OSU's world-record-breaking chicken sparked a fowl feud with newspaper
September 9, 2021 | View PDF
October of 1913 was a triumphant time for Professor James Dryden, the poultry specialist at Oregon State University (or Oregon Agricultural College, as it was then called). His name was in newspapers nationwide, in glowing tribute after glowing tribute to his success.
One of his experiment-station hens, the prosaically named C-521 (later renamed Lady MacDuff), had just shattered the world record for egg production with a stunning 303 eggs in a year, breaking the 300-egg barrier for the first time ever. The highest-producing non-Oregon chicken, prior to C-521's feat, was a Canadian bird that laid 281 eggs in 12 months. This was at a time when the average chicken laid 75.
There was, however, one excep-tion to the "glowing tribute" pattern in newspaper coverage of Dr. Dryden's work. That would be the weekly Cottage Grove Leader.
"In our opinion, Prof. Dryden is impracticable, out of harmony with the country's best and most successful poultry breeders, is discouraging the great and growing poultry industry of the state and is therefore out of place at the head of the Department of Poultry Husbandry in our great educational and experimental institution, the Oregon Agricultural College," the Leader's editor raged, in its Oct. 28 issue. "We would suggest, in conclusion, that he tender his resignation."
But the Leader's somewhat one-sided feud with Dr. Dryden had been going on for several years by then. After all, no one does something like call for the resignation of a world champion, in the very hour of his triumph, on the spur of the moment. Nor does anyone do something like that as a solitary voice. The Leader was speaking for a small but influential Oregon industry ... an industry that we might call Big Chicken.
James Dryden was hired at OAC (Oregon Agricultural College) in 1907. He'd been a poultry specialist at Utah State, and had helped build the program there; now, he was given charge of the entire Poultry Husbandry department, such as it was, at OAC.
At the college, Dryden very quickly set about his quest to breed a superhen. He knew that the conventional wisdom among chicken experts was that egg laying was not a genetically transmitted characteristic. Breed-ing experiments at other land-grant colleges had failed to change the chickens' egg production measur-ably.
To Dryden, this made no sense. Some chicken breeds regularly laid 75 to 150 eggs a year, whereas the original wild chicken (the jungle fowl of India) only laid a dozen or two. Something had made leghorn and barred-rock chickens start laying 10 to 20 times as many eggs as their wild ancestors, and if that something wasn't genetics, what was it?
His theory, which he now set out to test, was that the reason for the failure of other experimenters to breed better layers was that they had been breeding for a broad array of other attributes at the same time: straighter tails, more symmetrical combs, prettier feathers, and so forth. He also noted that the previous experiments had been with purebred chickens, which raised the possibility that inbreeding might have caused the resulting chicks to be less robust. A less robust chicken will obviously lay fewer eggs.
While these experiments were going on, Dryden started printing regular bulletins for chicken keep-ers. These were geared toward ordinary farmers and the few specialized poultry ranchers then in operation, and Dryden made no secret of his focus: Eggs and meat.
"To encourage the poultry industry, hundreds of poultry shows are held each year and thousands of dollars are paid in premiums and all the premiums are awarded on the basis of the American Standard of Perfection," he told a reporter on Nov. 9, 1910, according to the Medford Mail Tribune's story. "We think we are encouraging the poultry industry by paying premiums for feathers and other fancy points and for shape of body, and farmers go to the shows to purchase their breeding stock. They never sus-pect that the premiums indicate nothing of the egg-laying qualities of the fowl."
"I believe," he continued, "that the farm stock, the cross-breed stock (or, shall I say, the mongrel stock) have better vitality, are more fertile, are less preyed upon by diseases and produce more eggs than the average flock of purebreds. The way to develop the poultry industry is to stop advocating purebred or standard-bred fowls for the farmer. He should decide on the type of fowl to breed and forget the names of the breed."
It was these and similar remarks that brought upon Dryden the enmity of Big Chicken, and by extension the Cottage Grove Leader. Because, of course, a number of parties were making rather a lot of money putting on all those poultry shows and fancy-chicken contests and sell-ing Certified Deluxe Purebred Premium Chickens to farmers.
As far as I've been able to learn, the one-sided war was launched in the Jan. 3, 1910, issue of the Leader. On the top left-hand side of the front page in that issue, under the headline "JUDGE COLLIER AFTER DRYDEN: Shows Up Fallacy of OAC Bulletins on Poultry Raising," there appears an article that basically claims Dryden was just trying to get some cheap publicity -- that the OAC bulletin was the 1910s equivalent of clickbait.
The article is presented like an interview, but the entire thing after the first paragraph is one enormous quote from "Judge Collier," a poultry breeder named Harry Collier who served as contest judge for the 1909 Eugene Poultry Show.
"Men will do almost anything in order to get their names in the papers," Collier said. "Actors have been known to 'kick' their wives in order that they might get a front-page story, and I suppose we poultrymen are sometimes guilty of the same fault."
He then goes on to say that there are so many wonderful kinds of chicken available, there's no reason to have cross-breeds or mongrel chickens, and that only a fool would take such a chance.
"Where a man has a 'dunghill' flock of birds, it would help his flock to cross them with a purebred male, but I cannot see the advantage of crossing purebred fowls," he scoffed. "The man who advocates crossing purebreds is a poor man to advise farmers. ... The farmer has got the advantage of the chicken fancier's work. He can now buy any kind of fowl that he desires and he is very foolish to try and cross-breed the purebred when he can buy now any kind of fowl he wants."
"The Judge" then finished off with some remarkably condes-cending advice for the edification of those ignorant college-boy meddlers: "If OAC wants to do something for the farmer, let them impress him with the fact that he wants to build better houses for his poultry ... Let them study the mortality in fowl life here in Oregon and teach the farmer how to prevent roup and kindred diseases. There is lots to be done. This trying to get notoriety by attacking some well-known principle is foolish in the extreme. It makes the college the laughingstock of those who know better and at the same time makes the poultrymen treat anything coming from the college with indifference or contempt."
Thus spake Big Chicken!
The rest of Oregon's agricultural community, though, was notice-ably unimpressed by these argu-ments. Obviously, farmers weren't keeping chickens for ornamental reasons. If OAC had taken "Judge" Collier's advice and quit telling farmers how to increase egg yields in favor of some platitudes about quality chicken coops and sanitation practices, there probably would have been a revolt.
Over the next few years, Dryden and his college moved from win to win. By 1911 it was clear that he was right about genetics and egg-laying. In December two of his chickens came within 9 percent of the world record, which at the time was 282 eggs in 12 months, held by an Ontario Agricultural College chicken. Dryden's Chicken No. A-122, a purebred barred rock, laid 259, and Chicken A-61, a barred rock-white leghorn cross, laid 257.
The next year Dryden & Co. fixed up a rail car as a mobile poultry demonstration and toured the state with it, letting everyone see the state's champion chicken alongside an apparently identical barred rock that laid only 44 eggs in the time A-122 laid 257. Dryden's point was that if farmers don't know each hen's individual output, they can't make good decisions about which chickens to continue feeding and which to turn into chicken soup, and the low-output layers will offset the high-output layers.
"Demonstration is a Revelation," the Capital Journal wrote in a long sub-headline about the display. "Two Hens Looking Just Alike Show Different Records -- One is a Homebody and Produces 240 Eggs, While Her Flirtatious Sister Devotes Time to Lunches, Suppers, Late Dinners and Such and Gives Up 44."
"The poorer layer had a saucy, wear-your-hat-on-the-back-of-your-head sort of look and somehow reminded one of Mrs. Jack Cudahy," the reporter wrote, in a reference to a famously flirty Kansas City society woman whose millionaire husband had just attempted to murder one of her male friends in a jealous rage. "Another of the same breed, but evidently with equal-suffrage ideas about oviparity, deposited only six of the shell-covered bird seeds in 12 months."
The following year, Dryden and his team finally clinched the world record, wringing 291 two-ounce eggs out of a chicken named C-543 in the course of the year that ended on Oct. 15, 1913. In the meantime, chicken C-521 (Lady MacDuff) was at 279 eggs and counting, with 30 more days in her 12 months; barring some kind of freak incident, the college was about to break both C-543's record and the 300-egg barrier.
This, of course, happened, right on schedule in early November.
Newspapers around the state and beyond metaphorically threw their hats in the air.
"OREGON'S GREAT RECORD-MAKING HEN ONLY ONE OF FLOCK," The Sunday Oregonian shouted above a photo spread covering most of Page Two. And, later, "DEVELOPMENT OF BREED OF HENS WITH SPECIAL ABILITY TO PRODUCE EGGS DRAWS WORLD'S ATTENTION TO OREGON."
"HEN C-543 WORTH HER WEIGHT IN GOLD: Oregon Chicken is World Beater," the Portland Journal proclaimed, following up with a glowing comment on the editorial page headlined "THE CORVALLIS WONDER."
Well ... most of the newspapers did. At least one did not.
At the Cottage Grove Leader, the coverage of Dryden's triumph was almost whiplash-inducing. On the front page, reasonably prominently placed, was an article headlined "OREGON HEN MAKES WORLD MARK." It was a short but straightforward account of C-543's feat. But in the same issue, on the editorial page, under a headline reading "Pure Breeds vs. Mongrels," editor W.C. Conner really cuts loose. And it's this article that led Dryden to actually complain to the Leader two weeks later, prompting the newspaper's call for his resignation.
The fascinating thing about this particular moment in the chicken battle is, up to this point it had not been entirely clear why the Leader was so intransigently opposed to Dryden's efforts to improve chickens' egg-laying qualities. It had quoted and supported poultry breeders, chicken-show judges, and other interested parties whose business models were threatened by the new attitude, and it stuck by them even when their position was obviously contrary to the best interests of most ordinary chicken keepers. Why?
Because, as it turned out, chicken C-521 was a cross-breed, and Conner was a eugenics fanatic, and -- well, let's let him explain: (Bear with me here, Conner's editorial writing style was turgid and soporific even by 1910s standards.)
"The Leader would refrain from unjust criticism of any state educational institution or its management or the work of any department thereof," the editorial begins, "but it seems to us that the highest ideals should be fostered in these institutions and all standards of excellence upheld and maintained. And while this object may generally prevail at these educational institutions, we are unable to understand wherein the management of the poultry department at OAC expect to better or advance the great poultry industry of the country by perpetually idealizing and exploiting mongrel strains and breeds of chickens, when perfection in the various standard bred fowls is what every prominent and successful breeder in the country is striving for."
The editorial goes on to revisit "Judge" Collier's comments from three years previously, ranting tediously that chicken race-mixing is "not supported by national or international contests and the poultry records, nor by facts, figures, or Nature's laws."
"The fact is," the editorial continues, a few paragraphs later, "it would be just as reasonable to advocate the production of superior dairy herds by a conglomeration of cattle breeds, or superior horses by a mixture of Clyde, Belgian and Percheron, and so on down the line. This would mean an inevitable return in time to the razor-back hog and the inferior and mongrel breeds found a few decades ago in their native state before they were bred up to the present excellent standards by man."
And then, finally, Conner makes his true objection to cross-bred chickens plain: He sees it as a form of miscegenation:
"Of course, you might improve the characteristics and the qualifications of the Chinese or Africans by the infusion of the white race," he writes, "but it would be mighty hard on the Caucasians."
Ouch. At least he didn't use racial slurs.
Whether this exhibition of racism and enthusiasm for eugenics played as awkwardly in 1913 as it does today is very doubtful; such ideas were almost mainstream back then. But, it has to have been pretty obvious to everyone reading the Leader that its editor had become obsessed and was no longer talking any kind of sense. The fancy-chicken breeders and county-fair judges might have been going along with him, for business reasons; but nearly every other reader must have thought the guy had flipped his wig. The local college had set a new world record and set the entire country talking about Oregon chickens, and all that seemed to matter to the Cottage Grove Leader was the purity of the chickens' bloodstock?
In any case, as far as I have been able to learn, the Leader retreated from the field after this engagement. Eighteen months later, editor Conner sold the paper to W.H. Tyrrell, a newspaperman from Iowa; and two months after that, Tyrrell, having found that Conner had misrepresented the business's balance sheets, merged the paper into the rival Cottage Grove Sentinel. The last issue of the Leader was published in August of 1915.
As for Dryden, in 1916 his book, Poultry Breeding and Management, was published to enormous acclaim. It became the most important chicken-farming textbook of the inter-war period. OSU's poultry building, a classic brick structure built in 1927, was named Dryden Hall to honor him.
Today, thanks largely to Dryden's work, the average egg-breed hen lays 200 to 250 eggs a year. The world record for egg laying is currently held by an Australian chicken, which in 1979 laid 371 eggs in 365 days.
(Sources: "Corvallis chicken sets 1913 world record," an article by Kristine Deacon posted July 1, 2021, on the Oregon State Archives Facebook page; Poultry Breeding and Management, a book by James Dryden published in 1916 and 1920 by Orange Judd Co.; archives of Cottage Grove Leader, Cottage Grove Sentinel, Portland Morning Oregonian, Oregon Journal, Medford Mail Tribune, and Capitol Journal, 1908-1915)
Finn J.D. John teaches at Oregon State University and writes about odd tidbits of Oregon history. His book, Heroes and Rascals of Old Oregon, was recently published by Ouragan House Publishers. To contact him or suggest a topic: [email protected] or 541-357-2222.