The Curious Origins of Delaware’s Giant Poultry Industry

It’s True. Chickens outnumber Delaware residents 200 to 1.  

We’ve all seen the chicken houses dotting the landscape of Southern Delaware in between farms (many raising grains specifically for feeding those chickens). So, just how did the state’s largest industry get its start? 

Turns out, it all started with a mistake.  

Cecilia Steele of Ocean View ordered a flock of 50 chicks each year from a hatchery in Dagsboro in an era when chicks were commonly raised for their eggs. But in 1923, Mrs. Steele was erroneously sent 500! 

Instead of returning them, she raised them all, selling them for meat 18 weeks later at $.63 per pound (equivalent to $5 today). Realizing it could be lucrative for her and her husband, David W. Steele (later an influential state senator), the Delaware chicken industry was fortuitously born. 

Mrs. Steele’s original chicken shed, measuring a mere 16X16 feet now resides in the Delaware Agricultural Museum in Dover. 

By 1928, there were over 500 growers in Delaware, followed by poultry processing plants ten years later. Even former Governor John G. Townsend and his son got into the act, eventually growing their Millsboro hatchery into the nation’s very first fully integrated chicken producer, by adding a feed mill and production plant. (It was later sold it to Mountaire, one of the nation’s top poultry companies today.) 

The “chicken in every pot” era of the 1930s further boosted chicken production in Delaware, and in the years during World War II. (With red meat was rationed, it’s no wonder the industry saw more explosive growth!) Delaware had all of the right ingredients for “incubating” the poultry industry almost 100 years ago! Land was inexpensive, the climate mild. The Delmarva Peninsula also afforded growers proximity and easy access to major east coast cities. 

By 1949, the Delmarva Chicken Festival made its debut, drawing thousands annually – especially to witness and sample the chicken cooked in the (self-proclaimed) World’s Largest Frying Pan! It was retired a few years ago, but remains on display in the Delaware Historical Society in Wilmington. 

Today, poultry production in Delaware alone has become a $1.7 billion industry. There are more than 700 chicken farms in Delaware, directly employing more than 9,000, and partnering with more than 3,000 suppliers! In fact, Sussex County is the #1 producing county in the entire US, according to the USDA.  

As you drive by enormous silos of grain or gorgeous farm fields that surround us here in Delaware, maybe you will appreciate our farming neighbors that much more. Baked, broiled, fried or grilled, chances are your chicken dinner was raised in Delaware. Bon apetit! 

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