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The Furrow Spring 2000
|A Very Special Delivery - by Larry Kidder|
Consider the obligations of the U.S. Postal Service. Delivering Social Security checks to widows. Passing documents summoning witnesses to trial. Providing safe passage for tenderly-wrapped care packages to servicemen and women overseas. Ferrying fuzzy yellow chicks and ducks.
That's what they do at the tiny, red post office in Titusville, where the crate of chirping, day-old chicks bound for Howell Farm is as much a sign of spring as daffodils for Postmaster Zenon Fedorowycz.
"It's nice to hear a different voice once in a while," cracks
It started in Stockton, in 1892, when Joseph D. Wilson opened the first commercial hatchery in America. In the first instance of long distance shipping of day-old chicks, Wilson shipped 50 Barred Plymouth Rock chicks to a farmer in Illinois. Wilson's Pine Tree Hatchery became famous throughout the country, drawing customers from as far away as South Dakota and Canada. In his advertising brochures, Wilson stated that he shipped his chicks in pasteboard boxes, protecting the chicks so they wouldn't be "smothered or chilled in the coldest weather."
As the industry grew, incubators improved and special shipping boxes for the day-old chicks were developed. In the early 1900s the International Baby Chick Association (IBCA) worked with manufacturers to develop ventilated corrugated paperboard boxes for 25, 50 and 100 chicks.
At first, straw was used for padding, later replaced by excelsior or various other paper pads and sometimes a felt-like material. Food was not needed in the boxes because the chicks can live for 48 to 72 hours on the unabsorbed egg yolk they carry. It is this trait that made the shipping of the newborns possible.
The American Poultry Association tried, but failed, to have the sale of day-old chicks banned in 1913, in part due to lobbying by breeders of exhibition poultry whose hatching eggs were being undersold. Those interested in fancy poultry felt that the hatcheries were ruining poultry by selecting their flocks based on meat and egg production factors rather than the outward physical appearance that was important in shows.
Before 1918 all chick shipments were made by rail or local transportation. During World War I, when the War Department took over the operation of express companies, many thousands of chicks died in the ensuing traffic snarl. In 1917 the IBCA appealed successfully to the Postal Service to accept chicks for shipment by parcel post. The IBCA, later the American Poultry and Hatchery Federation, had been organized in 1916 to "foster, promote, improve and protect the baby chick industry and all branches of poultry husbandry."
The switch from horse and buggy to automobiles by many farmers in the 1920s allowed them to drive greater distances to pick up their mail order chicks. Improving transportation in the 20th century also saw chicks delivered in the 1930s and 40s in special panel trucks or vans that incorporated temperature controls and ventilation. These decades were also the heyday of the railroads that, unlike today, brought delivery service to many small towns. Since 1971 air parcel post has allowed shipping to all states and foreign countries.
New Jersey hatcheries increased in importance after 1910. In 1923 the Frenchtown post office sent out more than 3.5 million chicks through the mail. The Kerr Hatchery, near Frenchtown, was a pioneer in sexing chicks so that shipments of only pullets (females under 1 year old) could be guaranteed. The overall scope of the increase in poultry production is seen in the chicken census for Hunterdon County that shows a population explosion in chickens on farms from 155,577 in 1880 to 720,214 in 1940.
The 1920s saw a rapid increase in the hatchery business and some distributors gave the business a bad name when they had to scramble to fill orders and often resorted to inferior chicks. As the industry grew, many non-farmers, such as feed dealers, postal employees, and shoe salesmen, entered the hatchery business. While many failed, others prospered in the 1920s and 30s.
The chicken industry has declined in the later 20th century in New Jersey.
However, at Howell Farm, one can still see Barred Plymouth Rocks producing
eggs as their ancestors have done on New Jersey farms for over a century.
And each year a new batch of day-old chicks arrives, carrying on the tradition
started in Stockton in 1892.
New arrivals at the Farm in March 2003.
|This article first appeared in the Spring 2000 edition of The Furrow, the quarterly newsletter published by the Friends of Howell Living History Farm. The contents are © 2000-2003 The Friends of Howell Living History Farm.|