Once upon a time, it took kerosene and hot water to run a poultry farm, but like Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival, Carl A. Engel went electric in Hays, Kansas in 1927. This chicken-wattle-red pencil must’ve seemed mighty modern in that tiny Midwestern town of 5000 souls back in those days. They must have wondered, what in tarnation is an “electric hatchery,” just like we do now.
No, it’s not a psychedelic rock band or a drug lair. In the last days of the Jazz Age, when movies were silent and cars were Model-Ts, an “electric hatchery” was a newfangled word for what we now call an incubator, and it was cutting edge science for enterprising Mr. Engel’s birdbrained business on the corner of 5th and Main in a town founded in 1867 as a whistle stop on the Union Pacific Railroad.
The hatchery would, er, take flight quickly in Hays. In addition to eggs, Engels specialized in “started chicks,” which sounds like olden days slang for “angry women” but really just means, “baby chickens a week or so old.” Unlike day-olds, “started chicks” were less wobbly, stronger, and significantly farther along the way to being a future Friday night’s fried chicken dinner.
Eventually, Engel’s would drop the “electric” from its name, as the word lost its novelty by the '40s, but throughout the ‘50s, the company would turn up in “Who’s Who in the Hatchery World." By the ‘60s, it was a huge, three-building factory full of up to 11,000 laying hens sucking down 2800 pounds of Purina chow a day dropping nearly 3 million eggs a year directly down cooled chutes starting at 2am to reach grocery shelves within 18 hours.
We don’t know what became of Engel’s poultry business, or where the great-great-great-great-great-great grandchicks of his fine feathered birdlings are pecking around now, but at least this bright red pencil with it’s green eraser and brass ferrule is still here to remind us of the days when electric hatcheries, started chicks and five-digit phone numbers were cutting edge tech.