Plymouth Barred Rock Chickens: The Original Heirloom Chicken Breed
Learn the History of These Popular Backyard Chickens
by Robert Blosl – Plymouth Barred Rock chickens were developed just after the Civil War with the expectation of developing a dual-purpose fowl that had a good size and a deep body, enabling them to produce a good number of eggs per year. If you’re raising chickens for eggs, chances are you’ve seen a few Plymouth Barred Rock chickens in catalogs or even farm supply stores as some of the top layers.
The American farmer wanted a breed that represented their ideals and was superior to the massive Asiatic fowl. They also wanted to get away from the flighty Mediterranean fowl. They wanted a winter hardy fowl with a relatively small single comb and yellow skin.
Plymouth Barred Rock Chickens: The Making of the Breed
D. A. Upham, a breeder from Worcester, Massachusetts, set the breed in motion by crossing pullets of Black Javas with a common dunghill cock bird. The offspring from this cross was culled very hard, and only those with clean yellow legs and barred feathers were kept for the next year’s mating. Two men, Mr. Spaulding and Mr. Drake, were working on separate goals and a different strain than Mr. Upham. Both Mr. Drake and Mr. Spaulding had good success on forming the new breed, but Mr. Upham was later credited with showing his new breed at the Worcester, Massachusetts, poultry exhibition in 1869. This was the start of the American Class of dual-purpose poultry. Today, Plymouth Barred Rock chickens remain some of the most popular of the dual-purpose chicken breeds.
Plymouth Barred Rock Chickens: Standardizing the Breed
The American Poultry Association admitted the Plymouth Barred Rock chickens to the American Standard of Perfection in 1874. The general color of the Barred Plymouth Rock was garish white, resulting from dark bars crossing each feather. The barring was to be even in width, straight and carry the entire length of each feather. Six years later, the breed was changed to a fuller and longer fowl to increase egg-laying capacity and to produce a frame with more meat for commercial purposes. The new standard called for a male to carry his tail at a 45° angle, while the females must be at a 40° angle. Encouraged breadth across the back became a desirable trait. Since 1910, there has been little change in the makeup of the breed standard Plymouths Rocks. Many poultry historians find it fascinating that the early shape and size of the Plymouth Rock is still maintained by current breeders. Today, we have a young cockerel that will weigh nine pounds at eight months of age, and a female, if bred for width of body, can lay 180 large brown eggs in her pullet year.
Plymouth Barred Rock Chickens: Spin-Offs of the Plymouth Rock
In 1884, in a leading poultry magazine, Mr. Frost of Maine mentioned that he had White Plymouth Rock sports of the barred color pattern. Later, others started to have sports from the cuckoo color pattern or crossed white Orpingtons to get a solid white bird. Over the years, they were able to breed the rich yellow leg and beak color producing one of the most popular poultry breeds ever formed — the White Plymouth Rock large fowl. The White Plymouth Rock large fowl became one of the most accepted commercial breeds as well as earning exhibition honors. It was admitted to the Standard of Perfection in 1888.
In 1890, R. C. Buffington of Fall River, Massachusetts, exhibited Buff Plymouth Rocks. A friend, Dr. Aldrich, showed a new breed from the same flock, a darker version of the Buff Rocks, exhibited as Rhode Island Reds. Buff Cochin blood was later crossed with the Buffington line to improve color.
The Partridge color pattern, which was a cross of the Partridge Cochin color with either Whites or Barred Rocks, was the next version of the Plymouth Rock variety. They were on display at the 1910 Madison Square Garden show. In 1914 they were admitted to the Standard of Perfection. Next came the Columbian Plymouth Rock, a cross of Columbian Wyandottes with Plymouth Rock. Another breeder used dark Brahmas, Silver Gray Dorking, and Mottled Javas to develop his variety of the Columbian strain. The Columbian Rocks where admitted to the American Standard of Perfection in 1920.
The last variety was the Silver Penciled pattern which was an offshoot of the Dark Brahmas crossed with White Plymouth Rocks and admitted to the Standard in 1922.
Today, the Production Plymouth Rock, a spin-off of the Barred Plymouth Rock, is very popular and is sold by the thousands through mail order hatcheries and feed stores all over America. This variety of fowl was developed in the 1930s to compete in ROP egg laying contests held in the Northeast. These contests were supposed to have strict standards, only allowing 10 purebred pullets that were true to the breed in competition to be entered by any poultry farm. But it appears the officials of many of the ROP contests did not enforce all of the rules. This also occurred with Production Rhode Island Reds, which were bred strictly for egg production, not overall appearance. Like the Production Plymouth Rocks, they beat out the Standard breed Rhode Island Reds in these contests. By the 1950s, the Production style breeds put the purebred Plymouth Rocks to near extinction. In the 1920s, the Plymouth Rock Club of America had over 2,000 members and a magazine, the Plymouth Rock Monthly was published in Waverly, Iowa. The magazine had over 40,000 subscribers. By the mid-1950s the club was lucky to have 200 members who were mostly died-in-the-wool fanciers trying to breed their Plymouth Rocks to the Standard and maintain some of its intrinsic values.
Nicknames of Plymouth Barred Rock Chickens
No article on Plymouth Barred Rock chickens would be complete without reviewing the difference between the Dominique and the Plymouth Barred Rock large fowl.
Often, people see my Plymouth Barred Rock chickens and tell me that their grandmother or uncle used to have “Dom-a-nick-ers” like these birds. Or they will say to others in the showroom those are “Dom-a-nick-errs” chickens. However, the Dominiques are more refined and have a rose comb while all Plymouth Rocks have single combs. The tail of the Barred Plymouth Rock is shorter than that of the Dominque. The Dominique male has a long and flowing tail, much like a Leghorn or Hamburg. The male Dominique sickle feathers are wider and longer than the Barred Plymouth Rock’s. The body styles are very different. The Barred Rock has a deeper body and a lower tail carriage. The Dominique is more upright in station than the Plymouth Rock large fowl.
Plymouth Barred Rock chickens and the Dominiques both have a dark cuckoo pattern on their feathers. However, Plymouth Barred Rock chickens have sharply contrasting black and white bars. These light bars are the same width and are in contrast to a laid down feather in parallel rows. The Dominique feather is much different, with silvery-white list bars and dark bars of a dove gray hue. The light bars are twice as wide as the dark bars. This gives the Dominique a more mottled color pattern.
In its own right, the Dominique fowl is a wonderful fowl and as much endangered as the Plymouth Barred Rock chicken, deserving to be in family flocks in America. However, this grand old breed, which was the first breed accepted into the American Standard of Perfection, should not be confused with the Barred Plymouth Rock. It deserves full recognition and respect for its own heritage. (For a full article on the Dominique breed, see the December, 2007/January 2008 issue of Backyard Poultry.—Ed.)
Plymouth Barred Rock Chickens: A Major Comeback in Backyard Poultry
The Plymouth Barred Rock large fowl or bantam both make an excellent fowl choice for families who choose to raise their own free-range poultry using heritage chicken breeds. Large fowl are easy to take care of and can be kept in an 8′ x 8′ poultry house with some outside runs or left out to range provided they have protection from their enemies during the day. At night they need to be enclosed to protect them from predators.
Bantams, on the other hand, are becoming very popular because they are a dual-purpose and make great 4-H projects. Some children are competing in showmanship classes, and these docile Plymouth Rock bantams make it very easy for them to show their knowledge and skills to the judges.
A small flock of bantams consisting of a male and four females can be kept in a small pen consisting of a 4′ x 4′ house and a 4′ x 4′ run. The Bantams also can go broody in the spring and are excellent sitters and mothers for their chicks, which also give the family—especially the children—the joy of watching the little chicks develop and grow. Some families even enjoy taking their children to open class and junior poultry shows sponsored by the American Bantam Association or the American Poultry Association. Families can compete for prizes and just have fun with others who are interested in poultry. At present, there are still hundreds of poultry shows all over the country for families to attend.
Plymouth Barred Rock Chickens Fanciers Club
There is a poultry organization just for people who raise Plymouth Rocks called the Plymouth Rock Fanciers Club of America. They help promote the education and methods of breeding this excellent breed, plus sponsor state and district meets all over the country. They have an outstanding newsletter with excellent articles from breeders put out four times a year, as well as articles from the District Directors outlining events in their region.
The Plymouth Barred Rock Chickens Fanciers Club has a superb website written and maintained by the club’s Vice President, Matt Lhamon. The website has pictures of many varieties of large fowl and bantams. The website also has a list of members throughout the country so interested parties can contact them. To join the Plymouth Rock Fanciers Club send $15 for adults and $5 for juniors for a one-year membership to: Robert Blosl, Club Secretary, 14390 South Blvd., Silverhill, AL 36576. Please visit our website at http://www.crohio.com/rockclub/.
The Plymouth Barred Rock large fowl is over 125 years old and considered endangered; some color varieties are on the very rare or watch list. Within some color varieties, there are less than 100 adult birds in this country during the winter months. If you want an excellent fowl for your personal use, and want to support an heirloom variety of poultry, I suggest you look into the country’s most popular American breed—the Plymouth Rock.
Plymouth Barred Rock chickens will not disappoint you as brown egg layers, with their delicious meat, and most of all, their beauty. The Plymouth Barred Rock chickens are easy to maintain and will earn their keep in your family’s supply of livestock on your farm.
Mr. Blosl is a long time breeder of White and Barred Plymouth Rocks large fowl, White Plymouth Rock bantams and the current Secretary-Treasurer of the Plymouth Rock Fanciers Club of America (PRFCOA). Mr. Blosl’s can be contacted by going to the club website: http://www.crohio.com/rockclub/ or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Founded in 1988 the PRFCOA is a non-profit membership organization working to promote and preserve the genetic diversity of this breed of poultry.
Originally published in the October/November 2008 issue of Backyard Poultry magazine and regularly vetted for accuracy.