The lost chicken hatcheries of Iowa City, IA

Copied in its entirety from the Iowa, City IA city government web page in their “Public Art” section.

King-Littrell-Palmer Chicken Hatchery

The HatcheryIrving King, head of the University of Iowa Department of Literature, had an unusual sideline for an English professor: raising chickens. In 1918, King started a hatchery as a hobby on the south side of Jackson Avenue. Eventually, the hatchery occupied several wood structures from Sheridan
Avenue to Ralston Creek between the alley and Rundell Street. Fittingly, King’s protégé in the poultry business was a poet: Ralph Littrell, who had a bachelor’s degree from Iowa State University. By 1940, Littrell was the hatchery’s owner and operator. At about the same time, a local builder named Lloyd Palmer bought the King home at 903 Dearborn Street from King’s widow. Palmer, another hobbyist, ran a hatchery in the brick building west of the house until 1946.

Local residents bought dressed chickens and eggs here or from one of the many small neighborhood groceries that this hatchery supplied. Farmers came to buy live chickens. Chickens were sent by overnight train to Denver, and biweekly trucks would carry eggs to Chicago. Schoolteachers brought their classes to see the chicks, and the office was a popular place for neighbors to gather for conversation.

At one time, Iowa City had several hatcheries. Littrell’s hatchery was the last one in town when it closed in 1986.

Iowa City is in the middle of an urban chicken imbroglio; here’s a 2009 story about chickens running loose in the streets. An online organizing group IC Friends of Urban Chickens aims to “put the Iowa back in Iowa City.” In March, local police confiscated chickens during a traffic stop because state laws require permits to transport animals across borders. (There were also squirrels in the car.)

USA Today points to the Iowa City mayor, Regenia Bailey as the source for anti-backyard poultry sentiment; this is apparently a reaction to the risk that domestic fowl present to state agribusiness.

“We have a lot of small farmers around here making chickens and eggs available for sale,” Bailey says. “My fundamental question is: Why aren’t we supporting the regional economy?”

My Iowa connection is through my great grandfather, George F. Kay, who was the Iowa State Geologist; here’s a review of “The Pleisoticene Geology of Iowa” published in 1945.


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