Stephen F. Austin State University

Clucking Heard 'Round the City - Part IV - The 'Pen' truly was mightier than the sword, even if it takes decades to prove it! (January 2013)

Clucking Heard 'Round the City - Part IV - The 'Pen' truly is mightier than the sword, even if it takes decades to prove it!
By Marvin Mayer

Opponents began to organize immediately, with 75 citizens attending a meeting to discuss proper measures.

A little over two weeks after the ordinance became law, more "ammunition" was unleashed by the opposition. Mrs. T. P. Marshall, of Dallas, visited Tyler's Chamber of Commerce as a representative of the Government Food Savings and General Work Campaign. She accused the anti-chicken ordinance supporters of being 'slackers' and hinted they might be classified as German sympathizers.

Will Marsh and others took offense at these statements and he said, "The chicken ordinance is a matter of opinion, and does not have anything to do with a man's view of the war." He did not believe the people of Tyler who favor chickens running at large like they have for more than thirty years should be classified as 'slackers.' "Tyler people will buy War Savings Stamps, Liberty Bonds, and support the war program in every other way, regardless of whatever they believe with reference to chickens, hogs, dogs, cats, or anything else." Opponents managed to get a referendum vote included in the next election.

That's when the feathers really flew! Mrs. R. H. Brown wrote in to the Courier-Times, "Until recently, the matter of not allowing chickens to run at large was more a question of civic pride and beauty than utility. Now it is far more - a move for conservation. Just now we need to be practical and useful above everything else. The penning of chickens … is not solely for benefit of increased production of this fowl - but for another very important reason that everybody may have an unmolested war garden where there are unfenced plots of ground on the premises."

Another citizen responded with his own letter-to-the-editor. "Are we being loyal to our country, our men, our boys who are giving their lives to win the greatest and most terrible war of the ages and which bids fair to become more fierce each day, when we attempt to stay an ordinance that has a tendency to lessen any supply of food or the buying of War Stamps? A very large proportion of our town is composed of the working class of people, a few of us own automobiles or have independent incomes but most live from the Pay Envelope, and it is only by being rigidly economical and doing all our own work that we are able to pay our bills and do 'our bit' in purchasing small bonds and Thrift Stamps. Our gardens and chickens mean much to us. Think of the worth of your flowers against the worth of the chickens. When universal peace has been established, we can all rejoice and work together to make Tyler the 'City Beautiful' in form and in work but until then, lend your energies towards food production for ourselves - food for our soldiers, food for our allies." Addressing his response to the previously cited letter-to-the-editor, he concluded with, "This is Patriotism, Mr. Voter - in the name of humanity, which shall it be, Chickens or Civic Beauty?"

The referendum vote was taken and …the chickens won! They were allowed to roam and scratch (and poop) with impunity. And so they did, at least for the next twenty years. In the February 6, 1938 Tyler newspaper, the gauntlet was again thrown down. One columnist put it this way, "We are just as dead-set as the next follow against this business of cluttering up the statue books with laws that usually are unnecessary and almost invariably are unenforceable. But we are telling the city commission today that 'there ought to be a law' or at least an ordinance, against prowling chickens. Tyler householders who envision a beautiful flower garden or a luscious spring vegetable plot might as well give up the idea if they live next to chicken owners whose charges are footloose. It appears the only thing for the aggrieved to do is to erect a fence, whether or not an unsightly barrier fits in with the landscape." The 'war' was far from over.

In response to dozens of complaints, city manager George D. Fairtrace asked the city attorney to draw up a new chicken ordinance for the city commission's consideration. "It's a hard matter to control, even if you have an ordinance," he pointed out. As an example, he mentioned a telephone call from an angry housewife who complained of a neighbor's chickens scratching up her garden. In her view, people who want to raise chickens should move to the country. Despite the continuing dispute, the commission enacted no new chicken ordinance.

The issue continued to smolder with strong feelings on both sides, but it wasn't until March 7, 1947, some 9 years after the last 'non vote' by the commission, that the first permanent ordinance appeared. Owners of unpenned chickens could face fines of up to $200. The rules were refined November 5, 1954 to require pens, coops, or enclosures and stipulated they must be at least 50 feet from any home. Currently, Tylerites are limited to six fowl per household unless the property is zoned agricultural, and those birds had to be kept in a pen at least fifty feet from any property line.

It seems improbable in today's world that such a ruckus could so sharply divide a community, but the clucking heard 'round the city first became an issue when chickens "flew the coop" nearly 100 years ago.

All of the research put into this article was done by Ms. Bates.