MONMOUTH, Ill. — For farm families during the first half of the 20th century, Saturday was eagerly anticipated as the day to go to town. While a husband might visit the coffee shop to discuss crop prices, his wife would sell the eggs her hens had laid and go shopping with the proceeds. It was a scene repeated across the country in virtually every farming community, as virtually every farm wife raised her own chickens.
Chances are good that the chickens that produced the eggs were hatched in the Maple City.
One of the nation’s leading suppliers of baby chicks, Nichol’s Hatchery was established in Monmouth in 1919, and by 1950 it was producing 1.5 million chicks a year. Just prior to hatching, chicks absorb all the nutrients from the egg, making it possible for them to go three days without food or water. That allowed them to be shipped by parcel post, in custom cardboard cartons that were loaded onto trains at the Monmouth depot and sent to more than 40 states.
The business was also profitable to area farmers. Nichol’s contracted with 180 area farmers, whose 37,000 birds supplied them with eggs, at a premium of 10 to 15 cents per dozen over regular markets. Only three USDA-approved breeds — White Rocks, New Hampshires and White Leghorns — produced the eggs.
The founder of the hatchery, Chester Nichol, was born on a farm in the Sugar Tree Grove community, northwest of Monmouth, in 1870. As a boy, his family moved to Iowa, where he was raised and married Margaret Elder in 1894. It was Margaret’s elder sister, Clara, who would start Chester on a career in the poultry business.
Clara married Andrew A. Berry, an associate editor of Prairie Farmer and contributing editor to Wallace Farmer, who later started the highly successful A. A. Berry Seed Co., of Clarinda, Iowa. While Andrew raised seeds on the farm, Clara began raising poultry of all kinds and became one of the greatest female poultry entrepreneurs of the early 20th century. Her 1913 publication, Berry’s Golden Rule Poultry Farm: or Profitable Poultry, became a bestseller and started many farmers and farm wives on the road to successful careers in the business. The Berrys’ sons, George and Ernie, would operate large hatcheries in Illinois, Kansas and Oklahoma.
After spending time selling real estate in Colorado and Florida (where A. A. Berry’s land company had colonized 23,000 acres of orchard land and founded the city of Roseland), Chester and Margaret, along with their children Virgil, Florence and Tom, settled in Clarinda in 1914.
As teenagers, Virgil and his cousin Ernie Berry became agricultural entrepreneurs, founding “Uncle Sam’s Bean Ranch” during the summer near Fort Morgan, Colo. In 1918, the partners planted 100 acres of beans to be sold to the government to feed U.S. troops in World War I. The yield was 43,000 pounds, which earned them $3,255 on an investment of $560. Hoping to serve overseas himself, Virgil enrolled in the Student Army Volunteer Corps at Monmouth College in the fall of 1918, but the Armistice was signed before his cadet training was concluded.
While at college, Virgil conducted market research on behalf of his father to see if local farmers could supply enough eggs to support a hatchery at Monmouth. As a result, Chester in 1919 removed his operations to Monmouth, where he established Nichol’s Poultry Farm, advertising in the Review Atlas that he wanted to buy all varieties of purebred poultry, from chickens to ducks to geese. The family purchased a house at 403 North Ninth St., across from the college where Virgil and Florence enrolled. The farm was initially established on North Main Street, north of the city limits.
By early 1922, the business had grown so rapidly that it was hatching 14,000 chicks every three weeks and had to install a second 14,000-egg incubator. Catalogs were being sent in response to an average of 300 inquiries per day. Single mail orders were for as many as 2,000 chicks, but 16,000 chicks were also purchased locally during the year.
In addition to chicks, the farm was doing a large business shipping purebred grown chickens, ducks and geese to such exotic destinations as Puerto Rico, Cuba and Hawaii.
In 1923, the farm was relocated to 418 North Ninth St., where four sets of walk-in incubators were heated by a hard coal, hot water heating plant. Housed in two buildings, the incubators had a capacity of 72,000 eggs. During the rush season in the spring, the hatchery was turning out as many as 35,000 chicks a week.
The Nichols constructed a comfortable brick residence in front of the plant, where sons Virgil and Tom continued to live with their parents until 1938, when they built their own elegant residences on a sprawling hilltop at 750 and 800 North 11th St. According to Virgil’s son David, who was born in 1940 and grew up at 750, the area was known humorously as “Dime Hill,” since it was crowned with the homes of “two Nichols.”
The Virgil Nichol property, David said, contained numerous outbuildings, including chicken houses that accommodated 2,000 hens. When the family moved to a farm near Coldbrook in 1955, several of the outbuildings were moved with them.
After the deaths of their parents in the mid-1940s, Virgil and Tom continued as partners until Virgil decided that massive new poultry operations in the south were making traditional hatcheries obsolete and left the business. In 1957, to cope with falling business, Tom started a bird seed enterprise, growing sunflowers on nine acres adjacent his home.
In 1960, with Virgil no longer a partner, the plant on North Ninth Street was sold to Monmouth College, which converted the main building to an art center and part of its basement to football locker rooms (as the building overlooked the football field). Tom moved operations to a former furniture warehouse at 427 North 11th St. By this time, it only turned out 17,000 chicks per week, and the hatch occurred only in June.
The old hatchery building at Monmouth College stood until the 1980s, when Virgil’s grandson, Tom Nichol, was a student there. According to his mother, who accompanied Tom on his campus visit in 1978, “We walked to the building I understand was being used by the college as a kind of practical art studio. The leader of the campus tour said, ‘I bet no one here can tell me what this building was originally.’ Our son, sure I would blurt out the answer and embarrass him as only parents can, said, ‘Don’t say anything, Mom!’ And I didn’t.”
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 35 years.