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Column: The man who delighted the poultry industry and saved Stone Mountain
Shannon Casas high res
Shannon Casas

This week, I’m sharing a column in memory of my grandpa, Bobby Barnett (Aug. 12, 1927-Feb. 19, 2020), longtime professor in the poultry department at Clemson University. 

When I first interviewed at The Times in 2006, I asked whether I might be designing pages of the Poultry Times, a trade publication run out of our office, in addition to The Times’ news pages. I think the metro editor then was surprised by the question, and so I explained I had to ask because my grandpa was an expert on all things chicken. The answer was no, in case you’re wondering, though our copy desk does now design that publication. 

In any case, I always knew my grandpa knew everything about chickens, though I grew up believing Clemson was the “University of Ice Cream” because he’d take us there to get ice cream they made on campus. I didn’t know until later that he was chair of the poultry department and that Clemson is known for much more than ice cream. 

My uncle, Ron Barnett, who worked as a journalist for many years at the Greenville News in South Carolina, wrote this column a couple of years ago. I’m reprinting it with permission from them and hope you dear readers in the poultry capital of the world enjoy.

Bobby Barnett
Bobby Barnett - photo by Shannon Casas

Jan. 9, 2018, The Greenville News and Anderson Independent Mail

Being up on Glassy Mountain the other day called to mind another monadnock (a big word for an isolated rock mountain) and how my dad and his research team at Clemson University (then called Clemson College) saved it from being chipped into little pieces and fed to chickens.

I’m talking about Stone Mountain.

The granite dome near Atlanta would have been gobbled up bit by bit, and for no good reason, had it not been for Dr. Bobby D. Barnett and a few others in the poultry science department at Clemson, which he headed for about 30 years.

He now lives, with my mom, in a retirement community that borders on Stone Mountain Park. It’s purely by coincidence that they live there, but when I visit them — as I did this past weekend — I can’t help but think how fortunate it is that he saved that wondrous chunk of rock from annihilation.

Here’s how it happened:

First, you have to realize that birds don’t have teeth. Instead of chewing their food like we do, they swallow it whole and grind it up in their gizzards. (Now, I’ll eat chicken livers, but you won’t catch me gnawing on a chicken gizzard.)

Anyway, back in the day, chickens, like all birds in the wild, would swallow little grains of sand periodically, which they needed to accomplish that grinding inside their gizzards.

So when humanity went to raising chickens in chicken houses, it was believed that they still needed to eat these grains in order to digest their food.

Where did they get these grains of rock for chickens to eat? A lot of it came from the Stony Mo Granite Grit Company, which ran a rock crushing plant right at the base of good old Stone Mountain.

But chickens no longer eat bugs and worms and things that would need to undergo a lot of grinding in their gizzards. By the late 1950s, when my dad went to work for Clemson, most chickens were eating processed chicken feed that didn’t seem like it would require much grinding in their gizzards to digest.

Dr. Barnett and his research team at Clemson set up an experiment with three groups of chickens: one group ate granite grit, one group ate another kind of grit, and one group got no grit at all.

I remember as a kid hearing a recording that they somehow made inside a live chicken’s gizzard in which you could hear it grinding.

It turned out that the chickens who got no grit performed just as well as those that got the commonly used granite grit. Chicken farmers had been wasting their money for years.

The poultry industry was delighted with this finding.

The Stony Mo Granite Grit Company, of course, was not. It went out of business soon afterward.

Now, it might have taken a million years for Stony Mo to have reduced Stone Mountain to chickenfeed. But I’m claiming this as a monumental victory anyway.

My mom and dad now can look out their picture window at the great mountain, with its controversial carving of Confederate luminaries on horseback (a controversy I’m not going to get into at this time), and enjoy the fireworks show every night, thanks to my dad’s having wrought the demise of the Stony Mo Granite Grit Company.

That’s a true story.

My dad, however, does have some stories of heroic deeds of his youth that are less rooted in fact.

For example, he always told us that the Japanese surrendered in World War II when they heard he had joined the United States Navy. I suspect it had something to do with the fact that the first atomic bomb was dropped on the same day as he was sworn in, but that doesn’t make as good of a story.

Bobby Barnett Navy
Bobby Barnett

My dad has written lots of short stories and been published in The Old Farmer’s Almanac as well as many scientific journals. But my favorites are the tales of his amazing adventures when he was an intrepid salesman for the John J. Hecklemeyer Knives & Blowtorches Co.

Those were my favorite bedtime stories — even better than “The Three Little Pigs Who Went to Chicago,” which always ended unhappily for the pigs but was very entertaining anyhow.

After he got out of the Navy, my dad traveled the world in the employ of the John J. Hecklemeyer Company and got into all kinds of dangerous situations in the process, or so he told us. And at the critical moment in each episode, he would put his “nimble mind” to work and figure a way out of trouble by using those one of those fabulous knives or blowtorches.

I told the same stories to my boy, Josh, when he was little, and went on to embellish the legend.

So, after passing three Great Tests at a Samurai Warrior Fortress in Japan, he earned the privilege of appearing before the Great Emperor, who he hoped would help him locate and bring to justice two Japanese thugs who had kidnapped him in Hawaii, stolen precious beads given to him by a Polynesian king and framed him as a spy against the United States. And so on.

I don’t remember details of the stories he told us when we were little, but the telling of them, I think, had a big impact on me. I didn’t know it, but he was passing on the storytelling bug. In the process, he gave me something I could make a living at later on!

... Bobby D. Barnett, the man who saved Stone Mountain, scared the wits out of the Japanese, led an adventurous life selling knives and blowtorches, and somewhere along the way, taught me how to write.

And if he had done none of that, I would be just as proud to be his son.

Now, his stories live on in those told by friends and family and those he recorded for posterity, including his life story, which he published in a booklet for his descendants to keep. I will forever be proud to be his granddaughter.

Shannon Casas is editor in chief of The Times and a foster parent. You can hear her most weeks on the Inside The Times podcast on iTunes or Google Play.

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