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What you see up top here is an ordinary Delmarva chicken farm in the early 1940s. But that decade was anything but ordinary for the poultry industry: Think black marketeering, bushel baskets of cash hidden in attics, and military roadblocks set up on DuPont Highway.

These were World War II years. Among the array of complex logistics in that conflict was the task of feeding soldiers, sailors, and airmen stationed at home and around the world. The bureaucrats in charge of getting that job done loved chickens, because those birds go from birth to slaughter much more quickly than beef or pork. It was easier to ramp up supplies in short order.

Led by those military buyers, demand for chicken skyrocketed. Economics 101: So did prices.

The federal government stepped in to try and put a lid on that inflation. The wartime Office of Price Administration set strict upper limits on chicken prices. But many Delmarva poultry growers felt the bureaucrats did that in an unfair fashion, without listening to the thoughts and needs of locals.

The growers complained that the chicken price limits were too low. Plus, there was a double whammy–corn prices were regulated, too, and those prices were set too high. That corn is what poultry farmers fed to their chickens.

The result was economic insanity–a black market in chickens! Government rules required growers to keep meticulous records of poultry transactions, but there were no rules surrounding other deals they made. The black market developed in this loophole. A civilian chicken buyer would show up at a farm and pay the regulated amount for birds. He would sign all the proper government-approved paperwork about the prices paid.

Then he would buy something else from the grower. Three examples:
• “The buyer might bet six hundred dollars that the grower couldn’t jump over a stick only one foot high.”
• The buyer might purchase a “rusty shovel for five hundred dollars.
• “In one case, the grower’s mongrel dog was purchased for one thousand dollars, only to be released a few minutes later just a short distance from the grower’s home.”

Poultry Black Market Protester

A civic-minded citizen urges his neighbors to steer clear of black-market chicken

Years later, some historians asked around, trying to figure out just how much black-market money was flying around Delmarva in those days. The responses they got were mostly stone-cold silence. But the historians did uncover a couple of hints. One example:

Lew Jenkins of Georgetown, Del. was a tele­phone repairman during World War II. While work­ing in the Dagsboro, Frankford, and Selbyville areas, he was often accompanied by gun-toting residents when he entered their attics to check for faulty phone lines. The reason for the armed escort was soon clear: The attics contained bushel baskets full of money that was obviously made on the black mar­ket for chickens.

The media dubbed this shady practice “meatlegging” to evoke the era of Prohibition and bootlegging. At first the government tried to tamp down illegal activity by way of propaganda and calls to patriotism. Maryland OPA Director Leo McCormick:

It becomes the duty of everyone in the [poultry] business to insist upon compliance with the regulations. [If that doesn’t happen,] we on the home front will not be cited for valor.

Still, the black market flourished. In 1942 another wartime bureaucracy, the War Food Administration, placed a “freeze” on most private sales of Delmarva broil­ers, requiring local farmers to offer all chicken meat to the military first. Only after the military said yay or nay could they sell “leftovers”–if there were any–in the shadier, more profitable civilian market.

Poultry Black Market Propaganda Poster (1)

A World War II era propaganda poster urging citizens to steer clear of black-market products

Still, the black market flourished. In the summer of 1943 federal regulators estimated that 4 million pounds of chicken were being processed every week on the Delmarva Peninsula. The government wanted at least 1 million of those pounds, but it could arrange to buy “only a fraction” of that. The feds got so sick of the situation that they set up a military roadblock along the DuPont Highway near Dover, inspecting trucks and seizing chicken bound for stores and restaurants Philly and New York. They even arrested a few poultry growers.

A national council of leaders in the poultry industry responded by sending a string of furious telegrams to Washington, demanding that regulators seek input at long last from growers on that key question of unfair pricing. The council accused the feds of “inexcusable neglect of a four billion dollar industry.”

A compromise was finally reached in 1944. Poultry industry leaders agreed that their growers would steer clear of black marketeering once the feds raised that price ceiling to a fair level that let them pay their mortgages and buy essentials. This brought an end to the era of meatlegging, but historians who’ve looked at the episode suspect that its aftereffects linger on even today. Historian William H. Williams:

Justified or not, Delmarvans in the poultry industry lost confidence in their federal government. As historian Carol Hoffecker points out, they perceived its actions concerning the broiler industry during World War II to be both inept and unfair. Peninsula growers developed a negative attitude toward federal intervention in the poultry industry” that remains somewhat widespread even in the 21st century.

–Posted by Jim Duffy for Whimbrel Creations LLC and Secrets of the Eastern Shore in September 2023. Thank you so much for spending a little time with this story and on this site!

NOTE: In addition to a few newspaper articles and historical journals, much of the material here comes from the book Delmarva’s Chicken Industry: 75 Years of Progress by William H. Williams. Published in 1998 by the Delmarva Poultry Industry trade group, it’s full of fascinating little tidbits like this. The whole book is available online at this link.

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