Fighting the Chicken Rustlers


By Ned Lodwick

The year was 1936. The ‘Great Depression’ was in its fifth year. Everyone was having trouble making ends meet. Farmers in Brown County had to work hard to put food on the table for their families. Many farms started raising chickens as a quick cash crop and for meat for family dinners.

Chickens could be profitable even in a poor economy. Hatching eggs or buying chicks from a hatchery got you started. Very little special equipment was needed to raise them to market size. They could be sold to local grocers or traded for needed merchandise from the huckster wagon.

Honest work and a honest living for honest people.

Chickens were even more profitable if you let the honest folks do all the work then steal them when they were ready to sell. Pull into a farm at night, take all the chickens that would load into your truck, and in the morning sell them in Cincinnati for cash. All profit.

100,000 chickens were being ‘rustled’ every year in Brown County alone each year. The sheriff and deputies tried to break up this crime wave but unless they caught the rustlers while they were actually taking the chickens they had no way to prosecute. If the thieves got off the farm the chickens couldn’t be identified as the stolen property.

Then along came Mrs. Thomas McChestney! She lived outside of Hamersville and raised chickens for extra income for her family. She also loved Western movies and watched as many as she could. They gave her an idea. She knew that sooner or later the chicken rustlers would try to take her chickens and she was going to be ready for them.

Then it happened. One morning she went out to feed her one hundred fattened fryers and they were all gone. She called the sheriff. He looked at the empty coop shook his head and said they would try but doubted that much could be done to find the culprits.

Mrs. McChestney said she had already done a little detective work on her own and had some suspects. She said two young men, Julius Jackson and Clyde Walker, were raising chickens a few farms away and seemed to be spending more money than they could make by raising the small number of chickens they were raising.

The sheriff, his deputies, and Mrs. McChestney went to the suspect’s farm and found no one home. As they were about to leave the suspect’s truck turned into the farm lane. Jackson and Walker said they had been in Cincinnati to sell a load of their chickens.

The next stop was the poultry market in Cincinnati. The buyer said he knew Jackson and Walker and had no reason to believe the chickens were not theirs. After all they were big time chicken raisers who had sold thousands of birds to him.

Sheriff Steve Miller thought that was unusual and asked to see the chickens they had sold. The buyer said that all but one of the chickens had already been sold and were gone. They looked at the lone rooster that the buyer had decided he was going to use in his own flock.

Mrs. McChestney asked if the suspects could prove the rooster had been theirs. They laughed and said of course not and that no one could. Chickens don’t identifying marks! But Mrs. McChestney said she could positively make the identification. Sheriff Miller, the buyer, and the suspects looked at her doubtfully but she was confident that she could make good her boast.

She told them if they looked on the underside of the rooster’s left wing they would see three small red tattoos in the shape of dashes separated by two red dots. The sheriff turned over the rooster and the tattoos were there. Mrs. McChestney said she got the idea from the movie cowboys branding their cattle.

Jackson and Walker were arrested and held in the old Brown County ‘Stone Jail’ until their trial. The sheriff also had to keep the evidence. So the rooster, now named Tom, was kept in the jail, too.

This was the era of newsreels at the movies and Tom became a matinee idol. Prancing around the jail, looking out the barred windows, and waking up all of the inmates at sunrise with crowing. Tom was a star.

Finally, the day for the trial came. Jackson and Walker were found guilty and sentenced to prison. Chicken raisers across the area began tattooing their birds. The rustling was slowed down. Tom, the hero of the story, went home with Mrs. McChestney and lived out his life on the farm.