A guide to living local in New Hampshire

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63 Years of Tasty
Tradition at Hart’s Turkey Farm

By Stacy Milbouer / Fiddlehead Contributing Editor

Dining trends may have changed drastically in the last 60 years, but not at Hart’s Turkey Farm in Meredith where the family is obsessively devoted to its original recipes.

“In our family, it’s all about ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,’” said Sim Willey, the grandson of Russel Hart Sr., who opened the restaurant with his family in 1954.

Willey explained that his grandfather, who had been in a cook in the Navy in World War II, was from New Jersey, but had a dream of farming with his brother Larry when the war was over. The brothers, with their new brides, returned to the Lakes Region, where they’d spent summer vacations as children.

The family bought a farm and raised and sold apples, vegetables, chickens and turkeys – switching over to just turkeys by early 1954 when they opened a 12-seat restaurant selling turkey sandwiches and dinners. They used recipes Russel Sr. gleaned from the Navy, as well as some from his mother, Mae Hart.

By the 1960s, the family stopped raising turkeys to run the restaurant full time. Eventually the next generation, including Willey’s mother and his uncle Russ Jr., took over the restaurant, and today it’s run by Sim and his uncle.

Now Hart’s has 500 seats and can easily serve 1,000 customers a day – 1,500 to 1,800 on Thanksgiving, not counting the fully prepared turkey dinners to go the restaurant sells on the holiday.

“Once my grandfather stopped raising the turkeys, he started buying them from a farm in Utah. We still get our turkeys from that farm today,” said Willey.

And they kept the simple preparation of those turkeys – roasting without the addition of butter, salt and pepper – never mind trendy methods like brining or deep frying.

The rest is history.

“It’s not like we’ve been tempted to try something new,” said Willey. “If I even suggest it, my mother puts me in my place and reminds me that we want customers who ate here in the 1950s and come here now – and believe me they do – will have the exact same turkey dinner right down to the gravy and mashed potatoes. We haven’t changed a single recipe for 63 years.”

There are even visual reminders of how deeply steeped the restaurant is in tradition. The walls are covered with turkey-motif china, collected by the family and dedicated customers who have donated their turkey-ware to the restaurant over the years.

Willey said the turkey plate of honor – a blue platter that belonged to his great-grandmother Mae Hart, and was used to serve Thanksgiving dinner to her family - has a place of honor in the lobby.

And one more tradition has come home to roost. A few years ago, Willey started raising about a dozen turkeys on the restaurant premises. He doesn’t sell them to the customers, but he has slaughtered them and served them at his own table.

“You want to know the truth?” he asked. “One year I blind-tasted the turkey I raised and the ones we serve here, prepared the same way. I could not tell the difference.”