Egg Farming in Washington

  • By Todd Matthews
  • Posted 6/17/2020
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 21048

For nearly 30 years following Washington statehood, egg farming was a cottage industry comprised of small, family-owned operations tending to small flocks of chickens. That changed in 1915, when enterprising farmers created what would be described as Washington state's golden age of poultry farming. A major industry association was created to assist egg farmers, Washington State University opened a popular school in Puyallup to teach would-be egg farmers, and the industry produced tens of millions of eggs annually for shipment throughout the world. Cities in Lewis, Pierce, Snohomish, and King counties became recognized as hubs for successful egg farming businesses. Today, eggs are one of Washington's top 10 agricultural commodities; the state produces more than 2 billion eggs each year and generates more than $240 million in annual revenue.

Early History and Golden Age

Beginning in the middle of the ninetenth century, some 40 years before Washington achieved statehood, new settlers in the Oregon Territory, as well as some Cayuse Tribe members, raised a small number of chickens for harvesting eggs. Following statehood, in 1889, egg farming in the state was comprised of small, family-owned operations with just a small flock of chickens tasked with producing eggs to be sold to local loggers, miners, and railroad workers. Often, eggs were imported from other states, and even from overseas, with grocers purchasing eggs inexpensively and in bulk.

But the potential for Washington egg farmers to create a valuable commodity was realized around 1915, when formal industry organizations, such as the Washington Cooperative Egg and Poultry Association (WCEPA), were created to establish standards for poultry and egg production, as well as to offer farmers the means to operate large hatcheries and compete with out-of-state suppliers by pooling resources to sell in bulk and cover shipping costs.

The WCEPA formed in 1917 with just 150 members. Three years later, it processed 2.5 million dozen eggs valued at $1.4 million. By 1925, the WCEPA accounted for 11 million dozen eggs — approximately one-third of the eggs produced in Washington — valued at $3.5 million. By 1937, the organization had grown to include 23,000 members and dozens of chapters throughout the state.

The WCEPA invested in research and development, created master breeding farms that specialized in the hybridization of a large variety of chicken species, such as the Washington White Leghorn, which was engineered and cultivated to produce healthier hens and whiter eggs, for which farmers throughout America would pay a premium. The WCEPA also produced dried/powdered eggs for the military during World War II, and tested specially blended chicken feed. These activities heralded what has been described as Washington's golden age of poultry farming.

In 1921, Washington State Department of Agriculture representative Edward L. French noted the state's farmers owned approximately 3.5 million chickens that produced 39.6 million eggs, generating $11 million in revenue. He bragged that one Washington state hen laid 312 eggs in 1920, an American record. "Rapid strides have been made in our state, and it is fast becoming one of our principal industries," French proudly noted. "The industry is so well established that within a few years we will be one of the big producers of poultry products, and indeed no country is better adapted to the poultry production than the state of Washington" (Everybody's Poultry Magazine, January 1921). 

Still, French couldn't overlook one bothersome aspect affecting hatcheries in Washington and throughout America -- foreign competition. "Our struggle for an existence has been along the line of importation from foreign countries, especially from China," he said. "Every effort has been made to break down our law governing importation of foreign eggs. So far, the courts have held with us and we feel we have little to fear from that source, so far as our own state is concerned" (Everybody's Poultry Magazine, January 1921).

According to the October 1924 issue of Northwest Poultry Journal, China imported 362 million dozen eggs between 1914 and 1923, with imports peaking at 71.6 million dozen in 1920. "Even with great increases in our own egg production and a tariff wall, importations are heavy," noted the magazine's editors (Northwest Poultry Journal, October 1924).

By 1929, however, Washington state egg production was strong. The Washington Farmer reported that the industry "grew from virtually nothing in 1914 until last year, when Western Washington exported in excess of 1,700 [rail]carloads of eggs" (The Washington Farmer, April 25, 1929). Much of this economic activity was spurred by family-owned hatcheries -- largely centered in Western Washington -- that started out small, grew quickly in a short period of time, and turned egg production into a successful Washington commodity.

Winlock's 'Eggstraordinary' History

In Lewis County, Northern Pacific Railroad agent John Marcotte noticed the town's few poultry farmers were limited to selling, or sometimes just trading, their eggs to the local grocer. It was 1910, and Marcotte, who had a new bride and an entrepreneurial streak, came up with a savvy business plan. He encouraged area farmers to sell their eggs -- as well as hogs and veal -- to him, which he resold at a profit to people who lived and worked in Grays Harbor County logging camps. He operated out of a freight warehouse, where he did all of the candling, grading, and packing by himself at night. In 1913, Marcotte moved into the Leonard Building in downtown Winlock, formally named his business Cowlitz Produce Company, and hired a fulltime operations manager.

Between 1910 and 1919, Marcotte's revenue grew from $5,000 to $960,000 per year, and he shipped his eggs by rail to the Eastern seaboard. A few years later, Cowlitz Produce Company reported $2 million in sales and employed 40 people.

Jacob "Jake" Erving -- a Finnish immigrant who arrived in America in 1905 and started his first hatchery and poultry house in Winlock 15 years later -- was another notable Lewis County egg farmer. Erving, who owned several thousand laying hens, built temperature-controlled incubators that could hold 40,000 eggs and featured automatic egg turners. In 1920, he was one of 175 local egg and poultry farmers who joined the local chapter of the Washington Cooperative Egg and Poultry Association.

Two years later, the Lewis County Advocate noted the only American city that produced more eggs than Winlock was Petaluma, California. In addition, half of the eggs produced in Winlock were shipped to New York state; in 1923, New York received 38,400 dozen eggs — in one weekend — from Winlock. Similarly, the Winlock News noted that the Cowlitz Produce Company received an order that same year for 60 train cars of eggs to be shipped to New York over a two-month period.

Farmers in neighboring counties and as far south as Oregon sent their eggs to Winlock to be processed, and town boosters billed Winlock as the "Egg and Poultry Capital of the World."

Educating Washington's Egg Farmers

Around the time that Marcotte and Erving were turning Winlock into the nexus for egg production, Washington State College (now Washington State University) contributed to the state's booming egg industry by opening a 10-acre poultry ranch and research school in Puyallup. Opened in 1916, students from throughout Washington were drawn to the school to learn how to raise chickens and hens, and cash in on this profitable commodity. The school was led by instructors George and Hermie Shoup, a husband-and-wife couple who had moved from the Midwest to Western Washington, where they bought a farm and taught themselves how to raise chickens.

By 1922, more than 850 students had learned how to operate different makes of incubators, mix varieties of chicken feed, care for chickens both healthy and sick, and successfully manage coops and broods.

"Interest in the Poultry Course continues unabated, 100 having enrolled," noted Washington State College officials in the school's 1922 annual catalog. "This is the largest class in the history of the school. So thorough and practical is the work, many students -- with absolutely no farm experience -- have taken this course, started in business for themselves, and succeeded. The fact is impressed that poultry farming is no rule of thumb affair and that just as much brains are needed as in any other business" (Washington State Magazine, Spring 2013). 

The course was so popular, students created a school chant: Incubator, brooder, Shoup house, kale / With these four standbys, we can't fail!

Two notable graduates were Judson and Elizabeth Wilcox, a husband and wife who settled in the nearby town of Roy in 1909 to live on and work 240 acres of farmland near Harts Lake in the Nisqually River Valley. The pioneer life wasn't new to Judson. He was raised on a farm near Toronto, and eventually moved to Alaska and the Pacific Northwest hoping, but failing, to strike it rich by panning for gold. He returned to Canada, married Elizabeth, and moved in 1903 to Seattle, where they owned a hat shop in Pioneer Square and a home in the Queen Anne neighborhood.

After moving to the Roy farm, the Wilcoxes enrolled in WSC's six-week poultry course and learned how to build a chicken coop large enough for 1,000 birds. After a rough start (500 chickens died in the first year of operation), Judson and Elizabeth successfully raised healthy, egg-laying hens, and sold eggs to area logging camps. By 1940, the farm had 5,000 chickens and generated $20,000 in revenue.

Alderwood Manor 'Ranchettes'

In Snohomish County, a new kind of "master-planned" community was created in hopes of satisfying the state's demand for eggs. Instead of single-family homes found in most master-planned communities, Alderwood Manor offered small chicken ranches.

In 1917, the Puget Mill Company, which owned approximately 7,000 acres of south Snohomish County timber, partnered with California realtor W. A. Irwin to market its deforested land (and collect a tax break, to be sure) into Alderwood Manor -- a collection of 5- and 10-acre "ranchettes" located between Seattle and Everett, and available for $200 per acre. To entice would-be buyers, the Puget Mill Company invested $250,000 to build a 30-acre demonstration farm that included poultry sheds and brooder houses, and a staff of 18 people who taught newcomers (dubbed "Little Landers") how to raise chickens. Between 1917 and 1922, Alderwood Manor's population grew from fewer than two dozen people to nearly 1,500 people, and its residents tended to 200,000 hens. Eventually, Alderwood Manor included a schoolhouse, church, general store, and other community.

But egg farming proved a tough endeavor for Little Landers, who often lived in one end of the chicken sheds while their chickens occupied the other end. During the Great Depression, the price of eggs dropped by 90 percent. Some Little Landers who diversified their chicken farms by also growing fruits and vegetables, farming fish, and even raising mink, fared better than those who did not.

Woodinville's Hollywood Hens

In the early 1900s, timber-baron brothers Frederick Spencer and Charles Douglas "C. D." Stimson acquired rural property approximately 20 miles northeast of Seattle, in the King County area known today as Woodinville. Initially envisioned as a rustic family retreat and hunting ground, the property became home to the Hollywood Poultry Farm, one of the most famous egg farming businesses in the world.

In 1913, Frederick teamed with Morton E. Atkinson, one of his old schoolmates and an experienced poultry farmer, to build five laying houses, two incubator houses, and 15 brooder houses on the 17-acre farm. Seeded with 800 pedigreed S. C. White Leghorn chickens and 300 Orpington chickens, the operation was wildly successful. By 1916, the hens were laying 5,900 eggs per day. Eventually, the farm expanded to 200 acres and 12,000 chickens, and generated more than $100,000 in annual revenue.

Hollywood Poultry Farms' hens were treated like pampered celebrities. Take Lady Hollywood, for example, one of the farms' many prize-winning hens, revered for laying 300 eggs in one year. Workers hand-chopped kale to supplement her feed, and she was carefully inspected and bred to hone superior egg-laying abilities. She even lived in a spacious pen.

The farm's eggs were sold at the Hollywood Farm City Store in Seattle, and cases were exported throughout America and the world.

King County and the Sammamish Plateau

In east King County, Carl Joseph "C. J." Sween was earning $90 per month working the 12-hour night shift at a Seattle steel company when, in 1914, he combined $500 of his own money with $500 borrowed from a friend to purchase a 20-acre chicken farm on the Sammamish Plateau, located roughly 20 miles east of Seattle. Starting out with only two dozen hens, Sween (pronounced "Swinn") earned less than $500 in his first year of business -- even though his chicken houses were equipped with gas lights to keep the hens awake and laying around the clock. Ten years later, Sween had 6,000 hens that each laid, on average, 200 eggs per year; his most productive hen laid 336 eggs, and Sween entered his top hens in egg-laying contests in Illinois, Texas, Utah, and Washington.

By 1929, Sween earned $35,000 per year, and his farm grew to include 46 buildings -- including a two-story chicken house that could hold 2,200 hens -- spread over 50 acres of land. Sween paid area youngsters one silver dollar per day to round up hens on his property and place them in coops to lay eggs. By 1940, Sween's operation included 300 acres and 50,000 chickens. The secret of Sween's success? "Persistency, sanitation and rotation of range for growing pullets (female chickens under one year old), and good bookkeeping so we could find the leaks," Sween told The Washington Farmer in 1929.

Washington State's Egg Scientist

Science played an important role in Washington's rapidly expanding egg farming history, and few people did more to advance poultry science than Washington State University professor John V. Spencer. A Navy aviator during World War II, the Oregon native earned bachelor's and master's degrees at WSU and a doctorate at Purdue University before serving as the first chairman of WSU's food science and technology department.

In 1965, Dr. Spencer supported an effort to open an $856,000, 15,800-square-foot facility on WSU's campus in order to study eggs, poultry, and red meat. Opened in 1971, roughly half of the space was dedicated to studying eggs, and even featured an egg-breaking laboratory where yolks and whites were separated, pasteurized, and incorporated into frozen egg products. Spencer told a writer for WSU's alumni newsletter that he was interested in the functional process of eggs, adding, "For example, we may feed hens different fats and feeds such as fish meal in order to study the end quality and composition of the egg. Our research will include the dietary difference these feeds make and also the performance of the eggs in cakes and meringues" (WSU HillTopics, 1970).

"We are interested in the fundamental technological aspects of products," said Dr. Everett I. Martin, one of Spencer's colleagues. "For example, we want to know how to make products more stable during chill or frozen storage -- how to keep them from spoiling or deteriorating" (WSU HillTopics, 1970).

Spencer's scientific discoveries contributed to our knowledge of factors affecting the flavor and shelf life of eggs and poultry meat, whether a hen's age affects the cholesterol level of the eggs she produces, and if storing fertilized eggs in plastic bags of varying temperatures have any impacts on hatchability.

Washington State Egg Farming Today

More than a century has passed since Washington state's pioneer chicken farmers built their first coops and ushered in the golden age of poultry farming. But you can still see evidence of their work today.

Eggs are still an important part of Washington's economy. According to the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA), eggs are ranked among the top 10 Washington state commodities, valued at approximately $241 million in 2018. The United States Department Agriculture reports American chicken farms produced approximately 113.2 billion eggs in 2019, while Washington farms produced 2.079 billion eggs — more than Illinois (1.908 billion), less than Wisconsin (2.163 billion), and nowhere near top producers Iowa (17.084 billion), Ohio (10.705 billion), and Indiana (10.048 billion).

In addition, physical remnants of those early egg farmers can be found throughout the state. In Roy, Wilcox Family Farms is still in operation, led by successive generations of the Wilcox family. In recent years, the farm has grown to include approximately 1,800 acres, nearly three dozen buildings, and 1.5 million chickens that produce millions of eggs that are shipped throughout Oregon, Washington, Northern California, Alaska, and Montana — generating more than $100 million in annual revenue.

In Winlock, the city has celebrated Egg Days -- a weekend event held in June that includes free egg salad sandwiches, coronation of the Egg Day Queen, parade, and classic car show -- for more than 80 years. Winlock visitors can take a selfie with the Big Egg; billed as the "world's largest egg," this 12-foot-long, 1,200-pound sculpture sits year-round in a downtown park.

Although Alderwood Manor and its chicken "ranchettes" have been incorporated into the city of Lynnwood, the former superintendent's cottage, built in 1917, has been preserved and relocated to Lynnwood's Heritage Park.

And the Old Granary Building -- once headquarters of the WCEPA -- has been carefully preserved. It is impossible to miss along the Bellingham waterfront.


Sources:

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