Eugenics is not a dirty word.

Intersection of Adamsville Road, Westport Harbor Road and Main Street, Adamsville, Little Compton

As those of us who have heard the advertising jingle know, "brown eggs are local eggs and local eggs are fresh." It just so happens that one of the most dependable layers of brown eggs was bred right here in Rhode Island. Adamsville's granite Rhode Island Red Monument commemorates the development of the famous dual-purpose breed that's been supplying chicken lovers with drumsticks and omelets for over a century.

The Rhode Island Red resulted from a series of poultry experiments begun in 1854 by Captain William Tripp of Little Compton. In that year, while visiting New Bedford, he spotted a sailor with an exotic Red Malaysian cock. Tripp purchased the bird and added it to his own flock of dunghill fowl, and it was soon evident that the resulting progeny were an improvement over their ancestors, in that they were larger and laid more eggs. Tripp partnered with another poultry farmer, John Macomber of Westport, Massachusetts, and the two traded birds back and forth, further improving the breed. Light Brahmas, Plymouth Rocks, and Brown Leghorns were added into the mix. The resulting offspring were a sort of proto-Rhode Island Red, prized for their high egg yield, yet still delicious in a frying pan.

In the 1880s, one of Captain Tripp's neighbors, a large-scale poultry farmer named Isaac Wilbour, crossed "Tripp's fowl" with his own hens, further improving the breed to the point where it was recognized for excellence by the Rhode Island Agricultural Experiment Station in Kingston. It was Wilbour who came up the name Rhode Island Red. The birds helped Wilbour build an empire that he called "The Biggest Poultry Farm on Earth," a 200 acre spread with 100 henhouses and 5,000 laying hens. This at a time when a large poultry operation might have only 500 laying hens. Each case of Rhode Island Red eggs produced on the farm carried the PPP logo, an acronym for how Wilbour described the birds' positive attributes: Practical, Prolific, Profitable.

Other farms were soon established in the neighborhood, capitalizing on the Rhode Island Red's popularity, and briefly making Little Compton the chicken capital of the United States.

The Rhode Island Red can be identified by its red-brown feathers (which can vary from a fawny-red to a deep chocolate red), red comb and yellow skin. Hens mature at six months, can lay from 200 to 300 eggs a year, and can lay throughout the winter. They are also rarely "broody," meaning they aren't disposed to keep sitting on their eggs until they hatch. Additionally, today's mature Rhode Island Reds make decent-sized roasters, with the roosters weighing in at around eight pounds, and the hens coming in a pound or two lighter.

The Rhode Island Red was recognized as a legitimate breed at the Providence poultry show in 1895, and was first advertised in poultry journals in 1896. The single-combed and rose-combed varieties were admitted to the American Poultry Association's Standard of Perfection in 1904 and '05, respectively (the Standard of Perfection is a guide used by breeders to benchmark their poultry eugenics programs.)

Since the 1940s common Rhode Island Reds have actually gotten smaller, by a half-pound to a pound, as breeders sacrificed bulk in favor of enhanced egg-laying capabilities. The color of these tinkered fowl has also faded from a red that is almost black to an orangey red. In 2000, the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy had original stock Rhode Island Reds listed under their "Watch" category, meaning there were fewer than 2,500 of the original breed being registered in North America each year, and fewer than 5,000 worldwide. But things began looking up, and by 2004 the breed was moved into the "Recovering" category. While the much more common "production" or "industrial" breed of the Rhode Island Red is in no danger of disappearing, it's important to preserve the genes of the original stock for future breeding.

In 1954, a state bird election was sponsored by the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Federation of Garden Clubs, and the Providence Journal Company. The Rhode Island Red beat out its closest competitors, the osprey and ruby-throated hummingbird, and became Rhode Island's official state bird at noon on May 3, 1954. "The Rhode Island Red," Governor Dennis J. Roberts said, upon signing the bill into law, "has become a symbol of Rhode Islanders all over the world."

As a small measure of proof of that statement, there are organized clubs of Rhode Island Red breeders and fanciers in the USA, England, and Scotland. The Rhode Island Red Commemorative Monument is also immortalized at the new Denver International Airport, where it's featured on a mural by Gary Sweeney entitled America, Why I Love Her. (A second mural spotlights Big Blue Bug Solutions' mascot, Nibbles Woodaway.)

More Delicious Rhode Island Redness

A couple of miles south of the Rhode Island Red Monument, at the corner of William H. Sisson Road and Long Highway, is another plaque that commemorates the location of the farm where the breed was established. The plaque reads: "ON THIS FARM / WAS ORIGINATED / THE / RHODE ISLAND RED / BREED OF POULTRY / 1854-1954," the latter date presumably being the date on which the plaque was placed.

Founded in December 1898, in Fall River, Massachusetts, the Rhode Island Red Club of America had almost 5,000 members at its height in the 1920s. Since then, membership, like the number of heritage stock Rhode Island Reds, has dwindled. As of 2011 club membership is around 200.

The birds were the inspiration for the name of Providence's minor-league hockey team, the Providence Reds. They played in the Canadian-American Hockey League from 1926-1936, and in the American Hockey League from 1936-1977. During the last season the team changed their name to the Rhode Island Reds.

Among Rhode Island's many attempts at self-promotion was a 1960s effort by the Development Council that featured enamel lapel pins depicting a red rooster superimposed over an anchor. An accompanying radio jingle encouraged you to: "Be a Rooster Booster / Now's the time to crow! / Be a Rooster Booster / And help Rhode Island grow!"

Perhaps Sakonnet Vineyard's best-known offering, their Rhode Island Red is "a hearty blend of three different grape varieties grown at [Sakonnet's] estate vineyards here in Rhode Island. With medium body and clean finish, its deep ruby color and silky tannins are complemented by delicious aromas of raspberry and a subtle hint of toasted American oak.

One place in Rhode Island where you can see a true heritage flock of Rhode Island Reds is South County Museum in Narragansett. Each July 4th weekend the museum invites the public to witness their Rhode Island Red Chick Hatch, when scores of the caramel-hued puffballs emerge from their shells. The museum has been doing their part to prevent the standard breed of Rhode Island Red from fading into history since 2004.

Rhode Island Red Commemorative Monument Tablet Inscription


Read these words, oh ye mighty, and know that thou art at the top of the food chain!

THE RHODE ISLAND RED

TO COMMEMORATE THE BIRTHPLACE OF THE
RHODE ISLAND RED BREEDING FOWL WHICH
WAS ORIGINATED NEAR THIS LOCATION.

RED FOWLS WERE BRED EXTENSIVELY BY
THE FARMERS OF THIS DISTRICT AND LATER
NAMED 'RHODE ISLAND REDS' AND BROUGHT INTO
NATIONAL PROMINENCE BY THE POULTRY FANCIERS.

THIS TABLET IS PLACED BY THE
RHODE ISLAND RED CLUB OF AMERICA
WITH CONTRIBUTIONS OF RHODE ISLAND RED
BREEDERS THROUGHOUT THE WORLD
ON LAND DONATED BY
DEBORAH T. MANCHESTER.

1925

Information

Cost: free

Time required: allow 5 minutes

Hours: open year round, dawn to dusk

Finding it: from Route 95 take exit 20 for Route 195 east to exit 8 in Fall River; follow Route 24 to exit 1, then take Route 81 south all the way to Adamsville; turn left onto Main Street; the monument is on the right at the corner of Main and Adamsville and Westport Harbor Roads.

What’s nearby

Distances between points are actual distances, without regard to bridges or premenstrual villains. Your travel distance will be longer.

This article last edited September 9, 2012

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