The Spring Chicken Festival held in downtown Gainesville this weekend surely must stir memories of those who remember the very popular Georgia Poultry Festival staged in the 1950s and ’60s, just when the poultry industry was beginning to take off in Northeast Georgia.
It was a big event, usually at this time of year. The Poultry Festival began in 1953 with such organizations as the local chamber of commerce and Georgia Poultry Federation coordinating activities.
National politicians joined with state and local dignitaries to pump up the poultry industry. Beauties from Brenau and elsewhere adorned colorful floats put together by poultry companies and other local businesses in a parade that wound through downtown Gainesville.
Jesse Jewell, founder of J.D. Jewell Inc., was a mover and shaker for the festival. His company put untold hours into helping plan events, putting a program together, getting dignitaries to come and building one of the most prominent floats in the parade.
Bob Ham, a Jewell executive, remembers well. He credits the late Ed Jared with the Chamber of Commerce and later a pilot and military sales manager with Jewell, with making the festival a success.
Jewell’s float, Ham remembered, depicted the company’s frozen product line and featured local young ladies, including daughters of Jewell and another Jewell executive, Charles Thurmond.
“Believe me,” Ham said, “all hands turned to, to make this float everything it could be.”
Gainesville Hatchery also went all out with its floats, winning “best entry” several times. Marching bands from all around provided music during the parade.
Bill Ellison, Guy Cato, Loyd Strickland, Max Ward, Henry Waters, John Jacobs, the McKibbons and Martins were among others who supported the festival in a big way.
Jack Prince, another Jewell executive, remembers presiding over a large barbecue chicken dinner at City Park for festivalgoers and visiting dignitaries.
Ed Dunlap Jr. was marshal for the first Poultry Festival parade, which contained 41 units and took almost an hour to wind its way around Gainesville streets.
That first festival opened with a lunch at the Civic Building that included a broadcast of NBC radio network’s National Farm and Home Hour. Mutual Broadcasting Co. also recorded the program.
Speakers included officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Institute of American Poultry Industries, the state agriculture department and Extension Service. 9th District U.S. Rep. Phil Landrum, top officials from the University of Georgia and other state officials participated.
A light drizzle threatened the festival, but crowds came anyway to see Neva Jane Langley, Miss America 1952, crown Miss Georgia Chick, Betty Pruitt of Canton.
While that first Poultry Festival was spectacular, one of the most memorable was in 1956 when Georgia’s U.S. Sen. Walter George was honored. The state’s other U.S. senator, Richard Russell of Winder, led a list of 10 other senators and five Georgia congressmen at the fourth annual festival.
It was a bipartisan delegation, mostly Democrats at the time, but also some national Republicans. Such political luminaries as Mike Mansfield of Montana, Alan Bible of Nevada, William F. Logan of California, Russell Long of Louisiana and John Stennis of Mississippi paid tribute to George, as well as Landrum, other state and local officials and U.S. Secretary of State Foster Dulles.
The lunch menu included “Senatorial Salad with Bipartisan Dressing,” a heaping helping of which could be used in today’s politics.
In those poultry festivals, people packed the streets, especially downtown, where they were lined six or more deep to view the parade. The 1956 parade featured 52 units that covered a mile and a half. The floats ended up at City Park for display. Twin Oaks Hatchery won the best entry award that year with a float featuring a giant chicken dressed in formal attire.
Helicopters flew low over the parade route, and an Air Force jet buzzed crowds lining the streets.
George was retiring from the Senate, having served since 1922.
The poultry festivals continued into the 1960s. Main Street Gainesville’s Spring Chicken Festival is in its 10th year.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.