Pecking at History: Collectible Poultry Equipment

Loyl Stromberg works with other collectors to preserve the history of poultry equipment and barnyard flocks.

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Old Trusty incubator

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Loyl Stromberg of Pine River, Minn., talks about collecting vintage poultry equipment with the sureness of long experience and the enthusiasm that comes with success. In a flash, he'll tick off his latest and greatest finds - currently, an early-19th century mechanical chicken delouser - and he'll announce without hesitation his "wants" - a 19-century "Chamberlain's Setting Hen" incubator, which sports a lid shaped like a broody hen.

At age 87, Loyl has been a commercial hatcheryman most of his life, and for the past dozen years, he's been a serious collector of the old-time trappings of his trade. His parents opened Stromberg Hatchery in the early 1920s, in Fort Dodge, Iowa, and he worked in the business, which ultimately included several branch offices, until it closed in 1962.

Now, he helps operate another family mail-order firm, Stromberg's Chicks & Gamebirds Unlimited, which sells contemporary equipment, books and live birds to hobbyists and schools. And he regularly leads tour groups of poultry fanciers to Europe, where he's always on the look out for poultry collectibles extraordinaire.

He says he's visited probably 300 antique shops in the last 12 years looking for what he calls "surprises - the rare, rare, rarer, the better." He divides his finds between his own private museum in Pine River, which is about 125 miles west of Duluth, and the National Poultry Museum under development at the National Agricultural Center and Hall of Fame in Bonner Springs, Kan. Eventually, he says, his private pieces will move to Bonner Springs as well.

For both collections, he focuses on the heyday of small-scale, on-farm poultry keeping in this country - from the late 1800s to about 1950, when "big commercialization" proved the death knell to farm flocks, as well as thousands of small hatcheries like Stromberg's.

As a consequence, a lot of poultry equipment fell into disuse; now, it's become collectible. Most of the people buying are poultry fanciers like Loyl. Others have academic or research ties to the poultry industry, and some are just ordinary antique lovers keen on the "country look" or searching for specifics, such as Red Wing pottery pieces.

For collecting purposes, vintage chicken equipment falls into four broad categories: Items used on farms for the keeping of flocks, including feeders, waterers and nesting boxes; commercial hatchery equipment (smaller versions of which were sometimes also used on farms), including incubators and hovers for keeping baby chicks warm; processing and marketing equipment, including chicken killers, mechanical pickers and egg transport cases;  and lastly, published materials, such as books, pamphlets and catalogs.

Loyl has examples of them all. What he doesn't find on his own, he finds with the help of friends and fellow fanciers - like the Wisconsin man who helped him track down that mechanical delouser.

In his Pine River collection, Loyl also has a very special "Old Trusty" incubator, made in Clay Center, Neb., and offered as a 4-H prize in the early 1920s at the Nebraska State Fair.

"A young lady won it and never used it." Eventually, the incubator ended up at Kansas State University in Manhattan, where it was stored for 50 some years and then shipped back north to the son of the man who had first offered it as the fair prize. That's where Loyl found it: "I paid $175, and I'm surprised he even sold it to me. It should have been maybe $400 to $500." Ordinarily, vintage chicken incubators sell for from $150 to $200 today; originally, farmers paid $10 to $15 (though that's equivalent to $112 to $170 today).

Tim Nimz, director of the Ag Hall of Fame (www.aghalloffame.com), calls Loyl "collector in chief" of the poultry fanciers developing the national museum there. "They've got an interesting display," he says, noting in particular the selection of incubators and stuffed birds representing such historic breeds as the Dominique.

Tim says that most of those working with Loyl to develop the poultry museum also are from the upper Midwest, and that the Ag Hall board of directors has given them "a wide window of opportunity" to pursue their goals. The Ag Hall is at 630 Hall of Fame Dr., in Wyandotte County Park.

About a dozen stoneware feeders and waterers also are part of the Bonner Springs display. They appeal as much to collectors of pottery as they do to collectors of vintage poultry equipment. Loyl says in the early days, such stoneware was "very, very common" but today it is "very, very rare."

Cindy Taube of the 7,000-member Red Wing Collectors Society, head quartered in Red Wing, Minn., (www.redwingcollectors.org), says it is indeed very uncommon to find intact antique poultry feeders and fountains today. Usually, they are cracked or chipped, or the bottoms have been broken and are missing; still they are highly collectible. Such poultry pottery dates to the 1890s; the first record of them being sold is in a Nov. 15, 1895, Red Wing catalog. They came in various sizes from l/4-to-2 gallons, and most were upright although a few were made to lay horizontally on the ground. Various brands were offered, such as 'Eureka' and 'Ko-Rec,' a style patented Dec. 2, 1930, by a man named E.S. Hoyt.

Of the poultry pottery still around, Cindy says, ones with advertising on them, such as "Red Wing Chicken Drinking Fount and Buttermilk Feeder," command the most money. Older, intact feeders with such advertising are valued at from $500 to $600, while surviving rounded bell tops without bottoms bring from $150 to $175.

"Chicken tractors" rare as hen's teeth

One piece of poultry equipment that shows up consistently in historic literature but not in contemporary collections is the range shelter, also called the portable coop or, more popularly today, the "chicken tractor."

The mostly homemade wooden structures were designed to hold from a half-dozen to a couple of hundred birds. They were popular for hens and their chicks, brooder flocks of older chicks, roosters headed for butchering and also turkeys. Their portability allowed them to be moved systematically, keeping the poultry on cleaner ground than was possible with permanent structures, and spreading out the benefits of the birds' scratching up and eating unwanted insects, and fertilizing the ground with their manure.

Pat Foreman, co-author with her husband, Andy Lee, of Chicken Tractor, the Permaculture Guide to Happy Hens and Healthy Soil, said in researching that book, they found range shelters being used for chickens and turkeys right up to the 1950s, when confinement systems became the industry norm.

Few vintage shelters probably survive today for collectors, she said, because they were temporary sorts of structures to begin with and they were used out of doors and subject to deterioration by the weather.

More rare even than the pottery in the Ag Hall display is a one-of-a-kind Pedigree Egg Cabinet used in the 1920s by a Dr. W.V. Lambert at Iowa State College. The piece held eggs being used in genetic research; it came to the Museum as a gift from Dr. Willard Hollander of Ames, Iowa.

To date, Loyl's group has completed and paid for the 24-by-42-foot building called the Hatchery in which their collection is displayed. They have another $35,000 banked for future developments, and they're continuing to fundraise and to seek particular items for display.

Topping the "Wanted List" is a "Chamberlain Setting Hen" incubator. Also sought are a No. 103 Buckeye incubator from the Otho, Iowa, area; a Poorman Feather brooder, a cramming machine used to force feed chickens, to fatten them faster; and a Howard Beuoy Electric Caponizing Set.

Loyl also is searching for the first Stromberg Hatchery catalog, published in 1922 or 1923; he says he has all the other Stromberg catalogs. They are part of his private collection of printed poultry materials, valued at $100,000.

He notes one of the country's most outstanding collections of poultry literature is at Kansas State University in Manhattan, the Leonora Hering Memorial Poultry Collection. Given to the university by the late Leonora Hering of Saratoga, Calif., the materials are housed in the Hale Library Special Collections Department, open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday (www.lib.ksu.edu).

KSU rare books librarian Roger C. Adams says as a single, donated collection, the Hering materials truly are "outstanding." Among the books are an original Latin edition of Androvandi's classic treatise on fowl, The Onithology, published from 1599 to 1603; the first English poultry book, A Treatise on Domestic Poultry by John Lawrence, dated 1815; and the first U.S. poultry book not reprinted from England, The American Poultry Book by Micajah R. Cock, published in 1843 in New York. (Yes, Cock.)

Adams recalls a favorite story about Mrs. Hering as a collector. Shopping used bookstores and antique shops, he says, she apparently would inquire about poultry books only to be repeatedly directed to 'poetry' sections. In time, though, she managed to amass nearly 1,000 poultry volumes, which collectively show the progression of poultry keeping in this country. Readers can trace the importance of poultry to the country's rural economy from the first promotion of "practical agricultural methods" in the early 1800s, to the beginnings of economic discussions - how to market poultry products and make a profit from a flock - in the mid-1800s, to finally, the switch to big commercial operations.

Today, most users of the Hering Collection are agricultural historians but occasionally poultry farmers or hobbyists, mostly from eastern and central Kansas. They use it to study old-time practices. "A few want to go back to the early 19th- or 20th-century techniques," Adams explains.

Loyl, himself a donor to the K-State library and the author of several poultry books, including Poultry of the World, corresponded with Mrs. Hering before her death. He says printed materials such as she collected are no longer easy to find but remain important to preserve. Just like the increasingly hard-to-find delousers, incubators and pottery founts, old-time poultry books and catalogs play an important role in helping to tell the story of poultry keeping in the United States.

To contact Loyl, phone (218) 543-4228. To donate monetarily to the National Poultry Museum, send contributions to the NPM at 630 Hall of Fame Dr., Bonner Springs, KS 66012.