The Tragic Tale of Hen #126
By Chris Guthrie
The First Tarleton International Egg-Laying Contest began on November 1 1926 and ran for 357 days (until October 23, 1927). The idea of the contest originated with Neal Gearreald, director of Tarleton’s School of Agriculture, and W.C. Homeyer, professor of poultry husbandry at the school. They argued that poultry producers needed official records of the egg-laying capacity of their chickens in order to “command a reasonable price for their breeding stock.” Dean J. Thomas Davis, head of Tarleton at the time, agreed with them and authorized the contest as another way to serve the needs of local agricultural producers and thereby enhance the reputation of the school.
Entry into the contest was open to any poultry breeder “throughout the world,” although most of the 1926 competitors were from Texas. Each entrant was required to send thirteen standard bred pullets “reared from eggs produced on the owner’s premises.” Ten of theses pullets composed a “pen” (the other three served as alternates to replace birds that died during the course of the contest). Tarleton provided a chicken house and a yard for each entrant. Department of Agriculture faculty and students cared for the chickens and administered the contest. Points were awarded to each pen based on the total number of eggs its ten hens laid each month. At the end of the contest, awards were given to the five highest producing pens, the highest producing pen for each breed, the ten highest individual egg layers, and the highest individual egg layer for each breed. Monthly and final results were also reported to the individual contestants, the American Poultry Association, and American Record of Performance Council.
The first Tarleton contest was an unqualified success and established a reputation for high egg production that would last until the 1950’s. Of all the contests held in the country during the 1926-27, the Tarleton event had the highest average egg production got all breeds (206.74) and placed well in many individual breed categories. In fact, of the 17,860 hens entered in contests across the United States, Tarleton had the thirteenth highest individual producer (Hen #595, a single comb White Leghorn which laid 312 eggs during the duration of the event).
This inaugural success quickly established the Tarleton Egg Laying Contest as one of the best in the country. In the years that followed, the Tarleton event attracted an ever-growing number of entrants (seventy-two from ten states by 1945) and set a variety of national egg production records. The college also gathered a great deal of publicity from the event. In 1936, for example, Hen #126 (a White Leghorn owned by Erath Egg Farm) was well on her way to breaking the national record for individual egg production, laying 312 eggs in a little over ten months. However, with two months still to go in the contest she choked on a piece of corn and died. J.P. Ellis and W.S. Woodlett, the two Tarleton students who had cared for her pen, conducted formal funeral services for the fallen record-contender and buried her in a special plot on the poultry farm. The tragedy attracted much attention in the local press and even prompted a request from Time Magazine for a photograph of the deceased chicken.
Egg laying contests continued at Tarleton until the early 1950s. They were so successful that Tarleton became the only official contest location in the entire Southwest and also the holder of the national record of individual egg production (343 eggs by a single comb white Leghorn in 1940-41). However, one can only wonder what greater heights Tarleton’s reputation might of reached if the brilliant egg-laying career of Hen #126 had not been tragically cut short in 1936.