Sunday, December 19, 2010

"The Broiler Capital of the World"

I grew up in a small town on the coast of Maine, and that's how it promoted itself: "The Broiler Capital of the World"! The boast was based on the major source of employment in the area, the two poultry processing plants that were located side by side directly on the waterfront at the head of the bay. There was a sardine plant there, too, but it was the poultry plants that gave the town its claim to fame. I was reminded of this today as I worked on a crossword puzzle and "broilers" was one of the answers.

"Broilers" of course referred to the countless chickens that were raised in the outlying areas and transported in cages by "poultry trucks" to the plants at the bottom of Main Street, where they were slaughtered, processed and shipped to markets all around the country ( and maybe the world, but the "global economy" had not really materialised yet.)

Almost everyone in the county was, directly or indirectly, involved with the poultry industry. Anybody who didn't work in one of the plants, grow chicks in a chicken house, or drive a truck to take them to them to their final destination was probably related to somebody who did. And almost everybody else in some way supported and depended on the industry. It was, in many respects, a "company town". And the "company" was a chicken plant.

Since the local economy was so dependent on "broilers" I guess it's only natural that a slogan that featured the industry was developed and promoted. So "The Broiler Capital of the World" came to be - I don't know exactly when the slogan came into existence but I do not remember a time when the town was not known as that, and my recollection goes back to the early 1950's. And it was not just a slogan - there were activities and events intended to further the town's reputation as such, foremost among them an annual "Broiler Day".

The celebration was held in July, as I recall, and was a pretty big deal for the whole area. There was a parade, of course, and selection of a "Broiler Queen", and maybe even a dance, but the main event was the day-long celebration at the waterfront park, where there were games and displays all leading up to the main event - the biggest chicken barbeque you can imagine. A good time was had by all, and the chicken was really yummy! The organizers of the event did a really good job promoting the industry that supported the whole area.

But of course there was a "dark side" to the industry that everybody had to ignore for "business as usual" to continue to go on. For one thing, travel over any road in the county inevitably wound up with you behind a truck transporting chickens and it was not a pretty sight. Chickens were crammed into wooden cages which made their misery apparent, and their feathers created a hazardous "storm" behind the truck. And there were precious few opportunities to pass the trucks safely so what could have been a quick trip to town frequently became a long, slow ride instead.

Much more serious, and what ultimately led to the demise of the industry in the area, was the fact that both plants were located directly on the shores of the bay and they discharged the effluent (i.e., "chicken guts") directly into the bay. No filters, no treatment - straight from the slaughter room floor into the water. A visitor to the waterfront was greeted with a view of floating chicken feathers, organs and offal. It was not a pretty sight. It's ironic that the city park where the "Broiler Day" celebration was held had a large pool for swimming because nobody in their right mind would dare venture into the waters of the adjacent bay for fear of encountering chicken parts floating by. The only "positive" aspect of this - and it's a real stretch - was that the Striped Bass that migrated into the bay every summer found the offal to be very tasty, and a fisherman who wanted to catch them had only to hook a chicken lung onto his line to assure a catch.

All good things must come to an end and so it was with "The Broiler Capital of the World". By the late 1960's environmental concerns led to government regulations that prohibited things like discharging untreated waste directly into our waters, and so the plants had to make major capital investments to "clean up their act" or shut down, and of course they did the expedient thing - they closed up shop and moved on and left the local economy and the waterfront they had sullied and abandoned to fend for themselves. Those pesky "government regulations" that folks are so fond of complaining about did the industry in. Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing I guess is in the eye of the beholder, but I sure wish I had bought some shore-front property while the prices were depressed due to the chicken guts floating everywhere.

The end of every era is, of course, te beginning of a new one and so it was with my home town. The collapse of the local economy and the devaluation of property values resulted in what can only be called local depression conditions, but this too had a bright side: the opportunity to purchase prime waterfront property at bargain-basement prices attracted the attention of some savvy investors. Chief among them was MBNA - you remember, the credit card giant that made billions by making easy credit available to folks like you and me.

MBNA, which at the time had more money than God, came into town and bought up scads of prime real-estate and set up a call center and hired lots of local residents to staff it. And they didn't discharge anything into the bay, which over time managed to clean itself up pretty well through natural processes - chicken guts may not be pretty, but they are bio-degradable and in a few short years the waterfront was relatively pristine again. And since shorefront property is highly desirable and in short supply values began to go back up, and other people and companies with money came to the area to snap it up, and life and the local economy were good again. And then MBNA went belly-up.

Happily, by the time of this last development the natural beauty of the region had been cleaned up and re-established itself as the primary attraction of the area. It was desireable for what it was: an area rich in natural beauty and resources, a place where people wanted to come just to enjoy the wonderment of its location. So my home town no longer calls itself "The Broiler Capital of the World" but it's doing pretty well anyway. I haven't been back in quite a while but I understand it's thriving as a local center for culture and the arts, and I think that's a good thing. Maybe when I do go back for a visit, I'll take a swim in the bay just for "new times" sake.

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