Among the picture that hang on memory’s walls is that of raising fancy chickens. If you talked about chickens in western Berks during the period of 1900-1917 your audience would be as interested as a group of Scotchmen hearing about Bobby Burns. During that period chicken raising became a great hobby. Everyone was interested in it and every available space was utilized. If it was only an eight-by-ten shack, it was called a chicken farm. The fine blooded stock made up for the small area. Local birds took prizes in shows held in Cleveland, Chicago, and New York.
Great shows were held in this section. I can still see the old Town Hall in Womelsdorf with hundreds of cages, each with the monogrammed lock of the owner. Day and night watchmen were on duty for the birds on exhibit were very valuable.
Prepared in Summer-Kitchens
Nearly every home had an outbuilding known as a wash house or summer-kitchen. The floor was covered with oil cloth and a few chairs and an old cook stove made up the furnishings. In the summer the meals were prepared here, but in winter it was merely a storage place. Here is where the birds were prepared for the shows. Roosts were put up behind the stove, a fire built and tubs of water heated, with a washboiler of water on the stove to keep a good supply on hand. Putting on a huge rubber apron, the chicken fancier, would start the proceedings. Ivory soap was dissolved in one tub and bluing in the other. The chickens did not like to be washed, so it was quite a struggle to give them a bath without hurting them.
The chicken was dipped in the soapy water, feathers smoothed with a soft brush, then rinsed in the other tub and dried with a cloth.
A small spoonful of brandy (of which there was a generous supply) was given and the bird placed on the roost to dry. The handler was usually soaked by this time, in spite of the rubber apron, so he took some brandy to guard against pneumonia, but did not measure his dose with a spoon.
White Chickens Bleached
Just before the show white chickens were again bleached and butter color put on their legs. Red birds were dipped in dragon’s blood to make the natural color deeper. With each dipping the brandy treatment was repeated – for bird and handler.
Some of the prominent fanciers in Womelsdorf were John I. Fidler, Charles P. Schaeffer, Howard Hafer, John Weiss, John Hoffberger and Irwin Althouse. They raised all varieties, including bantams, to compete for the gold and silver cups and cash prizes. Big prices were paid for eggs – as high as $30 for one setting. Sometimes the buyer were stung. One man paid $25 for a setting of golden barred Plymouth Rocks. A total of four chicks hatched- one lead-colored, one buff Leghorn, one Plymouth Rock and one near-Plymouth Rock. None even good back yard stock.
One of my friends specialized in Rhode Island Reds of the Thompson strain. He and Mr. Thompson were good friends. One time he felt that a certain bird that he had was not good enoguht to compete in a local show, so sent to Mr. Thompson for a bird to enter. The bird arrived, but still did not suit, so finally Mr. Thompson came and brought what he thought was his very best rooster. In spite of all of this he did not win the prize, anyway.
Expert on Judging
Mr. William Mac-Lean, who lived east of Womelsdorf was considered an expert and did judging at the Madison Square Garden show in New York and frequently acted in that capacity at the local shows.
Some strange things happened. Just before one show, someone, to play a joke on Howard (Jack) Hafer, stole the bird he was going to enter in the show the next day and substituted what was thought to be a very ordinary bird. The joke back-fired, for the substitute took first prize. Eggs and birds were exchanged to improve stock. Birds were shipped great distances and competed with birds from the biggest breeders in the country. Local interest in fancy chickens was lost during World War I and has never been revived
Paul Lantz Womelsdorf,PA October 1943
Image Source: http://www.triplespringacres.com/rareandfancychickens.htm