Turtle Soup

I was going through and scanning the many piles of photographs from my maternal side of the family and came across this picture:

1300groupmenturtlehunt copy

At first I couldn’t quite figure out what was going on in the scene. Taking a closer look, I see that the men are standing at the bank of a river and the one on the left with the guitar is sitting on a boat. Looks like there is a tent on the right side of the frame. Then, looking even closer, I noticed that there were three turtles hanging from the cross bar.


And there is what looks like a cooking pot sitting on logs behind the turtle on the right.

So what is this all about? Did people really catch turtles? Were they going to make turtle soup?

First, to set the location. Most of my maternal ancestors lived in Sheboygan, WI. The Sheboygan River runs through the city. I figured I would try to find out if there were any newspaper articles about catching turtles in Sheboygan.

Using Newspapers.com, I found that indeed, people did catch turtles in the Sheboygan River. There were a few references in the Sheboygan Press. A notice from July 9, 1909 stated that turtle season was now open & some large turtles had been caught “up stream.” It stated that “young men enjoy fishing” for the turtles & “Mr. Kempf has purchased 4 large ones which he will serve to his trade on Saturday night.” The next year, on April 22, 1910, there was an advertisement from Kempf’s that said a “Big Turtle Caught. Come and have the first Turtle soup of the Season at Kempf’s.” Another article in 1910 tells of some “turtle fishers” catching a 37 pound turtle in the Sheboygan river. In November 1921, instead of fishing, they were shooting mud turtles off the branches of trees.

There was another article in November of 1947 telling of a man who caught turtles and sold them to customers in New York. He said that snapping turtles would eat the fish in the streams and clearing out the turtles from the streams would improve the trout fishing. Instead of fishing for turtles, he would wade into the shallows and when a turtle was disturbed, he would “clamp a booted foot down on the turtle’s back, hook the prongs of his steel rod under the snapper’s back and lift it up to see which end is which.” Once the hunter determines which is the tail end, he grabs the turtle by the hind leg or tail to pick it up to put in the sack. He seemed to have a lucrative business, selling thousands of pounds of turtles a year.

The Milwaukee Public Library Digital Collection Historic Recipe File includes a recipe for Turtle Soup that was published in the Milwaukee Journal on April 4, 1964. The ingredients for this version of Turtle Soup were peas, carrots, celery, onion, barley, tomato pulp, egg dumplings. The seasoning for the soup included garlic, parsley, bayleaf, salt, pepper and sherry. Cooked turtle meat was added to these ingredients to make the soup. The recipe also includes quite detailed instructions for preparing & cooking turtle. Snapping turtles were the preferred variety over mud turtles which were considered too small. Preparing the turtle seemed like a labor-intensive process.


So, back to the picture. It doesn’t look like these young men had been wading in the water to make their catch. My guess is they used the boat and baited hook and line to catch the snapping turtles.

Looks like they were having a good day of it. Also noted in the picture, almost every one of them is holding a glass of beer. The beer keg is in the foreground of the picture. So I expect they were celebrating a good catch and looking forward to a good meal & a good time with their buddies.

Unfortunately, there was no information with the picture so I cannot identify any of the young men. If they are related to me, they are either of the Chvarack, Beiersdorf or Steinhaus lines. Maybe someday I’ll be able to figure out who they are.

I hope they enjoyed their turtle soup.

©MJM 2022


One thought on “Turtle Soup

  1. Very interesting!!   Must have been fun researching info about turtles
    in Sheboygan River.   I sure never heard anything about that!   Great job!



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