Arts and Leisure

The Rise and Fall of the Belfast Broiler Festival

Mainers by the thousands celebrated Waldo County’s Mardi Gras for four decades: the Belfast Broiler Festival.

Men from the poultry farms and processing factories barbecued tons of half-chickens over an enormous barbecue pit in City Park. It had started out as Broiler Day in 1948, but it evolved into a weeklong festival. Families saved their money for months to enjoy the mile-long parade, carnival rides, stage shows, a chicken dinner, fireworks over Penobscot Bay and a beauty contest to name Maine’s Broiler Queen.

Debbie Littlefield crowned Maine Broiler Queen in 1967. Photo courtesy Northeast Historic Film.

Poultry had a special meaning for the people of Maine, at least for a while. Broiler chickens reigned as Maine’s biggest agricultural product, and the seacoast town of Belfast reigned as Maine’s biggest chicken processor.

But it didn’t last. In the end, the story of the Belfast Broiler Festival is a tale of two cities: Belfast a town that made things and Belfast a town that entertained tourists.

Belfast Broiler Festival: Beginnings

Belfast, the seat of Waldo County, overlooks the headwaters of the Penobscot Bay. Shortly after World War II it had two large chicken processing plants, which spun off other businesses. In 1948, the first Belfast Broiler Day came together, organized by the Maine Poultry Improvement Association, Belfast Chamber of Commerce and Maine Department of Agriculture.

Belfast, Maine

It didn’t go too well, organizers later acknowledged.  “But we profited by many of the mistakes we made last year,” committeeman Jim Cole told WLBZ radio, which broadcast the event. Waldo Chick chaired it.

Broiler Day 1949 attracted 2,000 people including the governor and “celebrities from the poultry world:–shippers and hatchery men from the Mid-Atlantic states. Attendees ate 3,000 pounds of chicken barbecued in an 80-foot concrete barbecue pit.

Betty Perry from nearby Lincolnville won the title of Broiler Queen after judges from the chicken industry evaluated contestants’ poise, personality and appearance, It was the most wonderful day of her life, she told WLBZ Radio.

Gov. Frederick Payne placed the cardboard crown on her head and kissed her cheek — after asking permission. She then posed for photographs on a picnic bench while holding a chicken.

Rise of the Chicken Industry

It started in 1934, when the Mendelson family of Malden, Mass., began trucking chickens from Waldo County to Boston. They started Maplewood Poultry Co. in 1938 and began processing chickens on the site of an old fertilizer factory in 1946. Wendell MacLeod built an automatic chicken processing facility in 1945, and Penobscot Poultry then incorporated in 1949.

Raising chickens started as supplemental income for farmers, then evolved into their primary agricultural product after World War II.

By the peak of broiler production in Waldo County around 1971, 186 farms raised chickens over 853 square miles. Most farmers within 50 miles of Belfast raised chickens for the poultry plants. Thousands of people worked in the processing plants.

A chicken float in the 1967 Belfast Broilerfest parade. Courtesy Northeast Historic Film.

The industry grew tenfold from the end of World War II to 1949, from 600,000 to 6 million birds a year.

Chickens were such a big deal that in 1956, presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson came to visits its new state-of-the-art chicken processing facility.

But there was a downside. The plants flushed chicken blood, guts and feathers right into Penobscot Bay, Union Street homeowners had to rake chicken feathers off their lawns, and the eye-watering stench of chicken processing filled the air. Newsweek in 1972 called Belfast “Schmaltzport,” referring to the mat of chicken fat floating in the bay. Recreational boaters were warned away from Belfast because of it.

The Broiler Festival

But then there was the giant chicken barbecue in the middle of every July.

Eating chicken at the Belfast Broilerfest, 1949

By 1951, 10,000 people attended Belfast Broiler Day, according to Belfast Historical Society. Refrigerated trucks brought eight tons of chicken. Each meal included a half chicken, a pickle, chips, soda or milk.

In 1955, Popular Mechanics was wowed by the system created to bring the barbecued chickens to table.  Broiler Day had expanded to two days, and a 130-man crew worked in three shifts to cook 13 tons of Maine broilers. They fed the 200-foot barbeque pits by charcoal. Then they put the cooked birds on a 100-foot conveyor belt that carried dinner to the tables that stretched from a large tent.

Watching the parade, 1967. Courtesy Northeast Historic Film.

Belfast resident Mitch Littlefield grew up in Belfast and worked in the processing plant. As a kid, he had loved going to the Belfast Broiler Festival, renamed in 1965. He described it to the PenBay Pilot as a week-long country fair culminating in the barbecue. It had bands, boxing matches, hot-rod shows. pizza, hot dogs, sausage and onions, cotton candy and French fries, along with politicians giving speeches.

Still it grew. By 1972, According to Festival USA,

A jam-packed midway of Amusement Rides is only part of this event. Dinners include a chicken barbecue, a smorgasbord, seaside clambake and shrimp menu. Stage shows, water events, drill teams and concerts are also featured.

By then, the Maine broiler industry was on the downward side of the curve.

Decline of the Industry

In 1985, the Broiler Festival chairman asked the Belfast City Council to bring a stripper to the chicken-themed event. The Council said no. But the request signified decline and decay. Already sponsors had renamed it the Bay Festival in 1980, the year Maplewood declared bankruptcy.  Penobscot then closed in 1988.

Hundreds lost their jobs.

Many of the men who volunteered to cook worked in the processing plants.

“It was devastating to Belfast,” City Manager Joseph Slocum told the Bangor Daily News in 2010. “There was no money, and huge unemployment rates. People who had lived here all their lives had to migrate to find work. There were some really, really hard years in Belfast.”

The civic involvement that inspired volunteers to organize parades, run beauty pageants and cook chicken also disappeared with the factories. People talked about high school basketball and local politics when working on the line, Slocum observed.

“Now that we’ve gone to offices and computers and fax machines, we’re not standing shoulder-to-shoulder anymore,” he said. “We don’t have that common, day-to-day interaction with each other.”

Downsizing and De-Industrialization

It wasn’t just the factories that disappeared.

The last big chicken farm in Maine closed in 2010.

What happened?

Some blame industry concentration into an oligopoly based in the South, where cheap labor and fuel costs made it impossible for Mainers to compete. Others blamed poor management, too much debt, a younger generation that didn’t want the business.

Broilers in a production house

Linda Lord

Linda Lord was born in Waterville, Maine, in 1948, the year of the first Belfast Broiler Festival. Right after high school she got a job at Penobscot Poultry, finishing off slaughtered chickens in the “blood tunnel.” She worked there for 20 years until it closed in 1988, putting 400 people out of work. Just before the company shut down, Stephen Cole and Cedric Chatterley visited the plant, intending to publish a book about globalization and downsizing.

They met Linda, then 39, and made her the centerpiece of their book, I Was Content and Not Content.

After Penobscot Poultry closed, she held a series of unstable jobs. Linda, her parents’ sole caregiver, wanted to stay near them.

She tried to retrain, but couldn’t compete with the men in her class. Then she got a job in a small rope-making factory, better, she said, than working in the blood tunnel.

A fire burned her out of her house and she had to live with friends until she could rebuild it. Then the rope factory laid her off. She got a job in a fish-packing plant, but took another layoff. Linda suffered a stroke and had to undergo a year of rehabilitation.

Betty Perry

Broiler Queen Betty Perry crowned in 1949

Betty Perry, the 1949 Broiler Queen, grew up in a poor family that pasted newspaper on the walls instead of wallpaper. Her mother made her dresses from chicken feed sacks.

One day at the age of 16 she went roller skating at the local rink. A poultry farmer invited her to attend Belfast Broiler Day.

“It was a life-changing experience for me,” said Perry. “I got a new wardrobe, flew in a plane — all things I never would have gotten to do otherwise.”

She went on tour with four other beauty queens: the Potato Queen, Blueberry Queen, Lobster Queen and Miss Maine. She promoted Maine broilers on television in New York City,  possibly the first Mainer to appear on TV.

Betty Perry then went to beauty school, met her husband on a blind date and had children and grandchildren, according to her daughter, Kate Blood, in a 2013 youtube video. She lived all over the United States and Canada and traveled to Europe, Hawaii and the Caribbean. After her husband died, she lived in an upscale apartment, volunteered and joined a hiking club.

She told her daughter that winning the Broiler Queen contest opened her eyes to the possibility of where she could go with her life.

That Belfast Broiler Festival Barbecue Sauce

Tom Seymour, in his book, Tom Seymour’s Maine, A Maine Anthology, writes that Maine barbecued chicken requires only salt and pepper. “Barbecue sauce and other adornments have no place at a Maine chicken barbecue,” he wrote.

Maybe. But eyewitness accounts in 1949 suggest something different: wishbone sauce and butter. The New England Historical Society hasn’t found a recipe for wishbone sauce. It may refer, however, to an Italian dressing popularized by a Kansas City restaurant. Marinating or barbecuing meat using Wish-Bone Salad Dressing is considered the old-school way to do it.

Maine Broiler Festival and Queen (1967) from Northeast Historic Film on Vimeo.


Images: Belfast By Centpacrr at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47214051. Broilers By Larry Rana – USDA, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3824012.

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