Stephen F. Austin State University

Clucking Heard 'Round the City - Part I - The Gauntlet is Thrown Down (October 2012)

Clucking Heard 'Round the World - Part 1 - The Gauntlet is Thrown Down
By Marvin Mayer

Nineteen-fourteen was known as the Progressive Era, a time of social activism and political reform. Tyler, a city of nearly 15,000, had two things going for it; a well established, educated, professional class of world travelers, and a strong women's club involvement. Progressivism produced a City Beautiful movement which, among other things, called for urban planning, including parks, in the hope a more attractive community would help alleviate some aspects of poverty. Supporters of the movement also believed aesthetic and pleasing horticulture might enhance and further promote the community.

With growth comes change; new life styles, new laws and ordinances. As Tyler continued to grow, houses consumed more of what a couple of decades earlier had been open pasture land. Additionally, more and more "open" land was fenced, primarily to keep livestock from being killed by trains. The city, however, remained relatively fence-free. A few early ordinances passed by the city protected "urban" dwellers from damage resulting from hogs and cows freely roaming city streets, rooting in the garbage, munching on shrubs, and leaving behind unsanitary piles of "processed" flowers, shrubs, and vegetables. But those ordinances didn't apply to chickens.

According to an article in the February 26, 1914 edition of the Tyler Courier-Times, Tyler's citizenry wanted someone to take on the chicken issue, to "grab the chicken by its comb, so to speak. Someone did. "Those Chickens" was the title of the February 26th newspaper column known as The Stroller. Claiming to have been beseeched by 'several people' raising questions about why chickens were allowed to run around and bother neighbors' flowers and gardens, the columnist, sounding much like a current day politician, presented his personal point of view. "From the standpoint of justice, chickens should be kept penned up," he wrote. He added, "This is a free country and every citizen should have the perfect right of raising anything he wants to but when it bothers someone else, the right should stop."

Fanning the flames, in the next day's column he offered a plan to continue the fight. He suggested the city's women take up the matter and try to stop the practice [of allowing chickens to roam freely.] "There is nothing that aids in making a city beautiful like pretty lawns and flowers. But how in the world is Tyler to have pretty lawns and flowers if the chickens are going to scratch everything up?"

Fancying itself a progressive city, Tyler boasted street after street of beautiful homes, nearly all tucked behind front yard fences. But styles were changing, and the new neighborhood style favored lawns without fences. Besides, while fences originally helped keep out wandering livestock, they did little to restrict chickens. The battle raged on.

A few days later, The Stroller reported a tidal wave of feedback on the topic of unrestrained chickens. The columnist wrote, "It seems that this evil has reached a critical situation in this city. It is time that something should be done about it. It is a matter that is up to the citizens. Why not get busy and see if the council will not pass an ordinance in regard to it." He invited correspondence, pro and con, be sent to "Chicken Editor," Courier-Times. Letters poured in.

Eight days after the last article began generating a landslide of responses, the columnist's next post summarized all of the legislation-supporting responses thusly. "The mind of man can not conceive of any one thing that is more exasperating or of any one thing that has caused more hard feelings, more spiteful talk, more real disgust and discouragement than the allowing of chickens to torment [your] neighbors. Flowers and gardens help a town morally. They keep people contented. The influence is felt in every day life. They keep people in a pleasant frame of mind that is felt in every circle, even in business. They help. But what is Tyler going to do about it?"

To be continued …

The author acknowledges the contribution of Smith County Historical Society member, Vicki Betts, who not only did all of the research relative to the newspaper articles, but willingly allowed me to use her script from a presentation to Smith County Historical Society titled "The Great Chicken Wars of Tyler" as the basis for this series of articles.