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Column: Worthington - a former Chicken Capitol of the World

By Ray Crippen

WORTHINGTON — Officials in Sioux Falls and Minneapolis have been talking chickens for the last couple of years. Should city residents be allowed to keep small flocks of chickens in their backyards? Generally, officials have been saying, “Yes.”

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Now we are on the eve of a new November. The timely question is, “Should city residents be allowed to build chicken houses in their backyards?” Where do you keep chickens through the winter?

It is surprising chicken questions have not come up in Worthington. Turkeys are tickling and turkeys are fun, but through a great span of local history Worthington may actually have been Chicken Capital of the World by numbers.

Most residents still remember the Worthmore/Campbell complex, which extended from Ninth Street to Lake Okabena. The J.C. Boote complex, between the railroad tracks and Sherwood Street, was fully as large. The Farmers’ Produce building at the corner of Second Avenue and 12th Street still remains. Nearly two thousand local residents, men and women and sometimes children, filled these plants every work day of every year for decades processing chickens by the tens of thousands.

The Worthmore plant sent refrigerated carloads of chickens to New York markets on a timetable. If you are lucky at an antique store, you may find a model refrigerator car with “Worthington Creamery & Produce” painted on the side. (Buy it.) The Boote plant flew chicks and eggs to markets in South America.

Worthington and chickens. On a day 60 years ago, 70 years ago, when local residents still kept chicken flocks in their backyards and in backyard chicken houses there were — well — chickens along very many blocks. Hundreds of chickens in total. A flock of chickens could be found on every farm across hundreds of miles; tens of thousands of chickens in total. Plus chickens in the produce houses, driven in by trucks that rolled through all the region. Hundreds of thousands in total through the passing years.

On any fair weather day there might be a boy at your back door with a chicken in a gunny sack. Boys prowled around the chicken plants grabbing up strays and selling them for a dime or for a quarter. It was for you to decide whether to ax your chicken or wring its neck. In the spring of the year, when you went to the post office, you scarcely could be heard over the cheeps of a thousand chicks. Chicks were shipped in cardboard boxes with many holes in the sides. Boxes of chicks were shipped to area farmers from suppliers through the region, and the Worthington produce plants mailed boxes of chickens to other farmers up to a hundred miles or two hundred miles away.

When historians begin work on Worthington, every volume will surely include a chapter on “Worthington and Chickens.” This wasn’t planned. It just happened. Worthington became a chicken center on the North American continent.

We still are never far from chickens, of course. At the supermarkets we can buy chicken parts or whole chickens, uncooked or fried or broasted. Restaurants — fast food and slow food — feature chicken dinners and chicken sandwiches.

I wish more people — I wish everyone — could have the experience of sitting down to a home meal of one of those chickens the boys brought in gunny sacks. It might be a home-fried chicken or a chicken lifted from an oven, maybe even with dressing. Or chicken soup.

Today you may wonder sometimes why chicken is so popular as a menu item. If you had a chicken baked at home, you would know.

The first chicken-as-a-fast-food came to Worthington in the 1950s. Don Gesler sold chicken on Oxford Street from a building that was not even designed to be a restaurant. Ready-fried chicken was a sensation through all the region. You could wish for chicken and, 10 minutes later, you could be eating chicken.

By now chicken is served in small boxes, some of it even with no bones. (I want a wishbone; I want to make a wish.) And, of course, the chicken is prepared by dipping boneless strips into boiling deep fat. (I want a drumstick.)

To tell the truth, I don’t enjoy chicken any longer as I once did.

Ray Crippen is a former editor of the Daily Globe. His column appears on Saturdays.