Eggs are a staple food for many Americans but the chickens behind these protein-packed snacks are not nearly as celebrated as they once were. In the early 1900s, egg laying contests were held across the country. The first one was held in Connecticut in 1911. The idea was to highlight the impressive productive capabilities of US bred chickens. The contests peaked in popularity around 1925 when over 165 publications printed the results of various egg laying contests.
Santa Cruz held its very own egg laying contest from 1918-1931. It gained nationwide recognition and poultry farmers from as far away as Florida brought their hens to compete.
The Contest: Not a Day at the Fair
When you picture an egg laying contest, you may imagine an event at the county fair that lasts several days featuring all varieties of chickens—deep red Rhode Island hens, black & white Plymouth rocks, and pure white leghorns, among many others—sitting in a row on beds of straw popping out eggs from dawn until dusk. Observers cheer on their favorite hen while elbowing their way to the front of the crowd to try and get a look at the number of eggs appearing in each nest. Turns out this isn’t quite how it works. For one thing, the contest wasn’t just a few days—it lasted a whole year! So what exactly was the structure for these widely popular egg laying contests?
Rules of the Roost
This year-long contest was a serious affair with strict rules that tried to level the playing field for all the contestants. Throughout the country, all egg laying contests followed the same set of rules. A contest site was chosen (usually a model poultry unit that showcased the latest advancements in raising chickens) so that everyone’s hen had the same laying conditions. Each farmer chose his or her ten best hens and placed them in an assigned pen. The hens were fed the same feed at the same time of day and all received the same care. The eggs were collected at the same time each day and a tally was kept for each pen as well as each individual hen. At the end of a year, the farmer whose pen had the most eggs was honored at a special ceremony.
First Santa Cruz Contest is Something to Crow About
The first contest in Santa Cruz was held in 1918. The hope was to attract farmers from miles around and advertise the high quality eggs and prime conditions for raising chickens in Santa Cruz. The contest was so successful it received recognition from the Poultry Division of the University of California and in its second year was incorporated into the State Farm Bureau. They renamed it the California Farm Bureau Egg Laying Contest and it was the only official egg laying contest in California.
The first place brood for the 1920 contest laid over 2,000 eggs and seventeen of the fifty-four hens that competed averaged over 200 eggs each. Considering that in 1960 the average number of eggs produced by one hen per year was 160, this certainly did showcase the prime conditions for poultry farming in Santa Cruz County!
The University of California became involved, recommended an economical, well-balanced feed and laid out these official contest objectives:
1) To increase egg production by using scientific methods developed by the University of California.
2) To improve the science and art of poultry breeding for the purpose of egg production.
3) To demonstrate to the public the advantages of the California climate to successful egg farming.
Santa Cruz Hen Sets the World Record!
The 1921 contest attracted farmers from as far away as Florida and Michigan and a world record was set by one of the Santa Cruz hens. The winning bird was a hen named Columbia Belle from the Alex Stewart Ranch; she laid 324 eggs! A motion picture was made of the awards ceremony and the star was the world-record chicken herself in all her feathery glory. Columbia Belle’s fame was sadly short lived as she died just two years later. Her productive life was honored with an obituary in the Evening News.
In the next contest several hens laid more than 300 eggs: more evidence that Santa Cruz provided ideal conditions for raising poultry.
Although the contest produced record numbers of eggs throughout its thirteen year run, the last contest in Santa Cruz was held in 1930 due to lack of entries for the next year. By the late 1930s the area surrounding the poultry plant in the DeLaveaga Park District no longer allowed new poultry farms to be built and soon farms began disappearing until most were concentrated in the Live Oak District. Today, the days of egg laying contests are over, the local celebrity hens are long gone, and all but one poultry farm, Glaum Egg Ranch in Aptos, has flown the coop.