Early Poultry Houses

Originally published in the Spring 2004 issue of the Iowa Barn Foundation Magazine.
Written by Howard Johnson, former head of agricultural engineering at Iowa State University.
Poultry or "chicken" houses, as they were usually called, were a taken-for-granted, but necessary, part of Iowa farmsteads during the first half of the 1900's.

"Feed the chickens" was an oft-spoken and expected order youngsters heard daily. There was the habitual walk to the chicken house, but how often was the actual structure noticed with any reflection. Who built it? When? Why is it this style?

Poultry housing never possessed the stature of the horse or cattle barn. Often, the buildings were tucked into some obscure corner of the farmyard. Variously called chicken coop, brooder house, or chicken house, poultry housing was titled according to its function and status on the farm in the early 1900's.

Poultry played an important part in farm life before 1950, however. Eggs collected during the week were bartered for groceries on Saturday night. The farm wife often cared for chickens--feeding chicks or hens, collecting eggs, and preparing spare roosters for Sunday dinner-- from the chopping block to the frying pan.

One of the first home agents in Black Hawk County, Clara Sutter, daughter of a pioneer, attended Iowa State College. She taught care of poultry, first in Iowa from 1917 to 1921, and later as a poultry specialist at South Dakota State from 1921 to 1925. Later she wrote a column, Your Poultry and Mine, for The Farmer's Weekly, a Minnesota newspaper.

Sometimes poultry houses served as family houses. Russell Helms, who lives on the lovely farm his family moved onto in 1902, can show off plaster walls in his poultry house. Most poultry houses do not have such dignified walls, but this poultry house was home to his mother and father and two children after they moved onto the farm and before the house was built. "I'd hate to imagine heating that chicken house," Russell remarked.

Poultry Housing Plans

Poultry housing plans, some available before the 1920's through agricultural extension, were published through the Midwest Plan Service in the late 1920's. Previous to this, studies related to ventilation, exposure, temperature control and carbon dioxide levels were conducted. (Giese, 1926). While early poultry housing provided some shelter and protection from predators, little attention was given to environment in construction until after 1920.

Brooder house

Brooder houses were designed as movable or stationary models to accommodate 250 to 500 chicks, depending on the size of the structure. Those built on runners were made to transport the house to clean ground. Rolled roofing material provided roof covering. A muslin frame gave some ventilation in cold weather. The frame and windows could be raised or lowered as needed. The brooder stove with hover was located near the center of the room. Roosts were added as chicks reached proper age.

Straw loft poultry house

The straw loft house was a warm dry winter laying unit for 100 or more birds, depending on unit duplications. The gable roof structure supported a wire mesh on which was placed 24 inches of straw. The frame walls with vertical siding on the outside were lined with insulation board. Front windows were high enough to light the interior. The floor was constructed by laying hollow tile over a six-inch bed or cinders. Over the tile a layer of waterproof building paper and a one-inch layer of concrete was placed. Nests were placed under the removable dropping boards or along the wall.

Half monitor poultry house

This design made good light distribution and low cubic content per bird possible. The design provided good ventilation when needed as windows maybe removed or tipped in at the top. An air duct at the rear leads fresh air to the middle of the roof. The inside walls were lined with insulation board for winter temperatures. Floor design was the same as for the straw loft house.

Two story poultry house

Many variations in design for larger flocks were available. Some were made to store feed in the loft with downspouts to feet hoppers. Straw lofts with many windows and muslin screens made the structures useful in warm or cold climates.

In locations where land prices were high or land was scarce, a two-story house was suggested. The unit cost and the labor requirement per bird were less. The unit contained a feed room, steam boiler, furnace room, and nine pens to house about 1400 birds. The house was a precursor to the large houses of today.

Ventilation

Farmers had known for centuries that fresh air improved animal health. The holds of sailing ships, infamous for illness and death of passengers, were associated with stale air. (Hale, 1743). Stewart in 1860 wrote a chapter in Ventilation of Stables related to airflow without chilling animals. (Stewart, 1860). Gilbert (1902) published an article related to close confinement of poultry in winter in Canada.

In 1910, King published an article, Principles of Ventilation Applied to Farm Buildings. He presented respiration rates for farm animals including poultry. He stated the purpose of good ventilation was to control temperature and humidity, and to remove objectionable gases and supply fresh air. In 1918, Clarkson stated, "It is safe to say that a large portion of all farm buildings have no provision whatsoever for ventilation." Ventilation for removal of moisture and noxious gasses began to be incorporated in the designs in the 1920's. In 1925, only three percent of farms had electricity. In 1941, about 30 percent had installed electrical service. Thus farms used primarily gravity ventilation systems in the first half of the 20th century. (Person, 1941).

Conclusion

Chicken houses, as we knew them, were among the first buildings to be razed during the transition in agriculture. A few remain, especially the half monitor buildings, now used for storage if in reasonable condition. Current methods of providing poultry products, the broiler and egg "factories," erased production on each farm. Raising chickens for eggs and Sunday dinner remains in the memories of those who lived on traditional farms in the twentieth century.