Once Upon a Time

The Chick Book was published by the Reliable Poultry Co. of Quincy for many years in the early part of the 20th century. The company later moved to Dayton, Ohio. | Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County

A hundred years ago in Quincy, chickens were taken seriously.

In January 1920, Harry Little was arrested for stealing 15 of Margaret Monkton’s chickens from her henhouse near 26th and Chestnut. At the time, Little was charged with grand larceny. The chicken thief in question heard that the police were looking for him and promptly moved to Mexico, Mo., where he stayed for nine months. In November 1920, Little returned to Quincy, where he was recognized by a deputy and arrested. On Nov. 17, the chicken thief appeared before the justice of the peace, where charges were reduced to petit larceny, and he was fined $25. This would be equivalent today of $325, or a bit over $21 per hen.

1920 was a time when eggs, chicken and feed were relatively expensive, though the newspaper reported that food supplies over the winter would be better than in past years. Weekly food reports, called the Market for Housewives, stated that the price of turkeys would be about the same as the previous year at 60 cents per pound, ducks at 35 cents, and geese and chickens at 33 cents. Vegetable costs ranged from California celery at 15 cents a stalk, to home-grown celery at 15 cents a bunch; fancy Western eating apples averaged a dime apiece; green beans were 30 cents a pound, and sweet potatoes were 2 pounds for 15 cents. If you were interested in serving fish, shrimp cost 30 cents a pint, oysters 45 cents a pint, and channel catfish cost the same as salmon and lake trout at 40 cents a pound.

Live poultry was in the news that fall. The top chickens from the Midwest had been gathered in Quincy in November 1920 for the Illinois State Poultry Association show and egg-laying contest. Over 600 hens from as far away as New York and New Jersey, Texas, Nebraska, Kansas and Minnesota made the journey to compete. There were contests for the largest number of eggs laid in one month by a single hen, or by a pen of five layers. For the single hen title, each was assigned a number attached on a sealed leg band. She was given a nest, and when she stepped into it, was automatically locked in until an attendant arrived to note her number, give her credit for the egg laid, and release her. That way, each hen was individually tracked, with the most productive one earning the cash prize.

The competition was held at a building just east of 24th and Locust. Local visitors were welcomed on Sunday when programs and information was available on the care and raising of poultry, diseases and treatments, “how to weed out the drones in the flocks,” and other useful facts. Many months had been devoted to planning by A.D. Smith, secretary of the state poultry association, in order to ensure a successful exhibit. He was ably assisted by Miss Bakerbower, secretary to the secretary.

Henry Trafford, international poultry expert and breeder, and editor of Poultry Success, took an ad in the Nov. 11 Daily Herald and offered a free copy of his “1,000 Egg Hen System of Poultry Raising” to anyone requesting it. He explained that a pullet would lay 150 eggs the first year, 100 the second, after which she was usually sent to market. But, he claimed, each hen contained “over one thousand minute egg germs in her system,” and could profitably be kept four to six years. His system promised to teach poultry growers to reap large profits from winter eggs, which could reach a price of $1 a dozen. Eggs were pricey in winter months when most hens stopped laying.

The Quincy Poultry and Pet Stock association held a show at the Armory in conjunction with the Illinois Rabbit Breeders association. Both of these organizations held contests, drawing exhibitors from all over the Midwest. While 600 laying hens clucked on Locust Street, another 400 chickens and more than 100 rabbits vied for other show honors. Among the rabbit breeds were Belgian hares, Flemish giants, New Zealand reds and checkered giants. Several of the entrants were prize winners from a show in Syracuse, N.Y., and other local rabbits had traveled to East St. Louis, Mo., where they collected prizes.

Among the chickens on exhibit was a pen of buff orpingtons, owned by R.D. Herleman. His other hens were among the top contenders at the egg-laying contest. Unusual exhibits included “American Runt pigeons,” owned by Frank G. Langebartel of Quincy. These huge pigeons weighed in at about 3 pounds and laid eggs the size of a bantam hen egg.

Results of the monthlong egg-laying contest were announced in early December. The Herleman chickens won the heavy breed class with 69 eggs laid by the pen of five. First place for the individual hen laying the most eggs went to a single comb Rhode Island red owned by Guy Bugela of Cairo, Ill. This bird laid 24 eggs during November, beating the other 101 entries. Second place went to a white leghorn owned by a Jackson, Mich., breeder, which produced 21 eggs in the 30 days. Eleven states were represented in the contest, and the hens entered produced on one Tuesday a total of 95 eggs.

In December 1920, eggs were selling at 70 cents per dozen – down from a high of 80 cents. At 1,000 eggs per hen, that’s about 83 dozen eggs over a hen’s lifetime. Figured at 70 cents per dozen, it works out to just over $58 over the life of a chicken. That means Little got off lightly at a fine of $25 when he stole about 875 dollars’ worth of unlaid eggs.

Beth Lane is the author of “Lies Told Under Oath,” the story of the 1912 Pfanschmidt murders near Payson, Ill., and the former executive director of the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County.


“1000 Eggs in Every Hen,” Quincy Daily Herald, Nov. 11, 1920.

“Chicken Stealer Is Given a Fine,” Quincy Daily Herald, Nov. 17, 1920.

“High Praise for Show,” Quincy Daily Herald, Nov. 29, 1920.

“Little is Arrested On An Old Warrant,” Quincy Daily Herald, Nov. 8, 1920.

“Many Entries for Coming Poultry Show,” Quincy Daily Herald, Nov. 20, 1920.

“Market For Housewives,” Quincy Daily Herald, Dec. 17, 1920.

“Poultry and Rabbit Show Opened Today,” Quincy Daily Herald, Nov. 24, 1920.

“Red Wins Contest,” Quincy Daily Herald, Dec. 3, 1920.

“Show Is Best Ever Held Here,” Quincy Daily Herald, Nov. 25, 1920.

“Visiting Chickens to Hold Reception On Next Sunday,” Quincy Daily Herald, Nov. 8, 1920.

Recommended for you