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From Hen House to Poultry Powerhouse

cecilia long steele with original house

Cecilia Long Steele and her original hen house

Whether prepared through grilling, stewing, frying, baking, or broiling, chicken has become an American dietary staple thanks to the extensive poultry sheds in Delmarva. These large operations play a crucial role in the nation’s food chain, connecting our dinner tables with quality meat day after day in a new era of American consumerism. 

However, prior to 1923, chicken consumption was largely rural. Farmers of the day raised birds for their eggs. The only time chickens ended up in the stew pot was when they got older and slowed down in egg-laying. This old paradigm witnessed a significant transformation, all thanks to the persistent efforts of one individual, Delaware housewife Cecile Long Steele. 

A pioneer of Delaware’s broiler industry, this lady found her footing in the business quite serendipitously.  

Unlikely Pioneer Cecile Steele

Due to a clerical error at her supply hatchery, Cecile Steele in 1923 received a shipment of 500 chicks, even though she only recalled ordering 50. This unexpected delivery ended up sparking a significant revolution in the poultry farming industry. 

Confronted with the challenge of caring for this huge, unexpected surplus of yellow chicks, she chose to keep the bounty. Perhaps she could earn additional income by selling the surplus as broilers. Steele promptly got busy and made way for additional housing to accommodate all of them.  

The sudden influx of birds posed a significant problem, as Steele now had more chickens than she could let freely roam. Confronted with this head-spinning situation, she embarked on an innovative experiment. Steele decided to raise all 500 chicks in confinement. 

It was a move that must have felt utterly counterintuitive to the average person: didn’t chickens require ample space to roam? Weren’t fresh air and sunlight essential for their wellbeing? As her son David Jr. Pointed out later, the concept of raising chickens solely indoors was a brand-new idea. 

Steele had only paid for 50; if most did not make it, well, that was the gamble. Sixteen weeks in, Cecile Steele had her “Aha!” moment. Despite initial doubts, the overwhelming majority of the chickens survived to a marketable weight of 2-¼ pounds, earning Steele a surprising 62 cents per pound. Cecile was so pleased with her results that she started with 1,000 birds the following year— all to be sold as broilers – every one of them housed indoors. 

Cecilia in her expanded yard with family
Cecilia in her expanded yard with family in 1924

The broiler-only approach must have seemed risky at the start of the 1920s. Chickens were still considered expensive. The average person had to work four hours to afford a home-cooked chicken. Enterprising farmers, and onlookers, wondered: was there a large enough audience to justify commercializing broilers ahead of egg production?   

The Roaring ’20s dawned as a period of immense economic growth, providing Americans with more disposable income. 

A societal shift in outlook, coupled with advancements in agricultural technology, greatly supported Cecile Steele’s entry into the broiler business. Additionally, the establishment of grocery store chains, from small towns to big cities, also played a significant role in boosting her business. 

Consequently, chicken dinners, once regarded as a special occasion meal, evolved into a commonplace every-day staple gobbled up on tables across the nation. 

Steele’s husband, David Wilmer Steele, soon quit his job as a Coast Guard captain to join her booming business. 

Delmarva’s mild climate, sandy soils, abundant lumber, and proximity to big city markets made it an ideal location for this fledgling industry.  

Building the Broiler Empire

Managing large poultry sheds presented new challenges, including maintaining optimal conditions, disposing of waste, and controlling diseases. Despite such day-to-day distractions, the Steeles continued to innovate, even shifting from standalone poultry sheds to connected structures. 

The Steele’s success indeed inspired awe throughout the peninsula. Their less prosperous neighbors, observing this pioneering accomplishment, began to take notice.  

Driven by a desperate need for profitable ventures, neighbors quickly aligned themselves with Cecile Steele’s methods. News of her innovative and highly lucrative enterprise permeated Delmarva. A contemporary journalist estimated that Baltimore Hundred alone raised 50,000 broilers in 1925. This boost to the local economy soon allowed Delaware to proudly claim the title of ‘Broiler Capital of the World.’ 

The Steele operations had soared by 1926 to about 10,000 chickens a year.  

The Steeles’ business grew quickly and around 1934, D. Wilmer Steele formed the Indian River Poultry Hatchery in Ocean View with a partner, George Keen. 

In 1937, David ventured beyond business, winning an election to the state Senate. Their success ended tragically when the couple died in a 1940 yacht explosion. 

Despite their untimely death, the Steeles left behind a significant legacy. Their large-scale broiler model continues to fuel the global poultry industry. Cecile Long Steele, a 1983 Delaware Women Hall of Fame inductee, became a hero for her contributions to the world.  

Yet for chickens across the globe, she embodies the symbol of their transition from free-range lives to commercialized lives. 

As the industry expanded, broiler chickens were distributed, live, by poultry train.
© US Department of Agriculture
As the industry expanded, broiler chickens were distributed, live, by poultry train.
© US Department of Agriculture

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