that roam the grounds and will never appear on anyone's dinner plate. There are also goats and donkeys.

The farm grows 400 acres of corn and soybeans on rotational basis, and Turkeyville's annual farm show attracts 700 to 1,000 tractors.

"Then we do a working farm show to help people learn what farming is all about," Cornwell said. "We do a lot of educating, too, so we teach craft classes, fermenting classes, butter-making classes, and pie-making because people don't know how to do that old-fashioned stuff anymore. We also teach gardening—how to figure out what you want to grow and how to plant it plant where you live—and then how to can it when you get it.

"We're just busy all year- round. We do real good tailgate parties, too. You can always tell when there's a home football game in East Lansing. It was really big when Michigan played at Michigan State, what, two Saturdays ago? It was like the high holy day."

Still, it all centers around the turkeys, which are raised organically though aren't certified organic, Cornwell said, and processed at a family-owned operation in Middleville, Mich.

"We have a pretty good feeding plan that Grandpa designed with (Michigan State University) back in early '70s," Cornwell said. "We go through about 15,000 turkeys a year, all to support the restaurant. And we'll sell about 500 fresh turkeys at Thanksgiving."

The meat dishes ordered from the restaurant or as frozen entrees to take home feature only turkey and always will.

"It was Grandpa's thing," Cornwell explained. "He said we're on a turkey farm and it's just how he decided we're going to do it. We actually franchised twice and both times we ended the relationship because the managers we had wanted to serve something besides turkey.

"Why just turkey? It keeps us unique and it keeps us special. If we add other stuff in, then we're just another restaurant that happens to serve turkey."

Despite Wayne Cornwell's best efforts, Turkeyville doesn't appear as a village on any official maps of Calhoun County.

"We don't have a post office," Patti Cornwell said.

For now.

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