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March 31, 2010 > History: Fowl Business

History: Fowl Business

The History of Washington Township notes that Isaac Long came here in 1852 to operate one of the first salt works in the area. He and his brother also had the largest chicken ranch in the state. The salt business was a failure, but they made a fortune selling eggs at $2 per dozen and young chickens for $25 per dozen.

Erastus Johnson recalled that he kept about 50 hens on his Centerville farm in 1856. The sale of eggs ranging from 40 cents to $1 per dozen became his main source of income. Reverend W. W. Brier paid $50 for some hens. He sold $160 worth of eggs and chickens from those hens and said the chickens he still had were worth about $250.

Our early business directories have many listings for farmers, stockmen, and fruit growers but few for poultry raisers. Richard Threlfall stands out as a farmer and poultry raiser at Irvington in 1879. Many farmers and stock-raisers are listed in the 1878 Atlas of Alameda County, but Comfort Haley of Centerville is the lone poultry raiser.

H. P. Diamond of Mission San Jose advertised eggs for hatching in 1893. He noted that "Now is the time to hatch for Spring Pulletts." He had "white and brown leghorn eggs from every choice stock" for sale, and noted that infertile eggs would be replaced.

As time passed, the mild climate with the absence of cold rain and chilling fogs attracted expert poultry men to Southern Alameda County. They investigated, stayed and established a great poultry district. The proximity of Bay Area markets gave poultry men here a decided advantage. The development of trucks made it possible to rapidly deliver newly laid eggs to market.

Mrs. Musselman of Niles advertised "thoroughbred Barbed Plymouth Rock" roosters and settings of eggs for sale in 1908. George L. Donovan was awarded second prize for a pen of White Wyandotts at a poultry show in San Jose in 1909.

William W. Hirsch started raising poultry as a hobby and soon was proving that Washington Township was a splendid place to raise chickens. He began to specialize in raising Single Comb Rhode Island Reds, winning awards at shows around northern California. At one show he won 26 awards. He had 14 different yards and strains of chickens and sold stock eggs from his Irvington Poultry Farm. His daughter "Chickie" raised prized winning Bantams. Hirsch sold 1,200 eggs in one week in 1910 and could not keep up with the demand.

W. E. Edwards started a poultry farm in 1907 and was soon winning prizes at shows and attracting widespread attention. A number of farms were reported coming to Irvington and others had sprung up all over Washington Township. The poultry industry became one of the biggest in the United States and this area had become "a great center."

W. C. Graham of Newark had "one of the finest poultry yards in Alameda County" by 1915 and was enlarging and expanding his business. The Newark Farms Company specialized in White Leghorns; their plant had capacity for 10,000 hens. Their brooder could hold 12,000 hens.

V. G. Higgins of Decoto invented an incubator and brooder in 1916. He named it the Victor and fit a small factory on the William Jung place to manufacture his invention.

The Niles Chamber of Commerce noted in 1923 that poultry-raising was a very desirable business. It gave a profitable sideline to many farmers and was the sole occupation of owners and employees. One farmer reported that he raised only White Leghorns because they were noted for their egg production. He bought day-old chicks in the spring and raised them under a brooder. About six weeks later he separated the cockerels and fattened them to sell as broilers. He raised the pullets to be egg producers.

Poultry-raising was not without its challenges. All chickens required regular care and attention. Chicken lice were sometimes a problem. Ellis Brothers of Niles advertised that they were the "sole agents for Coopers" that was guaranteed to rid chickens of lice and "keep your fouls clean." Chickens were easier to steal than a large cow. One lady was caught with 70 chickens in her possession. Several chicken runs were destroyed by fire. A cougar was reported killing chickens in 1876. In spite of the problems, a diligent poultry man could usually make a profit. In 1915 a laying hen paid a net profit of about $1.25 a year.

There was a shortage of meat during World War ll. People built pens in their backyards and raised their own chickens. That, in itself, presented a problem. Those unaccustomed to raising chickens often found their habits unappealing. They were messy and preparing them for the dinner table could be a challenge. In most cases, when the war ended, so did the chicken raising adventure! M. J. Bernardo of Centerville was advertising "White Leghorn Laying Hens" for sale in 1946. R. P. McGuinnis of Niles was showing his Fancy Game Bantams in 1952. His birds brought back six first prizes but also returned with a disease that killed eight of his prize Bantams.

John Kimber purchased seven acres on Mission Boulevard to pioneer the genetics industry. Kimber Farms hired a professional geneticist in 1934, the first of a long line of scientists to work there. By 1947 the main plant included offices, the hatchery and laboratory. The company employed some 60 workers and had 66,000 chickens at the Niles facility and 30,000 at the Atascadero plant. The Niles plant produced several million scientifically bred baby chicks each year. The staff included nationally famous scientists and the farm was visited by many poultry men and agricultural classes.

The Kimber Farm development led to wide distribution of chickens and eggs and partnerships around the world. A new office was built in 1956. Their 40th anniversary, celebrated in 1965, noted the development of virus-free chickens. Kimber Farms was sold in 1974.

Chickens were not the only poultry animals raised in Washington Township. It was common for farms to also have a few turkeys which were especially popular for turkey shoots and Thanksgiving dinners. John Telles was reported ordering 2,500 turkey pullets for his Centerville Turkey Farm in 1940. Later corn-fed turkeys were advertised for sale at this same farm either alive or dressed.

The only poultry dealers listed for Fremont in 1957 were Kenneth Green, Warm Springs Poultry and Linda Vista Broiler Farm. These three were replaced by Kimber Farms and Niles Poultry Breeding Farms by 1962. There were no listings for 1963 but we know that Kimber Farms was still very active. Apparently most of the others had either "flown the coop" or "gone to roost."

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