The Long Line of Brown Leghorns

The Long Line of Brown Leghorns

By Don Schrider, West Virginia – When we first get into poultry, discovering all these breeds is a great pleasure. For many of us, that joy turns into the effort of trying to pick the right breed for our homestead or to serve the purposes we have in mind. I still see a great deal of effort being put out to find the best breeds. Finding the right breed is a great idea — finding the one that produces as you hope and perfect for you to interact with and watch. But did you know that quality within a breed varies greatly?

During the late 1800s and the first half of the 1900s, backyard poultry was the commercial industry. People would pour over poultry publications trying to find the right breed for their homestead or small farm. (Wait, this sounds much like what we do today.) But there was a difference. Back during the backyard poultry “heyday,” people poured over the ads looking for not only the right breed but for the right bloodline within that breed.

A bloodline of poultry represents a group of related birds all of one breed. It is a division within the breed. Birds of the bloodline will be similar in their production qualities — rate of lay, rate of growth, size, etc. Often times a particular bloodline may represent the best a breed has to offer. But the fact that we humans acknowledge and value bloodlines also means that we understand there is a relationship between people and poultry that spans decades of time. This relationship is important and has meaning. Let me tell you the story of one such bloodline and some of the people connected to it.

The Beginning

In 1853, the first Brown Leghorns arrived in the Untied States of America from Italy. As the first poultry show opens, Brown Leghorns are present and draw a good following of perspective breeders. Their active nature, great egg-laying ability, hardiness, and beauty being very appealing to many. At this time there is only one color of “Brown,” and the breed derived its name from one of the original breeders, a Mr. Brown of Connecticut. In 1868, Mr. C.A. Smith purchases his start of Brown Leghorns from Mr. Tate of Tate and Baldwin, an importing agency located in Chicopee, Massachusetts. It is unclear if Mr. Tate’s birds came from the early importation or if they had been imported in the years since 1853. Mr. Smith begins breeding and soon becomes well known for the quality of his birds. Smith did not have the money to travel far or wide — few traveled far in those days — but his birds were next to impossible to beat at the great Boston Poultry Exposition each year.

As the year 1876 begins, another man begins his career in poultry. William Ellery Bright of Waltham, Massachusetts, comes from a family with some wealth. Bright becomes keenly interested in Brown Leghorns and purchases some stock from Mr. Worchester of Waltham, Massachusetts. In 1878 he purchases a Brown Leghorn cockerel from Frank L. Fish of Boston, Massachusetts, who tells him of the quality Smith’s birds. Desiring to have a great start in his poultry business, Bright seeks out Smith. Once he has seen the birds, William Ellery Bright offers to purchase the entire flock — Smith hesitates, but once offered the position of head poultryman as a part of the deal, he agrees. This partnership of people has an impact on the birds as this bloodline quickly becomes next to impossible to beat at the shows on in the nesting box (folks were showing their production birds back then).

Leghorn Chickens

By 1880, William Ellery Bright’s line is winning at major shows in many cities. Bright dubs his line “Grove Hill” after his farm name. Breeders of this time period had begun breeding males darker and darker so that the winning males were black with a green sheen and cherry-red lacing on their necks and saddles. The winning females had a soft, seal brown color with yellow lacing on their neck feathers. By the early to mid-1880s, the winning males and the winning females could not be produced from the same mating — yellow-hackled males being used to produce the winning females and nearly partridge females being used to produce the winning males. This created a lot of confusion for beginners — anyone wanting to get started had to buy birds bred to produce either males or females as crossing winning females and males produce something with color not quite like either parent. By 1923, the American Poultry Association recognized Light Brown Leghorns (the show female producers) and Dark Brown Leghorns (the show male producers) as two distinct varieties of Leghorn. This cleared up the confusion, and now the nearly partridge females and yellow hackled males could be shown.

Sometime between 1900 and 1910, William Ellery Bright sells his Grove Hill line of Light Brown Leghorns to a young breeder by the name of Russell Stauffer of Ohio. Stauffer is said to have combined this line with two other famous lines. What is sure is that Stauffer goes on to become the most famous Light Brown Leghorn breeder of all time. Bright continues on with his Grove Hill line of Dark Brown Leghorns and sets a winning record hard to beat in any breed.

Leghorn Chickens
Dick Holmes, a master breeder, has been instrumental in keeping the bloodline of Brown Leghorns alive and relatively unchanged.

During the late 1920s, Bright brings his Grove Hill line to the big show in Chicago, Illinois, to compete in the Brown Leghorn National Meet which is being hosted by this show that year. While there he visits with Claude LaDuke — the senior breeder of Brown Leghorns in the area. Although the National Meet was very near, Mr. LaDuke had not entered the contest as he could not afford the entry fee or the hotel stay. There, in Mr. LaDuke’s poultry yard, William Ellery Bright sees a cockerel that he knows can beat the best he has brought with him. So what does he do? He insists on paying the entry fee and sharing his hotel room. Claude LaDuke wins that National Meet!

Claude LaDuke was an accomplished breeder, but he understood quickly that while he had the winning male, the Grove Hill line produced many more birds of higher quality than did his own line. In other words, he had one good male and Grove Hill had a whole line of quality birds. Mr. LaDuke inquired on purchasing a trio and they were given to him.

Leghorn Chickens
In the mid- to late-19th century, William Ellery Bright’s line won at shows around the country, and was named “Grove Hill” after his farm. Photos courtesy of the American Brown Leghorn Club.

A Line Passes On

In 1933, Irvin Holmes of Lansing, Michigan, decides to get rid of his start in White Leghorns after spending hours bathing them only to find they were soiled upon arrival at his first show. He meets Claude LaDuke and purchases a trio of Dark Brown Leghorns from him. Mr. LaDuke acts as Irvin’s mentor. At the same time, William Ellery Bright sends several hundred hatching eggs to Larro Feed, a General Mills company, to use in a grow-out experiment. Feed companies often would get quality birds, feed them their mixes, and measure rate of growth, final body condition, and quality of feather and color as a test of feed quality – birds with rich colors were then preferred as feed quality can effect feather color.

It was during 1934 that William Ellery Bright decided it was time to let his famous line of Dark Brown Leghorns pass to other hands. Leroy Smith bought the entire Grove Hill line and immediately was a contender at all the big shows. But, William Ellery Bright had never mentioned that there were several hundred of his line in the hands of Larro Feed. One has to wonder if Mr. Bright had forget this group of birds, or if he secretly wished to surprise everyone by selling out and still coming up with a winning bird. Time played its own hand in events. William Ellery Bright passed away at the end of 1934. In the spring of 1935, Larro Feed contacted the American Brown Leghorn Club. They had successfully completed their feed study and they understood they had 200 high-quality birds that they felt should not be destroyed; they had intended to offer back any or all of the birds to Mr. Bright. The club contacted the club officer closest to the feed company — Claude LaDuke. Mr. LaDuke, realizing here was an opportunity of a lifetime, brought his young protОgО, Irvin Holmes, along and they each picked out two trios.

Leghorn Chickens
Crusader was a winning Dark Brown cock bird in 1944. Photo courtesy of the American Brown Leghorn Club.

Irvin Holmes quickly realizes that the quality of these Dark Brown Leghorns is superior to his own and discards his LaDuke line birds. He also lands a job in the Nation’s Capital and so moves to Takoma Park, Maryland. Irvin’s son, Richard “Dick” Holmes, is four years old when his father gets his start of the Grove Hill line from Larro Feed. As his son grows, the two show the birds all across the country. But Irvin’s favorite was the great Madison Square Garden show in New York each year. Here he competed with the top breeders of Dark Brown Leghorns from all across the country. Each year the man to beat was Leroy Smith with his Grove Hill line. Unlike many of the top breeders, Irvin managed his chickens as a hobby. Each year he kept between three and four trios to breed from and each spring he would hatch about 100 to 150 young birds. From the 100 to 150 hatched, Irvin would cull down to between three and five cockerels. These he would show against the best and each year in Madison Square Garden he would place two or more of his cockerels in the top five.

In 1960 David Rines, of Massachusetts, gets his start in Dark Brown Leghorns from Leroy Smith. Smith passes and his birds are widely dispersed. The Rines family is well-known for Brown Leghorns. David’s father, James P. Rines, Sr., has been raising Light Brown Leghorns for some forty years by this time. David does very well with his Dark Brown Leghorns, and with some very good Barred Plymouth Rock bantams. When he asks his dad why he can’t place higher with either, his dad tells him it is because he needs to put all of his time and thought into one or the other. David sells his Dark Brown flock to his brother, James P. Rines, Jr., around 1970. More about Jim Rines in a moment.

Leghorn Chickens
Irvin and Richard Holmes’ poultry yards. Photos courtesy of the American Brown Leghorn Club.

‘The Line That Will Never Die’

In 1964, Irvin Holmes health starts to decline. His son, Dick Holmes, is in his early 30s and living in Texas. The two had crossed the line on bantams and produced a fine line of Dark Brown Leghorn bantams. Dick suggests that his dad let the large line go and keep working with him on the bantams. Irvin does. Irvin sells to a breeder on the West Coast, who promptly crosses the line and is unable to correct the faults that occur in the offspring and after that discards all his Dark Browns. But each year Irvin had let very nice males go and one customer had purchased many — Joe Stern of Pennsylvania was a force to reckoned with. Through the late 1960s and up until the early 1980s he was very tough to beat in Dark Brown Leghorns. He dubbed his line, “The Line That Will Never Die.”

James P. Rines, Jr., from the 1970s through into the early 2000s was a nationally well-known breeder of Brown Leghorns — both Light and Dark Brown. In 1974, C.C. Fisher, another New England breeder and customer of Leroy Smith, was in failing health. He contacts Jim Rines and offers him his Leroy Smith Grove Hill line birds. Jim purchases them and combines them with his brother’s Leroy Smith line birds. Jim breeds his Dark Brown Leghorns up until the late 1990s. He lets his flock go to Mark Atwood of Thomasville, North Carolina, in 1997. Mark breeds and shows the line even today.

Irvin and Dick Holmes continue breeding the miniature (bantam) Dark Brown Leghorns and after Irvin’s passing, Dick Holmes becomes known as a master breeder of these. Around 1986, after he moved back to Maryland, he mentors a young poultryman named Wells Lafon of Baltimore, Maryland. Wells wanting standard-sized Dark Brown Leghorns, and secures breeding birds from two sources. In 1987, Dick Holmes is chatting with a Pennsylvania farmer and finds out this fellow has a trio of Joe Stern birds. Dick purchases the trio and he and Wells try to resurrect the line. The male and females were all old and so fertility was low. In frustration, Wells turns the trio in with his pen of Lockey line pullets. In the heat of summer the pullets set on eggs and five cockerels and some pullets from the old male hatch. The male passes away that year. So in 1988 and 1989 Wells uses the sons back to just the two old Stern hens and revives the line. Little do he or Dick realize at this point that it is Irvin Holmes’ line of Dark Brown Leghorns, as bred by Joe Stern for many years, that they were “saving.”

In 1992 Raymond Taylor of Virginia purchases Dark Brown Leghorns from Jim Rines. Raymond shows and does very well. He already had a few years in with the line of Light Brown Leghorns that he developed. In 1994 Wells Lafon sends his flock to me for safe keeping for a few years. I am another Dick Holmes protege, and have been breeding Light Brown Leghorns since 1989. In 1998 Raymond finds out that because of his father’s passing his home must be sold and he contacts me to offer some birds.

In 2006 Dick Holmes gives me his poultry collection — including his father’s notebooks. Irvin Holmes kept detailed records. Every bird hatched had a pedigree. Every time a bird was sold, the date and the customer’s name were recorded. From these records, Dick Holmes and I discovered that the Stern line was heavily comprised of birds sold by Irvin Holmes — including some of the best males Irvin ever had!

In 2007 I cross the pure Lafon birds with the pure Rines birds. The Lafon birds trace back through Wells Lafon from Joe Stern from Irvin Holmes from Larro Feed from William Ellery Bright and his great Grove Hill Line. The Rines birds trace back from Raymond Taylor from Jim Rines, Jr., from C.C. Fisher and David Rines from Leroy Smith and William Ellery Bright and his great Grove Hill Line. So two segments of the Grove Hill line, separated since 1933, have now been bred back together as of 2007. That is 74 years!

What interests me most is how the line has been passed from hand to hand over the years. All of the men mentioned in this article have been considered master breeders by their peers and yet all are working with the same overall bloodline. The quality has continued as each generation taught the next how to properly mate the birds. Quality certainly comes from the genes, but it is maintaining that quality — preventing genetic drift — that is something we humans play a role in. It is the connection of the skill of one breeder to the line he or she worked with that has often set the high mark for a breed. Back in the early 1900s, the best Dark Brown line was the Grove Hill Line.

As I look in my pens, it is really something to realize I can trace my line back to 1868 and straight through the hands of the greatest master breeders of Dark Brown Leghorns of all time. I also greatly appreciate the generosity of those people who have helped me along the way — my mentor most of all. But if it were not for the human relationships I have to wonder, would these lines exists at all?

Leghorn Chickens
Irvin Holmes holding one of his winning Dark Brown Leghorn cockerels.

A Legend Departs

In September of 2013, Mr. Richard “Dick” Holmes passed away. He was 81. His line of Dark Brown Leghorn bantams is still alive and well. Jim Rines, Jr., once said that there is not a Dark Brown Leghorn bantam in the country that does not have Holmes breeding in its background.

Text copyright Don Schrider, 2013. All rights reserved. Don Schrider is a nationally recognized poultry breeder and expert. He is the author of a revised edition of Storey’s Guide to Raising Turkeys.

Originally published in the December 2013/January 2014 issue of Backyard Poultry magazine.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *