November 15 is a red-letter day in the history of poultry breeding; it was on that day in 1849 that the first poultry show in America was wrapped up under a canvas tent in the Boston Public Garden.
The show was the brainchild of Dr. John C. Bennett of Plymouth, Mass., a man with an urge to show off beautiful birds. He wrote to Mr. James Pedder, editor of the Boston Cultivator, that he would exhibit perfect examples of full-blooded domestic fowls in Quincy Market. Many persons, he wrote, “have been imposed upon and deceived into the purchase of spurious fowls, supposing them to be pure bloods.”
Bennett claimed his fowls were some of the handsomest and best in the world, and respectfully invited fowl breeders to bring their specimens and compare them side by side with his breeds, including Plymouth Rocks, Yankee Games, Great Javas and Pearl White Dorkings.
“P.S.,” he wrote. “If you approve the plan as an important and beneficial one, please make the 15th a great day of gathering.”
Bennett, by the way, had more urges than just exhibiting poultry. He commanded a company for the Union in the Civil War, was an early advocate of the health benefits of the tomato, a pioneer in the use of chloroform as an anesthetic and a controversial leader of the Latter Day Saints movement who was expelled for adultery in 1842. He helped found medical colleges, then sold medical diplomas. He also bred several varieties of chicken, including the Plymouth Rock.
Poultry breeder Jana Wilson explains the passion for poultry in a 2012 article titled, The Glamorous World of Poultry Breeding. “The passion starts off innocently enough: a couple of Buff Orpingtons, maybe a Barred Rock or two,” she writes. “But some decide to take things a step further, yielding to the urge to show off their beautiful birds.”
The Boston Cultivator’s James Pedder understood even better the state of interest in poultry in 1849. He suggested the fowl exhibition be held in a larger venue than Quincy Market, “one where comfort and shelter might be secured for the numerous visitors which will be sure to be present.” He proposed the Boston Public Garden.
Now the Garden at the time was not the elegant park it is today. It was “just a plot of partially filled in ‘back bay’ land, part of which was under water at high tide,” wrote John H. Robinson in his 1913 book, The First Poultry Show in America.
The condition of the Garden did not deter the 10,000 visitors who paid four-pence (women and children admitted free) to enter the large canvas tent that sheltered the poultry show.
The show drew an impressive list of 219 exhibitors, including Daniel Webster of Marshfield, then a U.S. senator from Massachusetts. The Great Orator supplied seven domesticated wild geese and a pair of Java barnyard fowls. Robinson reported an equally impressive number of ‘different feathered races’: 1,423 Exhibitors came from all over Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island.
That poultry show made a profit of $165.75. Its success suggested to its sponsors a repeat was in order the next year. Little did they know the forces they had put in motion. Poultry Show Central, the current source for poultry information, lists six poultry shows in Massachusetts and 32 in the Northeast overall. They include the Little Rhody Poultry Fanciers Annual Spring Show, the New Hampshire Poultry Fanciers Show, the Central Maine Bird Fanciers Fall Show and, in Connecticut, Bird Fest – A Celebration of Aviculture
The Boston Poultry Show is still going strong as the Boston Poultry Expo in North Oxford, Mass. Seventy-one years later, the American Poultry Journal paid homage to that first show in an article titled The Great Boston Show. F.L. Platt called Boston “that shrine of nativity.”
“It was in Boston, more than 70 years ago, that the first poultry show in the New World was held,” Platt wrote. “It was New England that rocked the cradle of purebred poultry in America.”