Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Charley Heuermann and his Chickens

If you drive southeast of Bowling Green about two miles, you will run into two landmarks: US Route 6, a major two lane artery that runs all the way to Massachusetts, and Cuckle Creek, a tiny waterway that meanders northward and finally empties into the north branch of the Portage River. Cuckle Creek is very narrow, little bigger than a ditch, draining the open farmland of a portion of eastern Wood County. US 6 is a heavily traveled motorway; trucks use it to avoid paying tolls on the Ohio Turnpike. If you track Cuckle Creek to where it comes nearest to US 6, in Center Township’s Section 34, you won’t hear water; you will hear trucks downshifting. Go to the same point one hundred years ago, and you might not have heard the creek either; you would have heard chickens cackling. Cuckle Creek and US 6 parallel each other on land that was once owned by a farmer named Herman Heuermann, whose brother Charles (aka Charley) ran a chicken breeding operation. Herman owned the land, 113 acres in Section 34, and another 43 acres further down the creek. Charley lived on the larger farm.

His story is simple, but tracking him (and his chickens) is a bit more complex. Charles (1868-1929) was born in Hanover, Germany, “and spent his childhood in his fatherland with his thrifty parents,” Frederick and Caroline Heuermann. The whole family moved to Ohio and settles in Wood County around 1882. Charles died in 1929 at the age of 61. “His death came very suddenly, while he was doing chores. He was stricken and dropped dead without suffering any pain.” Heuermann, who was an active member of the Cloverdale Lutheran Church, does not appear ever to have married. He was, “admired for his straightforward manner and honesty in dealing with everyone.”

I thought at first that Heuermann, who dropped the extra “n’ from his name at some point, left no further record of himself. But thanks to a battered envelope and a classified ad in the June 1905, issue of Successful Poultry Journal, we know he was a breeder and keeper of chickens. In the only surviving writing of his, in a classified ad, he wrote: I am breeding Thompson’s Ringlet strain of Barred Rocks, and the quality is the best. If you want to start right or improve your flock you cannot do better than to try some of my eggs. $2 per setting. The envelope had a return address advertising “Charley Heuermann, Breeder of Prize Winning Barred Plymouth Rocks.” Mailed in 1903, it showed a large picture of the characteristic black and white poultry breed.

The Plymouth Rock breed of chicken is native to America, having first been called by that name in 1869. They were a popular breed on farms, tough and long lived. The “barred” nomenclature describes the white-and-black feathers of the original variety that Charley Heuermann kept. There are now many other varieties, including the White, which is a popular breed for broilers. “Thompson’s Ringlet” was a variety of the barred Plymouth Rock. Developed by E. B. Thompson (1862-1928) of Amenia, New York, in the early twentieth century, they were bestsellers in the poultry world. It is reported that Thompson once refused an offer of $1000 at a poultry show at Madison Square Garden for a Ringlet rooster. That may be chicken folklore, but it showed how eagerly poultry breeders, like Charley Heuermann, sought the breed.

Farm raised chickens have dwindled in Wood County, supplanted by massive ”factory farm” chicken-and-egg outfits in other areas. Yet every year, a brave show of poultry can be seen at the Wood County Fair, where hobbyists, 4-H projects, and backyard producers display. Charley Heuermann would no doubt approve.

[Information was taken from the Bowling Green Sentinel-Tribune of May 28, 1929, and Successful Poultry Journal, June 1905.]

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