Over the past decade, keeping chickens has become a common American occupation. From city dwellers keeping a trio of hens in a rooftop coop to suburban communities offering tours of their towns’ most beautiful coops, the humble chicken can now be found all across the country, kept by everyone from rural homesteaders to well-heeled fowl fanciers. And you can add to this list of folks who keep chickens some American presidents.
That’s right. Several of our nation’s past presidents have also reared chickens … or kept them as pets. Here’s the scoop on six presidents who notably kept chickens.
Our first president made certain that his estate, Mount Vernon, functioned as a farm in addition to a manor house. At this 18th-century mansion, located just outside Alexandria, Virginia, George Washington raised hogs and chickens … but not always.
Back in the 1700s, it was the lady of the house who oversaw the plantation’s poultry. Thanks to a letter written by Washington to his servant, John Alton, one can assume that Washington did not keep any type of flock prior to his marriage to Martha.
Written just months after the marriage and just prior to the new family’s arrival at Mount Vernon, the letter instructs Alton to get the manor ready for its new mistress, including “get some Egg’s [sic] and Chickens.” The Washingtons eventually raised chickens and turkeys for their eggs and their meat.
The archives at Monticello feature many references to poultry made by our third president over the course of more than 30 years. These historical documents seem to indicate that Thomas Jefferson has a fondness for fancier fowl.
“Thin the trees …. Keep in it deer, rabbits, Peacocks, Guinea poultry, pidgeons &c. Let it be an asylum for hares, squirrels, pheasants, partridges …. court them to it by laying food for them in proper places….” 1771
“how go on the Bantams? I rely on you for their care, as I do on Anne for the Algerine fowls, & on our arrangements at Monticello for the East Indians. these varieties are pleasant for the table & furnish an agreeable diversification in our domestic occupations.” June 29, 1807
“I expect a pair of wildgeese of a family which have been natives for several generations, but they will hardly be here in time for Davy. they are entirely domesticated, beautiful, have a very musical note, & are much superior to the tame for the table.” November 1, 1807
Most of Monticello’s everyday chickens were not raised by Jefferson but by his slaves. The archives note that, on September 29, 1805, the kitchen staff purchased 117 chickens and 564 eggs from Monticello’s slaves.
Jefferson, like many 1800s upper-class Americans, could not be bothered to breed your run-of-the-mill chicken. His pastime of choice was keeping ornamental birds and bantams, such as the critically endangered Pyncheon bantam that historians believe Jefferson bred.
Honest Abe was a softie when it came to his sons, Tad and Willie. He allowed the boys to keep as many pets as they wished, undoubtedly to the horror of the White House housekeeping staff.
In addition to the children’s pet rabbits and goats, Jack the turkey held a special place in Tad Lincoln’s heart. Jack was originally destined for the Lincoln family’s dinner table, but Tad came across the bird and begged his father to spare his life. The indulgent papa agreed, and Jack became a household fixture. Jack could often be seen strutting outside on the White House grounds, even amongst Union soldiers who’d come to vote during the Civil War.
According to the Clinton White House archives, Lincoln and his personal secretary, Noah Brooks, once observed Jack promenading around the voting booth. “Why is your turkey at the polls?” Lincoln asked his son. “Does he vote?” Tad replied, “No, he’s not of age yet.”
Ol’ Rough Rider Teddy was renowned for his hunting prowess, but he was also known for keeping quite a menagerie of living animals on the White House grounds. Among the Roosevelt pets were a bear, a lizard, guinea pigs, a badger, a hyena, a barn owl and a pony.
The family animals also included a one-legged rooster (pictured above) that could frequently been seen hopping around the White House. There was a hen named Baron Sprackle who so befriended Roosevelt’s parrots, Loretta and Eli Yale, that Roosevelt once complained Baron Sprackle was starting to act more parrot than chicken.
Give ‘Em Hell, Harry apparently gave a lot of poultry-care advice to his childhood friend Bess Wallace, whom he would eventually marry in 1919. Apparently Bess’ flock of chickens, which the young girl raised in her backyard, were infected with poultry lice. Harry promptly offered Bess his Mamma’s remedy for treating these parasites, which he informed Bess was “a dinger.”
“She takes twist tobacco and steeps it in hot water as if you were making tea. Put in cold water enough to cover the hen and make it the right temperature. Then she puts in a tablespoonful of melted grease. She says she puts her hand over the Chicken’s bill and eyes and then souses him good.”
Whether or not the future Mrs. Truman followed poultry-keeping advice from her future mother-in-law has never been noted. Mamma Truman’s chicken coop, however, can still be seen at the Harry S. Truman National Historic Site in Grandview, Missouri.
Everybody around the country—and quite possibly the world—knows that Jimmy Carter was a peanut farmer. This Georgia farm boy turned U.S. President did more than just grow peanuts, however.
In his 1975 autobiography, Why Not the Best?, Carter detailed spending his childhood running around his family farm’s yard, dodging the many chickens, guinea fowl and geese kept by his parents, Mr. Earl and Miss Lillian.
The chickens and the Carters may be gone now, but visitors to the Jimmy Carter National Historic Park can walk around the very same yard and envision little Jimmy dashing around the squawking hens and honking geese.