In the summer of 1946, Eleanor Roosevelt visited Rehoboth.
Not many people know this. I happened upon it while snooping through some old newspapers in the library.
Seems that Eleanor, her son Elliott, and daughter-in-law Faye, made a car trip to Sussex County as the guest of Senator John Townsend, a staunch old Republican from Selbyville. According to accounts of the visit, they enjoyed a “downstate” luncheon consisting of heaping plates of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, greens, biscuits, and homemade ice cream with strawberries. The chickens and strawberries were grown by the Senator, for which he was well-renowned. After a tour of the Senator’s chicken hatcheries, the group motored over to Rehoboth Beach for supper at the Townsend’s beach cottage on Columbia Avenue — just down the street from me — where two dozen Townsend family members had gathered.
The newspaper story ended with a denial of a rumor of a romance between liberal Eleanor and the conservative Senator. The rumor began when the two were attending a UN conference in London, and, as each were single, frequently found themselves as each other’s dinner guest. Senator Townsend visited Eleanor at Hyde Park, New York, where she had a small farming project.
When asked about the odd political friendship, the Senator remarked, “it’s not about love, it’s about chickens…Mrs. Roosevelt is interested in raising chickens…I told her about some experiments I was doing with hybrid hens and she wanted to observe.”
Eleanor was hatching a plan to raise more birds in the Hudson Valley and knew that Sussex County was the epicenter of the American chicken industry and a region where broiler innovation was happening. In Ocean View, just outside of Bethany Beach, there’s a historical sign marking the actual birthplace of the commercial broiler industry.
Here’s how the story goes. Back in 1923, a short, heavyset, hardworking farm wife with red hair and a fiery temper named Cecile Steele raised a flock of laying chickens to help support her family. Each year she would order fifty new chicks to replace losses in her flock. In 1923, she was mistakenly sent 500 rather than fifty. She sold the excess to a local chicken buyer who then shipped them to New York restaurants and hotels. It proved profitable and the next year she ordered 1,000 chicks and her husband quit his Coast Guard job and they began building chicken houses and raising chickens full-time. News of their success spread and others in Sussex County began raising their own flocks solely for meat.
I should point out that in the 1920’s, chickens were raised primarily for eggs. Chickens were more expensive than other meat, and Americans who did eat chickens consumed young male cockerels culled from laying flocks or tough old laying hens. The pressing need for a new source of agricultural income helps explain why so many Sussex County farmers were willing to give chicken growing a try. Fruits and vegetables were always at risk for late freezes and blights. Some other factors helping spur the growth of the industry included Delaware’s relatively mild climate, the sandy soil, cheap building costs and access to pine timber, low labor costs, the close proximity to major urban markets, a good system of public roads, and a willingness of banks to provide easy credit.
It was World War II, however, that led to dramatic growth. Chickens moved from birth to slaughterhouse much faster than cattle or pigs. Chickens fed the American army. Chickens fed hungry Europeans. So much money was being made raising chickens in Delaware that attorneys, politicians, and other white-collar types began raising birds.
And it has continued to this day. Americans now consume almost 9 billion chickens a year. Sussex County continues as a hot bed of chicken farming. Did you know that it leads all the nation’s counties in broiler production? I believe it. Route 16 is the only highway where I’ve seen chicken roadkill.
I too have come to embrace and even celebrate the chicken. When people ask me my favorite place in town for dinner, I confess that I’d rather slip into Arena’s for chicken wings or SOB’s for some chicken salad and a cold glass of sauvignon blanc than spend two hours in a pricey restaurant. Admitedly, the way the poor birds are raised and slaughtered disturbs me. But, I’m just not ready to give up my fried chicken.
In my cottage, there are chicken sconces hanging on the dining room wall. I have hand painted chicken place mats from Palm Beach’s Worth Avenue, cocktail napkins, an Italian ceramic rooster lamp, a set of rooster china ordered from the late J Peterman catalogue. Think the south of France meets Sussex County and you’ll get the feel.
Lately, I’ve been noticing lots of chickens in the bars and on the beach. Flocks of half-naked, wisecracking young cockerels strutting their stuff. The old roosters and brood hens in town are all atwitter. And though there’s a trend towards gray in the gay resorts, this summer it seems that Sussex County is living up to its broiler heritage.