Dedicated to the History of Maine and the People and Places That Preserve It

“No Blood, No Fowl!”
The End of Chicken Farming in Maine

By Aimée N. Lanteigne
Photos courtesy of The Belfast Historical Society & Museum

MccLeod Poultry was the first to open on Front Street in 1945.

Maplewood Poultry opened in 1946.
There was a time not so long ago when the crystalline waves of Penobscot Bay were stained with chicken blood. Chicken bones, feathers, offal, and fat bobbed in the otherwise pristine waters off the coast of Belfast, earning the town the embarrassing moniker of “Schmaltzville”, German for chicken fat. Belfast may have reeked of rotting chicken guts. Tourists may have steered clear of her grease-lined shores. Cars may have struck a stray bird more than once, but those were small prices to pay for a thriving economy. Anyone who wanted a job could get one at one of the two poultry processing plants in town, Maplewood Poultry Company and Penobscot Poultry. Today, Belfast is no longer known as “The Broiler Capital of the World,” and the last of the commercial chicken farmers is hanging up his muck boots for good.

According to the book, History of Belfast in the Twentieth Century, Belfast first jumped on the poultry bandwagon when a Massachusetts family started transporting Waldo County chickens to markets in Boston and New York during the Great Depression.

Red meat was rationed during World War II and poultry meat became more popular. In fact, soldiers returning home from the European and Pacific theaters were eligible for GI loans for poultry farming. With a cheap and willing labor force, convenient rail access to receive grain shipped from the Midwest, and a vast ocean at its doorstep wide open for dumping industrial waste, Belfast was poised for success.

The day-to-day drudgery of working on a chicken farm in Maine in the 1950’s is lovingly detailed by Mitch Littlefield’s sister, Debbie, in his blog, Memories of Shucking Peas. Debbie recalls working on her grandfather’s chicken farm as a child on Littlefield Road in Belfast. The work was dusty, dirty, and stinky. Over 7,000 chickens inhabited each of three floors of the chicken house. Every day, cracked corn was spread by hand to fatten up the broilers, and crushed stone was scattered on the chicken house floor to help the chickens digest their grain. This process was repeated several times a day, up the stairs and back down again, over and over and over.

The glass water tanks had to be refilled daily, and the stoves loaded with coal twice a day to keep the chicken house toasty. This monotony continued for nine to fourteen weeks, depending on the size of the pullets or roasters. Then a crew of men from the chicken factory would come to de-beak the chicks to prevent them from pecking each other to death.

About two months later, Debbie recollects, the crew would return to load up the pullets and truck them off. A few weeks later they returned to haul away the roasters. Then the long clean-up process began in which all hands on deck were a necessity. Starting on the top floor, the dirty sawdust riddled with chicken feces was scraped and shoveled down holes to the next lower level. The sawdust and fecal matter would be loaded into dump trucks to spread on a farmer’s field nearby. While the men folk continued to clean and scrub the barn, the women and girls would gather in the grain room with large metal tubs filled with soapy hot water to clean the water tanks and feeders.

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Workers at Penobscot Poultry. Richard Norton photo.

MacLeod Poultry Co., 1945.

two shoe factories, a pants factory, a potato processing plant, two window treatment factories, a shrimp processing plant, several marinas, four hardware stores, four banks, two five & dimes, several pubs, diners, and restaurants, men’s clothing stores, ladies apparel shops, beauty salons, and five bakeries, according to Littlefield’s blog.

No need to commute to Bangor for work, groceries, business or pleasure. Everything you needed was right downtown. Capitalizing on the booming chicken industry, the city of Belfast held an annual “Broiler Festival", a weeklong affair in mid-July complete with carnival rides, a parade, a huge chicken barbeque, music, 4H events, and of course, the beauty pageant. To be crowned “The Pick of the Chicks” was an honor and the dream of every farmer’s daughter in Waldo County.

1968 Maine Broiler Festival.

Once cleaned, the sawdust trucks would return. A long chute attached to the back of the truck blew clean, fresh sawdust six inches deep over each of the floors in the chicken house. Corrugated cardboard was set into rings around the coal stoves and laid with newspapers to prevent the new baby chicks from eating the sawdust. The waterers and feeders were refilled in anticipation of the next generation of fowl to inhabit the barn. The peepers would arrive on a covered trailer, their fluffy, soft, little yellow heads poking out of the holes in their crates. And the day-to-day drudgery of raising chickens would begin again.

In the heyday of chicken farming, nearly every farmer within fifty miles of Belfast supplemented their agricultural income by raising chickens. In the early twentieth century Belfast processed on average 250,000 chickens a day. Unemployment was unheard of.There were two poultry processing plants on the waterfront,

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Merle Grass began his decades-long career in chicken farming when he returned home from the Korean War. He started out as a feed delivery truck driver in 1955 and worked his way up to raising broilers for Penobscot Poultry. In the last half century, 77-year old Grass has raised close to 25 million chickens. But Maine’s chicken industry has gasped its last breath.

In 1980, Maplewood Poultry closed followed by Penobscot Poultry. Grass began working for Maine Contract Farming in Turner, part of the DeCoster egg empire. Grass raises day-old chicks until they are old enough to lay their own eggs, at about five months, after which they’re shipped to Quality Egg of New England, according to state veterinarian Dr. Don Hoenig. Recently, however, Quality Egg of New England has moved its main bird hatchery to Ohio. Grass was forced out of business and, like dominos, the other Maine chicken farmers closed their doors, the last being McNear Farms in North Leeds.

With the closing of the two major poultry processing plants in Belfast in the 80’s, unemployment in Waldo County skyrocketed to twenty percent, making it, statistically, the poorest county in New

Broiler Queen, 1964.

England according to Will Bleakley’s article “Moonbat Kingdom” in the December 2012 issue of Down East magazine. “It was devastating to Belfast,” City Manager Joseph Slocum said. “There was no money…and people who had lived here all their lives had to migrate to find work.”

Only a decade earlier, Waldo County saw a 17.9 percent population growth as the “back-to-the-landers” moved in attracted by the relatively affordable cost of living. With jobs literally floating away on the tides of chicken guts, Belfast residents harnessed their creative outlets and opened up art galleries, an expanded co-op, an alternative newspaper, and eclectic clothing stores. In the 1990’s, the credit card conglomerate MBNA moved into Belfast practically transforming the city overnight. MBNA razed the abandoned Penobscot Poultry processing plant on the waterfront and paid to have the site revitalized into a beautiful community park. The Chicken Capital of America was now one of USA Today’s “100 most culturally cool communities” in the country.

Belfast has reinvented itself. You no longer have to roll up your car window to avoid the stench of chicken guts when you drive through town. No blood, no fowl means the end of an economically prosperous era in Belfast’s history, but the future is equally bright, and this time there are no chicken feathers lofting in the breeze.