Chickens at the White House


With the Presidential inauguration nearly upon us, we’re all focusing our attention on the White House as President Obama gets ready to move out and President-Elect Trump gets ready to move in.  So of course the question foremost in my mind is “What about chickens at the White House?”  A natural progression of thought, right?

Amazingly, there’s a dearth of information on the topic.  For instance, when I Google, “Chicken White House” I get a lot of results for the “White House Chicken” restaurant chain.  That’s followed by some fried chicken recipes by various former residents of the White House.  And then there are a few articles where the writer thinks that the White House is displaying cowardice.  Which brings up the question, “Why did ‘chicken’ come to mean the same thing as ‘coward’?”  The person who created that meaning for the word never met my brave little rooster, Emile!

Anyway, I challenged myself to uncover what I could regarding Presidential chickens, and was eventually able to uncover a pretty sizable trove of material about White House pets, but unfortunately, only a paltry bit of information about White House chickens.  But here goes.

First, let’s just say that Presidents are big on dogs.  Almost all modern Presidents brought dogs with them when they entered the White House.  One of the two exceptions was President Clinton who had only Socks the cat when he assumed the Presidency.  He’d had dogs when he was growing up, though, and while he was President, Buddy the Labrador retriever joined the Clinton family circle.  The other recent President who was dogless, and in fact petless, when he entered the White House was President Obama.  The endearing story that circulated at that time, you will recall, was that he promised his daughters that they could have a puppy when they moved to the White House.  They had to use care in choosing a dog since Malia suffered from allergies, but eventually Bo, the Portuguese water dog, a hypoallergenic breed, came to live at the White House.  Bo was joined later by Sunny, also a Portuguese water dog.

When First Lady Michele Obama established a large vegetable garden and a beehive on the south lawn of the White House, there was speculation that the next logical step would be to add some backyard chickens.  White House chef, Bill Yosses, was asked about chickens.  “I don’t see it,” he replied.  He went on to say “I would love it.  But there's so much scrutiny in the White House, it has to be something [unprovocative], like a garden.  It's jaw-dropping isn't it? We live in a warped world."  The garden, in fact, caused a kerfuffle all by itself as various interest groups debated whether the garden should be organic or conventional.  Chickens, Mr. Yosses pointed out, live for a long time after they stop laying eggs.  No doubt there would be people opposed to chickens getting a free ride at the White House if they weren’t producing anything for the White House table.  And, of course, killing and eating the chickens would be a public relations disaster.  Then there are animal rights groups who would be opposed from the get-go to the whole concept of keeping confined animals. 

Apparently, things being what they currently are, chickens at the White House have too much potential for generating controversy and might not be a reality any time soon.  We have to go back to a simpler time to find the last instance of chickens residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  The simpler time, in the case of Presidential chickens, was World War One, and the President was Woodrow Wilson.  To set an example for the contributions to the war effort that could take place on the home front, First Lady Edith Wilson instituted fuel and food conservation measures like meatless Mondays and wheatless Wednesdays.  Then the Wilsons took it to the next level by adding a flock of backyard chickens and a flock of sheep grazing the White House lawn.  The chickens proved to be entirely uncontroversial in that era, and the sheep were actually a huge hit with the American public.  Each year when the sheep were sheared, the White House put the wool up for auction to raise money for the Red Cross.  The 1918 sale raised $30,000 and the 1919 auction raised an amazing $52,823—an average of $1,000 a pound.  It still holds the record for the most expensive wool ever sold.

The Woodrow Wilson flock grazes on the White House Lawn (Library of Congress)
The President prior to President Wilson was President William Howard Taft.  President Taft didn’t have chickens or sheep, but there was Pauline Wayne, a Wisconsin Holstein dairy cow, grazing on the White House lawn.  Pauline, or Miss Wayne, as she was referred to by the press, provided milk for President Taft and other residents of the White House.  It could be argued that Miss Wayne was more popular than President Taft.  Her picture appeared often in newspapers, and the Washington Post interviewed her regularly.  For example, in a November 4, 1910 Post article, she was asked her opinion on America's obsession with celebrities like herself.  "I have been much amused, and I confess, rather bored by the omnipresent photographers," she stated, "Civilization has developed so many irritating conditions."  Apparently cows could talk in those days.

Miss Wayne, the Taft cow (Library of Congress)
And prior to President Taft was Teddy.  President Theodore Roosevelt, larger than life in every respect, didn’t disappoint when it came to White House animals, either.  Yes, there were chickens!  Two of them—a hen and a rooster.  Then there were, by one accounting, ten dogs, two cats, five guinea pigs, two ponies, a lizard, several snakes, a couple of rats, a bear, a rabbit, a badger, a pig, a hyena, and a barn owl.  During the Roosevelt Presidency, ponies were seen wandering the hallways of the White House, and the snakes interrupted at least one cabinet meeting.  Each animal had its backstory, and I’m sure the President would entertain his friends with those stories given half a chance.

For example, there was the story of Josiah the badger.  In 1903, the President took an eight-week trip by train through the western States.  It was a chance for him to meet the people and a chance for the people to see the President in this pre-television and radio era.  One of his stops was in Sharon Springs, Kansas, and it was there that a group of children presented him with a baby badger.  The President was quite pleased with the badger, personally hand-fed him potatoes and milk, and showed him off to all the children at subsequent stops.  By the time the train returned to Washington, he had also acquired two bears, a lizard, a horned toad and a horse.  Not all of those animals ended up taking up residence at the White House, but Josiah the badger did.  Josiah would cavort on the White House lawn with the Roosevelt children and dogs and became a personal favorite of Roosevelt’s son Archie.  Unfortunately, Josiah developed the bad habit of leg biting.  Since Archie often carried the badger around, Roosevelt wrote that he suggested to Archie “that it would be uncommonly disagreeable if he took advantage of being held in the little boy’s arms to bite his face; but this suggestion was repelled with scorn as an unworthy assault on the character of Josiah. ‘He bites legs sometimes, but he never bites faces,’ said the little boy.”

As Josiah got older and larger he became more problematic.  In addition to digging large holes in the White House lawn, he also "constantly gnawed into any leg within reach of [his] teeth, occasionally drawing blood," according to one observer.  Unhappily, Josiah was eventually sent to live at the Bronx zoo.

Josiah the badger sits on Archie Roosevelt's lap
 and does not bite his face (Library of Congress)
Not much information remains regarding the two chickens.  The rooster had only one leg.  We have a picture, but his name and his story are lost in the mists of time.  The hen’s name was Baron Spreckels – an unusual name for a hen, for sure.  No other information remains about Baron Spreckels, but I have some theories about her name.  First, I suggest that she was named for a real person – Roosevelt was fond of naming his animals after his contemporaries.  The guinea pigs, for instance, were Admiral Dewey, Bishop Doane, Dr. Johnson, Father O'Grady, and Fighting Bob Evans.  Second, I propose that she was a speckled hen – President Roosevelt was fond of puns.  Finally, I suggest that she was named for Claus Spreckels, a kingpin in the sugar industry, who was one of a group of financial and an industrial capitalists referred to as the “Robber Barons.”  Have I hit the mark on any of this?  I don’t know—it’s mere spreckulation on my part. (Sorry.)

The Roosevelt one-legged rooster.
His name is lost to history. 

(Library of Congress)
So there it is, a Randy’s Chicken Blog post where animal stories are abundant but the chicken tales are short.  What can I say?  Most of the people we’ve elected to lead us apparently were not chicken people.  Or if there were chickens, those who record history have not seen fit to chronicle their stories.  If you were hoping for a story about flocks of happy hens flapping their wings in the East Wing, well, so was I.  Sorry. I guess I’ll have to file this one under “Wild Esoterica.” 


And finally, what about President-Elect Trump?  Will there be chickens in the Trump White House?  My prognostication is “no.”  Will there be animals?  Like President Obama, President Trump will be entering the White House with no pets.  However a Palm Beach philanthropist and Trump family friend has already offered up a nine-week-old Goldendoodle puppy.  So my guess is that while White House chickens may not be a reality, White House animals, as in the past, will continue to flourish in the future.



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