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4. Backspin Classic
~ Short Biography of James Turner ~

James Turner was born on July 20, 1940, in Clinton, South Carolina, a small town about 25 miles south of Greenwood, where James and his wife, Vickie, currently live. His father, Colie, worked in a textile factory as a machine operator, and his mother, Gevena, for the most part, was a homemaker. When I asked James if he knew the origin of his last name, he said he never had any interest in looking into it. To his recollection, his great-great-grandmother on his father’s side was a Cherokee Indian, but the Turner last name is a common name originating in England, dating back as far as the 12th century. “They say if you shake the tree long enough, a monkey will fall out,” says James.

Growing up with an older brother, Marion, and a younger sister, Ann, James recalls neither of his siblings being particularly interested in raising pigeons or any other animals. Although Marion owned a pair of white doves for a short period of time, James remembers his father and himself being the only ones in the family who enjoyed having animals. His father bred different kinds of animals—dogs, fish, all kinds of birds, even chickens.

James remembers the tough times of his early childhood. “I went to Academy Street Grammar School and graduated from Clinton High School. We weren’t rich, but we were happy. Good thing about those days was that we never knew we were poor,” reflects James. Just like his father, James had animals since his early childhood. Although he doesn’t remember why he wanted pigeons at the age of six, he remembers several people in the neighborhood having barn pigeons. James’ father built his first pigeon box, which could hold only two pairs of birds, when James was six years old. Back then, they fed their pigeons with scratch feed that consisted of wheat, milo, and corn. Up until he joined the military, James had common barn pigeons and some show breeds, but the first purebred pigeons he owned were a pair of Carneaus. James remembers how expensive his first purebred pigeons were and how far his dad and he traveled to get them. “We drove seventeen miles and paid $4 for a pair of red Carneaus,” says James, indicating it was a big deal back then. Only when James was in the military or when he relocated did he not have pigeons; otherwise, he clearly remembers breeding pigeons since he was six years old.

Left - James with his older brother and parents. Middle – James in grammar school. Right – James in 10th grade.

James started to work at the age of 14 while he was still in high school, but he spent most of his money on clothes and school supplies for himself. With the remainder, he bought different breeds of pigeons of all colors. He experimented with different breeds of pigeons in his high school years, but out of all the breeds he obtained, he preferred his Rollers. When James first acquired Rollers, he was about 17 or 18 years old. “I bought my first pair of Rollers from a local guy, but both of them turned out to be cocks. Once I realized they were two cock birds, I looked at the market bulletin and bought more Rollers from another guy in Columbia. I never knew what Rollers were until that time and never heard of a guy named Bill Pensom. Out of my first pair of Rollers, I raised four babies. One of them rolled down. Two of them were good birds, but one of them was a really, really good bird. That good bird started me in enjoying and breeding more Rollers. From these birds, I also raised a recessive yellow hen. Back then, I didn’t know anything about genetics, but once I saw that yellow bird, I wanted to raise more of them. I couldn’t quite figure out how to make more of those yellow birds, but I eventually did. I had other breeds of pigeons at the time, but I didn’t know why I couldn’t have all these different colors in Rollers. But that recessive yellow hen started me with the genetics,” recalls James.

When James produced that recessive yellow hen, something started to bother him. He wondered why Rollers did not come with all of the colors that he saw in his other fancy pigeons. He wondered why he couldn’t have pretty colored birds that also rolled well. He had no genetic books to read or anyone to talk to about his ideas and questions, but he started to wonder about why only certain breeds of pigeons were able to produce different colors. When I asked James if that was his first genetic project, he said, “Color-wise, it was that recessive yellow, but I didn’t have much success with it. I tried to reproduce more of those recessive yellows, but I didn’t know exactly how to do that at the time. In all honesty, I don’t remember my first serious color project in Rollers either because I was always interested in genetics and breeding things. Now, you have to realize nobody taught me any genetics, and I didn’t read any genetic books when I started fooling around with genetics, but every time I got a strange-looking pigeon, I tried to reproduce it. I didn’t always understand what genes and chromosomes were, but from my breeding experiments, I could figure out how to get what I wanted,” says James, indicating pigeon breeders don’t have to know anything about genetics to produce the desired traits or champion performers. According to James, the really good breeders, even if they don’t know any genetics, can still keep good pedigree so that they know the ancestry of their birds. To achieve the desired traits, a good breeder should look long and hard at this ancestry when he decides which pairs to mate. Thus, a breeder can get anything he wants simply by carefully selecting for that trait generation after generation. James knew this is exactly how every one of pigeon, dog, and horse breeds, etc. were originally developed. The genetic knowledge James acquired over the years, simply helped him achieve his goals faster, but it was absolutely not necessary to know in order to get more of the same traits or occasionally even new and better traits.

“Let me tell you about my first genetic project. I was about six years old, if you would believe it, and I didn’t realize it was a genetic project back then, but that’s when I started producing something different. My dad caught me some pigeons from the roof of a dairy barn, and they were just common pigeons. I remember I had a blue bar hen, and she had some grouse legs, but she was the only one like that. I mated her, and I raised a cock bird out of her. Now remember, I was only six years old, and I didn’t know anything about genetics. So I put those two birds (mom and son) together, and I actually raised a youngster that had more feathers in its feet than the parents. Then I mated it back to his parents again and made more of those feathered-feet birds. I don’t remember how long it took me, but after a while, most of my birds started to have feathers in their feet. They were truly muffs and not just grouse. As I was doing that, I eventually raised a porcupine bird out of them—the ones with quills that never open. My dad didn’t know anything about genetics either, and when he saw that porcupine bird, he asked me how I got it. When I told him I had done it by inbreeding siblings together, he didn’t really get upset, but he told me not to do that anymore. My father was an old school religious guy, who didn’t believe or approve of that inbreeding idea. He told me not to inbreed too much in case I produced more youngsters like that porcupine that can’t fly or survive on its own. My dad didn’t want me to produce any animals that should not be reproduced, but that was my first genetic project—if you want to call that a project. As I got older, any bird that I saw that had a strange color, I tried to reproduce it. Later on, I finally got a genetics book and started to understand what I was doing and what genes produced the desired colors I wanted," volunteers, James.

After high school, James worked at the same factory where his father worked as a machine operator. His father always advised James that if he wanted to have more success in life, he needed to work hard. His father raised his kids to be down-to-earth, respectful, and to always have values oriented around faith, family, and country. More importantly, ever since he was a young boy, James remembers the word integrity being embedded in his personality by his father. “We were always expected to work hard and make an honest living, and we did,” says James. “I believe all my success in pigeon breeding, and my success in life in general, comes from our upbringing and all the education and valuable advice we received from our father. My father taught us the importance of having integrity because if a man doesn’t have integrity, what does he have?”

In the 1960s, every young man had to do his mandatory military service, so when James was 20 years old, he joined the Army. James was sent to electronics and radio repair school, which suited him well since he always liked learning new things and fixing things. When he returned to Clinton, the training he received in the military enabled him to fix the machines at the factory rather than just operate them like most other workers did. “I was fixing things instead of running things, and I enjoyed doing that. I also made more money because of that, but I always enjoyed figuring out things,” says James, remembering the skills he gained in the Army. After six months of active duty, he served in the National Guard for five and a half years, but even in those six years of military service, James continued to have pigeons. His family took care of his birds when he was away for the first six months, but he got his pigeons back when he transferred to the National Guard.

When James got out of the service, he remembers getting serious with Rollers even though he still had some other breeds of pigeons at that time. He only flew the Rollers in his back yard without even a kit box and never knew anything about Roller competitions. In the early ’60s, when James was in his twenties, he saw an ad in one of those local farm bulletins that published anything about agriculture. A guy named Tony Roberts was advertising baldhead Rollers for sale. Tony was only 17 years old at the time, about seven years younger than James, when they first met. James bought some Rollers from Tony, and they have remained friends ever since. “James and I go back to 50 some years now,” Tony Roberts recalls. “I was hurt at the time for a year or two but I can’t remember if I was still in wheelchair or in crutches when James first came to see me about my bald-head Rollers. I remember selling these baldhead Rollers to James for .50 Cents apiece, and back then it was a lot of money. I raised them for color and markings only, not for their performance.” Just like James, Tony also appreciates the beauty of show birds and the performance of the Rollers. However, for some reason, those baldhead Rollers would not fly the way the Performing Rollers did, but both James and Tony kept the baldheads just to enjoy their looks. Over the years, James and Tony have talked about the colors of birds as much as their performance, but early on, they had the same view of admiring good quality Performing Rollers; they just wanted to know how to make them look better. “Although we lost track of each other for a period of time, James and I stayed friends ever since we have met,” Tony says. “When we both started the fly for the local competition clubs, we kept in better communication with each other and started to work on the color projects.”

From 1960 to 1986 James worked very hard and spent most of his time with his family and friends. He recalls that he worked seven days most weeks and didn’t have much time for doing anything else but spending time with his pigeons. He experimented with multiple pigeon breeds, including Helmets, Homers, and Lahores, but he always had Rollers to fly and enjoy their performance. He remembers reading the genetics section of the American Pigeon Journal but not having too much time for his birds because of his heavy work schedule. Whenever he got a chance, however, James and his friends would go to Florida for shark fishing. In fact, in 1977, James caught the largest bull shark brought into the Clearwater dock that year. He had many horses, and he loved riding them, especially the Tennessee walking horses. He also raised Dobermans with all kinds of colors. Since his early childhood, James loved animals because of the unconditional affection and loyalty he received from them. Like many of us animal lovers, James loves the innocence about them and their immediate appeal. The animals’ love for us, regardless of who we are, what we do, and how we act, is something we all yearn for, and that probably draws many of us to animals. But for James it has always been a lot more than that – unlike most people, he was drawn also to animal husbandry. His curious personality enabled him to experiment with selective breeding and raising livestock to promote desirable traits for pleasure, sport and research.

Left – James is proudly posing with his trophy bull shark in Clearwater, FL (June 11, 1977).
Top Right - James Turner and his beloved companion Barney at James’s back yard. Barney loves sitting on a chair and help James train his Rollers (March 29, 2015). Bottom RightJames is visiting his friends in North Carolina. Left to Right: Joe Bob Stuka, Jay Yandle, Van Newsome, Dennis Cook & James Turner (June 9, 2013).

When I asked James why he liked animals so much, James answered, “I really can’t explain why I love animals so much, but one thing I can tell you is that I have met a lot of good people and started many good friendships, and some of them have lasted a lifetime. Just like with any other hobby, it's nice to talk to people that have the same interests. I always enjoyed talking to people about animals whether it is about dogs, horses, or pigeons. That’s really the most important part of having animals. They allow me to socialize and meet new people from all over the world. I really don’t think I could enjoy life as much without the animals. To me, having pigeons is a way of life; it’s more than something I like to do. One time I was so frustrated with the hawks, I decided to give up my pigeons. I told myself I can’t do this anymore. I called Tony (Roberts) and asked him to come by and take them all. When Tony left with them, the very first thing I did was to clean my lofts, something that I never enjoyed doing regarding the pigeons. I did it so that I wouldn’t miss them. But, every day I went by the back yard, and every time I looked at the lofts, I felt miserable not having my birds, then I would tell myself I don’t want the birds back. But I did. Tony would call me every day or two and tell me to come get my birds whenever I was ready. Tony would say, ‘I am just keeping your birds here. Come get ‘em whenever you want ‘em.’ So I finally decided to take them back, and I told my wife, Vickie, ‘As long as I am able to care for them, I will never be without them again.’ This is just very hard to explain to people who don’t raise pigeons. This is something I enjoy. Like I said, it’s a way of life. These pigeons give me reason to dream at night or give me reason to get up in the morning and go fly them, check the colors of the babies, feed them, and clean them. Let me tell you something: If I could have been anything I wanted to be, I would have been a veterinarian. I enjoyed using my microscope back in the day, looking at the bacteria samples and trying to figure out the sicknesses I would be treating my animals for. I was, and I still am, very curious to study and learn things about animals.”

In 1981 James saw some “barred winged” Lahores, as breeders called them back then, being advertised in the American Pigeon Journal. The Lahore pigeon is generally known to be barless (lacking the bar pattern in their wings), so James was interested in obtaining birds with the bars. Over a period of time, James remembers producing these barred Lahores in many different colors. Larry Pridmore, who lived Greenville, South Carolina, contacted James for these Lahores. Larry had somehow heard James had them and he wanted to get some for his wife. When Larry went to see James to obtain the birds, he noticed James also had some Rollers. When Larry asked James if he liked his Rollers, James said he had much better ones before, and these were not the good quality that James used to fly. At that time, Larry was a member of the Pensom Roller Club, and he had some pedigreed Pensom birds. Larry remembers getting these pedigreed Pensoms from Howard Camp of Georgia in the early ’70s. Larry describes Howard being much older than Larry when they first met, but Howard knew some of the serious fliers in the country. Many of the Camp birds were Paul Vaughn birds as Howard and Paul were close friends. Larry remembers himself being one of the few people from the Carolinas who was a member of the Pensom Roller Club. These were the birds that were either bred by Bill Pensom or imported by him. He promised James to breed some babies for him, and within a few months, Larry bred about ten squeakers for James. After air testing them, James used about four or five of them as breeders and continued to fly these Pensoms as a backyard flier. Thus, it is important to note that before James met serious, local competition Roller fliers and joined their competition clubs, he had Pensoms about five years prior to participating in Roller competitions. When James met and joined the local clubs, he acquired some other Pensom and Thompson birds and bred them into his original Pensoms that he obtained from Larry Pridmore.

James remembers the performance of the Pensoms he got from Larry Pridmore: “They had some dilutes in them and some recessive reds, but they were pedigreed Pensom birds. If you ever meet Larry Pridmore and see how seriously he breeds his pigeons and dogs, you would never question his honesty. He is a well-known dog trainer, and he and his wife breed and show animals. Larry is also very particular about keeping the bloodlines straight, so I was surprised to see recessive yellows in these Pensoms, but they were pure and pedigreed Pensoms,” says James. Larry told James that although Whittinghams are known for their rich recessive red and yellow mottle birds, some Pensoms also had recessive red and dilute in them. According to James, “they flew like Pensoms; they would fly high and long and spin well, but they would roll down too. They weren’t very stable birds but they were good spinners. They were fast but not very deep. So, I gradually phased out my other Rollers when I got these Pensoms from Larry. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, I had some really good Rollers, but before I bought my house in Greenwood in 1983, where I currently live, I had to relocate two or three times. When I was moving, I gave all my birds to locals with the intent that I would get them back when I relocated. When I went back to get them, they were all gone, so I had to start from scratch a few times, buying some Rollers from the American Pigeon Journal or from a local market bulletin.”

Up until his early forties James was an average pigeon fancier and did not know anything about Roller competitions. Little did he know that soon he would be a force to reckon with in the local roller competition clubs, but his reputation simply would not end at the state line of South Carolina. Winning roller competitions year after year would not be satisfactory enough for James either; he would challenge the old wives tales of the roller hobby, and revolutionize the hobby with his scientific-minded personality—questioning and experimenting the taboos he was told were not achievable. He would become the NBRC President, NBRC Hall of Famer, and a world renowned legend who would incorporate every known pigeon color into his internationally accredited family of rollers. By acclamation, James Turner would be remembered as one of the greatest roller breeders/fliers of all time. More importantly, James’s inspirational and generous personality would empower him to be instrumental in popularizing the roller hobby, especially for the younger generations. But, before we begin James’s competition years with local clubs and learn how he accomplished all of these in a short period of time, let us visit the history of Carolina Rollers next.

All rights reserved © August, 2015 by Arif Mümtaz.


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