The Rhode Island Red
breed began in Little Compton, a seaward-turned village on the eastern shore of
the Sakonnet River between Newport, Rhode Island and New Bedford, Massachusetts.
Before the Red, chickens were minor players; they were allowed to run loose
until it was time for a chicken dinner. Their eggs were gathered, but hens laid
for just weeks, or at most a few months each year. But as the industrial
revolution brought thousands of people to towns and cities, a demand
arose for farm-fresh produce, including eggs and chicken meat. Farmers sold live
chickens, too, and ships’ agents bought some of them to put aboard
outward-bound whaleships and merchantmen.
replacements abroad, and one such bird, a Malay or a Chittagong rooster caught the eye
of William Tripp, a Little Compton market man who set it loose with his other
chickens. The cross-bred birds grew larger, provided more meat, and became
productive layers. In 1854 Tripp and John Macomber began breeding "Tripp’s
Yaller (yellow) Fowl" for those characteristics. Some time later, Isaac
Champlin Wilbour bought some of Tripp’s birds, and soon his 200-acre spread in
Little Compton was the largest poultry farm in America. By 1886 he could deliver
4,000 dozen eggs in a single week.
A decade later Wilbour
began advertising his "Rhode Island Reds" in poultry journals, though
Lester Tompkins, a breeder from Fall River, Massachusetts is generally credited
for the bird’s dark mahogany color. In 1901 Wilbour’s commercial name was
confirmed by the American Rhode Island Red Club, an organization established to
standardize the breed (www.crohio.com/redclub/). On its hundredth birthday in
1954, the Red was designated the State Bird of Rhode Island.
productivity of the breed built the foundation for the modern poultry industry.
Surprisingly, the Rhode Island Red is now on a watch-list of endangered "heritage"
fowl. Intensive cross-breeding since 1940 has further increased production at
the cost of large size and distinctive color: today there are fewer than 5,000
breeding registries worldwide for what was once the standard Rhode Island Red