Counting Chicks

Growing up, we were so lucky to have a cottage in Grand Haven, where my siblings and I spent all of our summers, from the day school got out in June until the following fall. Built in 1904, the Hillside sat high up on a dune, nestled among towering pine trees overlooking Lake Michigan. It had a huge screened-in porch full of white wicker furniture, where, for more than 70 years and throughout five generations, friends and family gathered after a day at the beach.

The cottage, I think more than anything, shaped my life.

Although I’ve often written about that homestead and its environs* I hadn’t ever really explored how we ended up owning the cottage in the first place. I did know that our family’s great good fortune started with an idea hatched by my grandfather, Will Sproul, in the 1920s: incubating and selling baby chicks.

The business started out small, almost as a hobby, in the basement and backyard of my grandparents’ house on Fulton Street in Grand Rapids, where Grandpa Will and my grandmother Mamie sold their poultry products to nearby neighbors. At the time, Will worked for the railroad as some sort of administrator, maybe a bookkeeper, I’m not sure. But because of this background, he knew trains had the potential, both economically and logistically, to expand his growing business beyond the confines of their yard.

And he was right. Over the next 30 years, Northland Farm, as it was later called, ended up shipping tens of thousands of baby chicks by rail to people all over the country, from Texas and Tennessee to Wyoming and North Dakota.

The business was no longer around by the time I was born in ’47, and though I had always known about it, what I didn’t realize was what a huge operation it was. After my mother died I found a box full of information on it in her attic, from customer post cards and brochures to photographs and newspaper articles, one of which referred to my grandfather as a “pioneer in shipping day-old chicks.”

After it outgrew the Fulton Street facilities, Northland moved the breeding and hatching of the chicks up to Bill’s Lake in Newaygo, where “ideal climatic conditions,” helped create the perfect environment for what they called “Northland Winter Layers.” Described as “pedigreed and progeny tested,” and “bubbling over with vigor,” the resulting pullets were known for their laying abilities — large eggs and lots of them. One first-prize winner in the Central New York Office Egg Laying Contest dropped a record 312 eggs in one year.

Grandpa Will also worked closely with Michigan State and other agricultural and governmental organizations to continually improve the high quality of his special layers.

The chicks were sired by a similarly excellent breed of “big chesty Leghorns” imported from England, arriving, as the promotional copy explained, “after the long trip across the Atlantic Ocean as jaunty and peppy as if they were merely coming from a night’s rest in their home coop.”

These descriptions and many others were included in a beautiful 24-page, 8” x 11” catalog I found, complete with photos, which I also learned was written entirely by my grandfather. A copywriter myself for more than 30 years, I no idea he had created all his own marketing materials. And he did a masterful job – his style was professional and informative, but personal and folksy, too, just the kind of writing I love. Here’s a letter he penned to potential customers, perfectly placed in the front of that catalog. (See end.)

Satisfied customers wrote glowing letters to him as well, affirming the superiority of his chicks and providing solid testimonials he wisely used in his communications. (I would have, too!)

I had always been under the impression that Northland’s customers were mostly single families, people wanting to have their own source of meat and eggs during the Depression. But in reality, I discovered, most of their customers were commercial poultry farmers with large operations of their own. Wrote one, “During the past eight years, I have purchased between 25,000 and 30,000 chicks from you…the best of any strain we have ever worked with…”

I feel so bad that I have no idea what happened to Northland Farm. I think a nephew, one of the Hefferans, took it over after my grandfather died in 1945.  At one time I heard that a company in Holland ended up with it, but beyond that we simply don’t know.

I only wish I would have asked my mother more about it before she died. But at least I have all these enlightening materials, which I’m so grateful she saved. Reading through this archive taught me so much more than how we acquired the cottage. I feel like I finally know what my Grandfather Will was all about ¾ and that I come from pretty damn good stock myself.

*See “Sand in My Sheets” and “A Walk in the Park” (if I can ever figure out how to put them in here).

Letter from W Sproul

 

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