"Franklin had it right."
That was the theme for the Aitkin Gobblers homecoming football game against the East Central Eagles Sept. 28. It referred to Benjamin Franklin wanting the turkey as the national bird instead of the bald eagle.
Franklin wanted the turkey to represent the United States. Since 1946, most of Aitkin has wanted the turkey to represent Aitkin High School athletic teams.
Colors: Red and Black
School Song: Aitkin Fight Song
Year Founded: 1894
That sentiment was reinforced 10 years ago when the student body had a chance to vote to change the nickname. Unlike our founding fathers, Aitkin liked the Gobbler too much so it remained despite the constant poultry slurs that creep into every opponents' taunts.
Former Aitkin athletic director Truman Buisman said that strategy was tried a number of times by opposing students during his 18 years as athletic director, but always failed.
Land O' Lakes operated a turkey hatchery and processing plant in Aitkin and there were many turkey farms in the county. Aitkin County was once one of the largest markets for growing and processing turkeys in Minnesota. The turkey plant, however, closed in Aitkin during the mid-1980s.
Only one other school in the nation has the nickname Gobblers. They, however, are called the Fighting Gobblers of Cuero, Texas. They were also named because of a turkey packing plant.
Virginia Tech was once the Fighting Gobblers, but in 1978, it slowly transformed into the Hokies because of a cheer. Many believe Hokie is a name for a castrated turkey, but Hokie means to express feelings of approval or excitement.
The Aitkin school song didn't always win approval.
Before the school song became the Aitkin Fight Song, it was the Minnesota Rouser. Many students didn't like it and in 1949 a few students decided to do something about it.
"When I was a sophomore we tried to adapt a couple of marches before we finally found the one that became the present school song," said Lori (Johnson) MacDonald, a 1950 graduate and a retired employee of the Aitkin Independent Age newspaper.
MacDonald was among a group of band members that included Jim Steeg, Joe Ronnei, Jim Lovegren and others who collaborated and changed the rallying cry for Aitkin during afternoon band practice.
"The first one we tried to write didn't catch on," said MacDonald. "But then we found a march that had a trio with a fairly good melody line that could be sung. We appropriated it and put together some old clichs that basically became the lyrics. The name of the march has been forgotten, but I guess the school may owe 50 years of royalties and I may be a fugitive from the law."
Dawn Liljenquist, also of the Aitkin Independent Age, discovered in a 1946 issue that the Aitkin basketball team purchased crimson sweat outfits with black and white lettering on the back.
But have Aitkin uniforms always been red and black?
"As far as I know we've always been red and black," said current Aitkin athletic director Jack Gilbertson "Some years, coaches will go with more red than black, and vice versa, but as far as I know we've always been red and black."
Although there aren't too many black and red turkeys scavenging the Minnesota countryside, Aitkin's school colors have been around for a long time. According to Buisman, that hasn't always been the case.
"They've been changed over the years a number of times," said Buisman. "I started there in 1964 and its been red and black since then."
Buisman was right. The color of Aitkin athletic jerseys changed many times until 1938.
"Way back in 1910 they were maroon and black and I guess over the years red and black was easier," said John MacDonald, a 1938 graduate and a member of the Aitkin High School faculty for 35 years. "Back in the 30s there were some years where they were orange and blue and there was a year they were green.
"Back in the 30s, the school colors were whatever used jerseys the school could purchase."
One thing that changed is the rich tradition that makes a small school like Aitkin so incomparable. From a school song written by students, to a school nickname only mimicked by one other school in the nation, Aitkin is in a class all its own.
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