today practically any product, from clothing to electronics to toys
and even groceries, can be purchased by cell phone or online for
same- or next-day delivery, shopping was very different in 19th
and early 20th century Texas. Especially for rural residents of
Most of us know about traveling salesman, and Boomers still remember
the door-to-door selling of vacuum cleaners, encyclopedias, Bibles
and cleaning products. But few are likely to have ever heard about,
much less seen, the country entrepreneur known as a chicken peddler.
"In my early boyhood days in a Hunt
County cross-roads town one of my favorite friends was the chicken
peddler," World War One
veteran and then magazine editor Col. Ike Ashburn wrote in the summer
of 1952. "The front of his wagon was stocked with [a] store of merchandise
while the rear end…was filled with chicken coops and egg grates."
The chicken peddler had a simple business model: He carried a line
of household goods and "notions" and traded them with rural housewives
for chickens, eggs, butter or vegetables. Those commodities, in
turn, he sold to butchers and grocers or exchanged for something
else he could sell or barter. Some chicken peddlers had their own
country stores in addition to their home service.
Traveling in a small horse- or mule-drawn wagon, the chicken man
would cover some 30 miles a day, his arrival heralded by the clop
of hooves and the cackle of his day's scaly legged acquisitions.
Since he made his rounds in the fall when the cotton and other crops
were in, his arrival was a big deal for farm families who, in the
modern vernacular, didn't get out much. In fact, studies have shown
that fewer than half of them even owned a wagon or later, an automobile.
For housewives along his route the fowl financier offered canned
goods and staples, kitchen utensils, and toys for children. In a
time when most women sewed clothes for their family and themselves,
the chicken peddler offered calico, gingham or percale; cotton thread
of every hue and sewing needles. He also carried used flour sacks
women would cheerfully trade for a hen long past her laying days.
(An old hen still made for good chicken and dumplings.) Once the
last traces of flour had been washed out, the bags with their colorful
brand labels could be cut and sown for underwear.
For the men (and probably some of the country women) the yardbird
barterer provided Levi Garret Snuff or Star Navy chewing tobacco.
Not all the products he carried were factory-made. At times, homemade
mustang grape wine might be available, along with patent medicines
that wouldn't cure you but with their high alcohol content sure
made you think you were better.
As Christmas approached, the chicken peddler offered citrus fruit,
Peppermint candy, chewing gum and toys for children and fat turkeys
for holiday feasting. He recorded those transactions and all others
in a small notebook.
But chicken peddlers brought rural Texans more than trade goods.
In an era when many families did not yet even have a crank telephone,
much less a battery powered radio set (since most rural homes also
lacked electricity), the chicken peddler amounted to a communication
"He brought news…which [became] the focal point of all gossip and
the storehouse of local information," Ashburn recalled. "He was
conversant with and sympathetic about tragedies and rejoiced with
the country people about their successes and joyful events."
Knowing his trade area well, the poultry peddler could report on
crop conditions, cotton prices, the cattle market and other information
of great value to his isolated customers.
Appreciated as he was by his clientele, the chicken peddler Ashburn
remembered best was decidedly human, subject to mankind's foibles
"When the yearly revival meeting was held under the brush arbor,
he was always one of the favorite targets for personal work and
pleading," Ashburn wrote. "Under the influence and solicitous endeavor
of his more devout friends and neighbors and the magic spell of
the meeting he always got religion at each and every revival…."
If the worn-out knees of his overalls could be partially attributed
to the amount of time spent on his knees seeking redemption, the
worn seat of his pants could as well be linked to the regularity
of his backsliding, Ashburn said.
"Bless his heart," Ashburn wrote, "he never knowingly or willingly
wronged any human being…or animal…. He was generous to a fault and
[despite] whatever weaknesses he exhibited he was always loyal and
faithful to his family and wanted to secure for them the best things
of life insofar as his limited income would permit."