1923: Town of Hannibal had a champion ‘chicken picker’


Griswold’s Furniture warehouse utilized the building at 309 S. Fourth St., in December 1960. In 1923, the building housed the C.F. Bishop Poultry Co., where Hannibal resident Ed Harris was a champion “chicken picker.” The building is no longer standing. OTIS HOWELL PHOTO/ STEVE CHOU COLLECTION

MARY LOU MONTGOMERY

Ed Harris excelled in a profession that was much in demand in 1923: Chicken picking.

He was so good at what he did that the Courier-Post featured the Hannibal man of color, creating a descriptive reminder of a craft that ultimately died out with the advent of technology. The Palmyra Spectator picked up the story for its Jan. 10, 1923 edition.

Ed Harris worked for C.F. Bishop Poultry Co., located at 309 S. Fourth. The building (which no longer stands) was immediately to the south of what is now River City Restorations, located on the southwest corner of South Fourth and Lyon streets.

The Courier-Post noted: “Harris is a fast man, when it comes to picking chickens.”

In one day, during January 1923, Ed Harris processed 640 chickens during his 8-hour work shift, averaging one chicken each 45 seconds.

“The chickens picked by Harris yesterday were not prepared and handed to him, nor did he have exceptional facilities for making the record. In order to accomplish his feat, Harris had to go to the coop, catch his chicken, hang it up, kill it, and hang it on the poultry carrying crane. The same process had to be repeated each time he picked a fowl.”

For this day’s work, he netted $16, averaging 2 1/2 cents per chicken.

Who was Ed Harris?

In a 2017 interview, Hannibal native Larry Harris of Kansas City told of his grandparents’ neighborhood in the area of Palmyra Road (later renamed Mark Twain Avenue) during his childhood. The neighbors were all relations. Extended family, beginning with Larry’s great-grandparents, Daniel and Amanda Harris, lived in the neighborhood as early as 1871. Larry was raised by his grandparents, Hilbert Daniel Harris (born 1886-87) and Lenora Belle Woodson Harris, and their address during Larry’s childhood was 824 North Section, on the north side of Mark Twain Avenue.

“Where our house was, in a house above it lived Ed Harris; below that house there was a house with three sisters in it - sisters of my grandmother.” (Lenora Harris)

Ed Harris (born 1855) and his brother Toliver Harris (born 1849) were sons of Nancy Anne Low and step-sons of Reuben Low, and they lived at 600 Palmyra Avenue in 1880, the same address as Larry’s great-grandparents, Daniel and Amanda Harris.

The extended family lived there until 1953 when the houses were torn down to make way for widening Mark Twain Avenue.

A number of the Harris men were – at one time or another – chicken dressers, including Larry’s grandfather, Hilbert Harris, (a World War I veteran) who was a chicken dresser off and on from 1910-1925.

The end of an era

The Dayton Daily News, Dayton, Ohio, described how machines had taken the place of chicken pickers in its April 22, 1961 edition.

The newspaper reporter interviewed Mose Rattler, who worked as a professional chicken picker for 69 years.

In his prime, he could pick the feathers off of four chickens per minute, he said, but the machines that replaced his labor could do it even faster.

“There ain’t no demand any more for a chicken picker,” sighed the elderly Negro, who reckoned he’s picked more than a million chickens during his career.”

Notes

Daniel Harris died Sept. 26, 1901, and is buried at the Old Baptist Cemetery. His gravesite has a marker denoting him as a veteran of the Union Army during the Civil War.

Hilbert Daniel Harris, son of Daniel Harris and himself a veteran of World War I, died in May 1968.

Neither Ed Harris’ age or address were included in the newspaper story. It is this writer’s assumption, based on available information, that the Ed Harris who was interviewed by the newspaper is the same Ed Harris who is related to the Harris family who lived near Palmyra Road (Mark Twain Avenue.)

Larry D. Harris, circa 1960

The extended Harris family lived in the Mark Twain Avenue area from circa 1871 until their property was taken in order to widen the avenue in the 1950s. This photo shows North Section, where Hilbert and Lenora Harris lived for many years. Ed Harris, believed to be the same Ed Harris who was a champion “chicken picker” also lived here. MARY LOU MONTGOMERY

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