Column: Big chickens meant big bucks in the Roaring '20sWORTHINGTON — The beginning of Holy Week is one month away. Today is Feb. 23. Holy Week begins March 24. This came to mind as I was thinking about the Holy Week Chicken Thieves.
By: Ray Crippen, Worthington Daily Globe
WORTHINGTON — The beginning of Holy Week is one month away. Today is Feb. 23. Holy Week begins March 24. This came to mind as I was thinking about the Holy Week Chicken Thieves. Those thieves became a major concern in Nobles County eight decades gone by.
Lismore was a devout community — Lismore remains a devout community, not just along the village streets but in the countryside all about. In that time I was recalling, St. Anthony church scheduled a mass through every night of the week preceding Easter. Many pews were filled, evening by evening.
There were two brothers in the neighborhood and a pal who were a bit less reverent. The young men noted what was happening in the community, and one of them suggested this would be a great time for stealing chickens. Everyone was at church; no one was watching the hen houses.
So it came to be on Sunday night, as the sacred week was launched, the Lismore Township trio stopped by a neighbor’s farm. It was the next morning before the farmer discovered 45 chickens gone. The chicken yard was empty.
Same thing Monday night. This time the trio of thieves came on 60 chickens. Tuesday morning, the victim discovered his loss.
Lismore was roused, and Sheriff Elden Rowe was summoned. Sheriff Rowe, who later became the first chief of Minnesota’s highway patrol, had established a reputation as an outstanding crime fighter. He investigated the chicken robberies with his eyes focused on the ground around the chicken houses. He noticed a somewhat unusual, distinctive car track.
“You got a vehicle with this kind of tire?” he asked first one farmer and then the other. Neither one of them had such a vehicle.
As the case unfolded, one of the farm wives called her neighbor lady to tell of the excitement. The neighbor lady also had news — a young man stopped the evening before to buy some gas. She knew who the young man was.
So it came to be: Sheriff Rowe made his first arrest. The thief was not willing to take the full blame; he told the sheriff of the brothers who helped him lift the hens. Officers were waiting at the farm of the elder brother when his kid brother drove up in the very car that laid down the mysterious tracks. By noon, Sheriff Rowe had three chicken thieves in the county jail at the corner of Third Avenue and Ninth Street.
If you are inclined to steal chickens, these times are hard times. There are not many chickens to be found from farm to farm. It was not always so. The Lismore chicken thieves were enticed by the good prices that were paid for chickens and the very large chicken market which had come to exist.
A month after the robberies —April — Worthington Creamery & Produce Co. made its annual report. Among other things, the plant reported chicken/produce sales for the year ending Dec. 31, 1925, were $3.5 million ($3,463,837.41). Chickens were gold in Nobles County of that era. Nearly every farm had chickens, and every farmer shared in the returns. Worthington Creamery & Produce was but 14 years old at the time, but it was established as a major chicken market in Minnesota and even in the nation. It had a total of 800 workers.
In 1924, only 14 years after it was founded, the Creamery had shipped 548 rail carloads of local farm produce to eastern markets. It had established 60 substations in southwest Minnesota, northwest Iowa and eastern South Dakota. Payments to area farmers for their produce totaled $3 million. Favored chickens in that time were White Plymouth Rocks and White Wyandottes — big chickens.
The Creamery maintained five “big Buckeye incubators” with a capacity for 35,000 eggs. It was producing 13,000 chicks per week, and already in that April following Lismore’s chicken thefts, 50,000 newly-hatched chicks had been sold.
It is easy to understand how, in the passage of years, the Worthington plant became a Campbell Soup plant. There still are many who regret every evidence of that plant now is gone.
The Lismore chicken thieves knew they were delving into something big. They hadn’t counted on big jail sentences.
Ray Crippen is a former editor of the Daily Globe. His column appears on Saturdays.