by Florence Markoff

The story of its origin.


A lithograph showing Rhode Island Reds, circa 1915.

The time is August, 1954. The place is Little Compton. This is a big day in the life of the town. It's the day of the Rhode Island Red Festival, in honor of the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the famous bird—the celebration of the famous rooster crowned by the Rhode Island General Assembly as the state's official bird.

It all started in 1854, when William Tripp of Little Compton began breeding a new kind of chicken. He would drive to market in New Bedford every day, and one day a sailor gave him a red chicken that was supposed to have come from Malay. Tripp took it back to his farm and began to experiment. Soon, "Tripp fowls" became known in the county, and they spread from farmer to farmer.

The news of what was happening at Little Compton came to the attention of two professors at what was then called Rhode Island State College [now Brown University]. One day they visited a farmer named Isaac Wilbour in Little Compton. He had the biggest poultry farm in the country, and many trade publications printed stories about how Little Compton had become the most famous poultry town in the United States.

The professors walked down to the chicken pens, studied what they saw, then turned to their host and said, "Mr. Wilbour, you have a new breed here. The time has come to give it a name. Do you have one to suggest?"

Mr. Wilbour thought a moment, and said, "Why wouldn't Rhode Island Reds do?" And that was how the name was given to the breed officially.

In the early years of the century a monument was dedicated to the Rhode Island Reds in the town of their birth. The site was the village of Adamsville in the northeasterly corner of the town. And when the choice of a state bird was to be decided, a contest was sponsored by the Rhode Island Federation of Garden Clubs and the Providence Journal. While the hummingbird advocates felt the smallest bird was right for the smallest state, the Rhode Island Red won.

So if you've ever wondered how the chicken—and the famous hockey team—got it's name, you can thank that unknown sailor from New Bedford. He didn't know it at the time, but he started the crow of the rooster that's been heard around the world—the delicious sound of the Rhode Island Red—a Rhode Island Portrait in Sound.

Providence resident Florence Markoff is a speaker, performer, storyteller, and radio personality. For information on ordering audiotape copies of Rhode Island Portraits in Sound, There's a Word for It, or her latest project, Famous Jewish Portraits in Sound, visit BookmarkProductions.com.

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This article last edited February 4, 2003

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