In 1923, Ocean View housewife Cecile Steele placed an order for 50 baby chicks, but ended up receiving 500. From that one mistake, the Delmarva poultry industry was born.
“Aside from Caesar Rodney riding up and Delaware voting for the Revolutionary War, this is probably the biggest, longest-lasting event that occurred in Delaware, as far as economic and cultural change,” said Ocean View Historical Society President Carol Psaros.
“The poultry industry has, to some extent, even outlasted the DuPont Company, which certainly was a big event — when the DuPonts immigrated here during the French Revolution.
“Chickens have played a big part in Delaware history. Our colonial troops were know as fierce fighters because they fought like a blue chicken called the Delaware blue hen which was a fierce gamecock back in the Revolutionary War time,” Psaros noted.
“It became folklore, and eventually the University of Delaware adopted it as their mascot — the Fighting Blue Hen. So chickens have had a long history here in Delaware, even before Cecile Steele.”
To share that history, the Ocean View Historical Society will be hosting the Sussex County premiere of the film “Cluck, Pluck & Luck: The Improbable Early History of Delmarva’s Chicken Industry” this Wednesday, Aug. 12, beginning at 7 p.m., at Mariner’s Bethel United Methodist Church. The screening is free and open to the public.
Producer and director Michael Oates of 302 Stories Inc. will introduce the film and be available for questions afterward. Oates has produced more than 31 films for various historical and industrial groups — notably ones involving the environment, such as the locally well-known documentary “The Storm of ’62,” and “Dollars on the Beach,” an Emmy-nominated film on Delaware horseshoe crabs.
“We were familiar with his work,” said Psaros of Oates. “His work is very remarkable and performs a great public service, because a lot of these people have already died, that were in the early chicken houses.”
Psaros said anyone who is interested in history — and particularly in Delaware history —should attend the screening.
“It is filled with old pictures from the Delaware Archives, of early Delaware farms. This industry was really started by small family farms, people that were trying to figure out how to raise chickens en masse. It was a lot to contend with. A lot of the early farmers lost their shirts because they made mistakes…
“Chickens don’t like heat, they don’t like cold. They have to be fed the right kind of grain to put on weight. The early chicken houses were very labor-intensive. There was disease — chicken vaccinators became key to making sure your flock didn’t die. There was a lot to learn.
“There was no Purdue, there was no Mountaire. The family farmers were on their own to figure out how to raise chickens in a cost-effective way. And those who figured it out became quite wealthy and quite successful, which was a buffer for them during the Depression.”
Delaware state officials and industry representatives have been invited to the screening, including Delaware Agriculture Secretary Ed Kee and Delmarva Poultry Industry Executive Director Bill Satterfield.
“It’s really our strongest story,” said Psaros. “The broiler industry is a billion-dollar industry that started here in little Ocean View, Del. It’s an incredible story that one woman’s determination and ingenuity created this long-term industry.”
The film takes viewers from to a time when many residents relied on subsistence farming to when chickens accounted for a multi-billion-dollar industry.
“Cecile Steele and the development of the poultry industry was just paramount in Ocean View and now internationally,” she said. “It is Delaware’s largest export item and a huge economic boost for the state. Sussex County still produces, by county, more chickens than anywhere else in the world. It’s very much a part of our way of life here in Sussex County and worldwide.
“The industry started in 1923. The stock market crashed in ’29. By the time the broiler industry got under way and got its legs, it was a great buffer for Sussex County and Delaware during the Depression. It gave a lot of people work at a time when they would not have had it.”
Psaros said she hopes those who see the film will be moved to learn more about the history of the chicken industry and visit the Ocean View Historical Complex on summer Wednesdays for free tours, from 1 to 4 p.m.
“We have a replica of Cecile Steele’s chicken house that her husband build her in 1924,” she said, adding that docents are always present at the complex on Wednesdays. “We’re hoping that once people see the film, they’ll want to come by and look at Cecile Steele’s first chicken house. That’s why we’re so proud in Ocean View to be the downstate premiere, because this is where it all started.”
Earlier this year, Psaros — a historian and author — penned “Chickens and Mosquitoes: The Art of Uncertain Times,” in which she depicted life in the camps of the Civilian Conservation Corps and inside the early Sussex County chicken houses when the broiler industry was in its infancy. The book will be available for purchase on Wednesday evening, as well.
Members of the Ocean View Historical Society will also be on hand to answer any questions or inquiries about donations or becoming a member.
Psaros said preserving Ocean View history is the society’s driving mission, and screening “Cluck, Pluck, and Luck” fits in with that mission.
“One of our goals is to provide educational programs for people in Sussex County — to tell the history of our region, our town and country. This fits right in with our purpose and our mission as a historical society.”
Psaros said she is excited for the screening, and hopes visitors and community members will attend to learn more about an industry that started in a back yard in Ocean View.
“I’m really looking forward to this event, which tells the story of the growth of the Ocean View initiated broiler industry from 1923 to the present. Without a doubt, chickens are Delaware’s most important commodity and global export.”
For more information on the Ocean View Historical Society, visit www.ovhistoricalsociety.org. The society’s historical complex is located at 39 Central Avenue in Ocean View. To view a preview of “Cluck, Pluck & Luck,” visit vimeo.com/107035006. Mariner’s Bethel United Methodist Church is located at 81 Central Avenue in Ocean View.