Many Delawareans can tell you that the state bird is a blue hen and that the DuPont family played a significant role in its history; however, considerably fewer of them seem to know how a single mistake helped propel Delaware to become a major player in the poultry industry, or about the history of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the state during the Great Depression.
Last month, Bethany Beach resident Dr. Carol Psaros published her second book, “Chickens and Mosquitoes: The Art of Uncertain Times.”
“I just wanted to tell the story of how people worked together with resilient hearts to get through the Depression,” said Psaros. “I really wanted to tell the story of Delaware in the 1930s, because it was such a special time, like all periods of history.
“I don’t think any other event — other than the Du Pont family emigrating to Delaware during the French Revolution — has effected Delaware more than the development of the poultry industry initiated by Cecile Steele here in Ocean View.”
In 1923, Steele — an Ocean View housewife and small-scale poultry grower — accidentally ordered 500 chickens from a supplier, instead of her usual 50. From that single mistake, the poultry industry in Delaware was born.
“By the time the ’30s came around, Ocean View and all of Sussex County was in the throes of a great business expansion, because the family farm turned into chicken producers,” said Psaros. “A lot of them, during the Depression, in order to keep afloat — they started raising chickens en masse. It created new industries, like bag companies, seed companies, vaccination companies… companies that made crates for the chickens, later on companies that processed the chicken parts. Then the industry grew and spread across the country and is now an international industry.”
Psaros is a former Delaware educator, and former Assistant Secretary of Education for the State of Delaware, having retired in 2000. It’s her second book, as she also authored “Come Back to Bethany,” a story of three Bethany Beach families, spanning three centuries.
“Chickens and Mosquitoes: The Art of Uncertain Times” follows Jim, a Delmar man who drops out of college and joins “Roosevelt’s Tree Army” — the Civilian Conservation Corps — to survive during the Depression; and Carolyn, a young woman from Philadelphia who accepted a teaching job at the Selbyville School.
“People like my dad had to drop out of college; their lives were greatly impacted. That’s what the book is about. It’s historical fiction, based on my father’s life. The love story is a take on my parents’ life. You know, you never ask your parents — certainly in 1950 you don’t ask your parents — ‘When did you first meet?’ ‘When did you have your first kiss?’ So, I had to research using his scrapbooks and their letters.”
Psaros said that, while she was growing up, she had heard her parents mention the Great Depression, but they never went into detail about how it affected them personally.
“As a child, I always heard my parents talk about the Depression as ‘terrible times,’ and they would move on and would never explain what they meant by ‘terrible times,’” she recalled. “So, 60 years later, after I had time to grow up, work and later retire, I found my father’s two scrapbooks. He was a Delaware historian, and he saved everything, thank goodness. I just found so many interesting things.”
In her father’s scrapbooks, Psaros said, she found a slew of priceless history memorabilia, including letters, playbills, diaries, dinner menus and Army Reserve documents.
“In the 1930s, the fastest way to communicate with another person was to write a letter and put it in the post, because you could count on that letter getting there in a couple days. It was a very slow time. It was before television; it was before cell phones; it was before the 24-hour news cycle. … People didn’t even have typewriters en masse,” said Psaros.
“As it got near the end of the ’30s,” she said of her review of the documents, “I found gasoline ration cards and Selective Service cards, Seaford nylon plant records, and I just realized how much had happened in that time period and I really wanted to write about it.”
In writing the book, Psaros said she had two goals in mind.
“I wanted to tell the story of the Civilian Conservation Corps that my dad was a part of in Delaware, and I wanted to tell the story of the early poultry houses, because I’ve lived in Delaware all my life and I knew how much chickens meant to the state.”
The CCC was a public work-relief program that was in operation from 1933 to 1942 in the United States, for unemployed, unmarried men from relief families, as part of the New Deal enacted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in response to the Great Depression.
“The CCC men across the United States — they built all of our national parks. They built the parks out west. They did so many national projects that are around today, and that we’re still enjoying the results of,” explained Psaros, noting that her father didn’t speak of his time in the CCC.
“If you were in the CCC at that time, you were poor and you were hungry. Each man — it was for young men, younger than my dad. They were supposed to be 16 to 19… My dad had already been to college and finished a year but had to drop out when the stock market crashed. He was paid like all the other men; they got $30 a month for working; $25 of it was sent back to the family, and they kept $5 for themselves while they were at camp.”
The book also explores Jim’s friendship with Delaware artist Jack Lewis and includes prints of his artwork.
“Jack Lewis and my dad were friends — they both worked at the CCC together at Camp 1224 in Lewes. They had a lifelong friendship, so I used the art of Jack Lewis to kind of frame the book,” she said.
The story also discusses the DuPont nylon plant in Seaford, where Psaros grew up.
“Since I was from Seaford, I worked in the story of the nylon plant and its part in the World War II effort. It talks about the beginnings of the plant, which were important for the war effort and for nylon production in the state of Delaware.”
While writing the book, Psaros said, one of the most interesting aspects of the state’s history she learned about was the story of the Indian River playgrounds.
“Those sites along the inland bays — Oak Orchard, Riverdale, Clarks Beach, Rosedale Beach — it just was such a magical place in the ’30s. That was the place to be — not the beach,” she said. “Rosedale Beach, which was a resort for black people where they brought in Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong — all the big jazz names played there. It’s something that disappeared… It’s not there anymore, because the Storm of ’62 took out all of those places, unfortunately.”
Psaros said that, in its prime, Oak Orchard had a pier, a dance hall, a carousel, a bathhouse, docks and restaurants.”
“Nothing is constant except change.”
The book is available at Bethany Beach Books, and Psaros said it will eventually be available at Biblion Books in Lewes and Browseabout Books in Rehoboth.
She said it took about a year to write the book, which she described as a “labor of love.”
“I certainly learned a lot about Delaware — I learned about the CCC camps. With the help of people here in Ocean View, I learned about what that might have been like to be in a poultry house at that time. I learned more about the art of Jack Lewis by looking at his paintings, going to some workshops and talking to his daughters.”
She said she hopes readers enjoy her book and learning about some of the things that make Delaware unique.
“It’s a love story about a man and a woman, and also a story about Delaware. It’s a book for anybody who loves Delaware and wants to know more about it.”
For those who do not live in the area, but would like to read “Chickens and Mosquitoes: The Art of Uncertain Times,” a copy may be ordered by visiting www.bethanybeachbooks.com/signed-local-interest/chickens-and-mosquitoes. Psaros can be reached by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.