Jack Tweddle of Fergus built up a major chicken hatchery

The name of Jack Tweddle of Fergus has appeared at least a half dozen times in this column, most recently several months ago in a brief history of the Fergus Fur Farms.

That business is most associated with Fergus businessman Campbell Richardson, but in its early years Jack Tweddle was a partner.

Richardson and Campbell were two of the businessmen who broadened the Fergus economy from what would otherwise have been total domination by the Beatty Brothers firm in the first half of the 20th century. Both men had involvement with several businesses over the years.

Jack Tweddle was born in Seaforth, Ontario in 1896, a son of Frederick W. Tweddle. His mother was Dora Wilson, a daughter of “Egg” Wilson, who was a major egg producer and shipper in the 1890s. His firm had a branch in Fergus, and that is what brought the Tweddle family to Fergus.

Jack Tweddle was christened John Gordon, but he was invariably known as Jack all his life. As a student he showed a great deal of initiative and delighted in coming up with money-making schemes.

As a young man he entered the hardware business, operating a store in downtown Fergus. He also had a coal business, bringing coal to Fergus by the carload and distributing it to customers. The store and the coal business were both successful, but Tweddle soon became bored.

In the 1920s he was involved with his pal Campbell Richardson in the breeding and raising of fur animals. That business quickly enjoyed success, but it was Richardson’s pet project, not Tweddle’s, though Tweddle remained involved for about a decade.

Before the fur operation became well-established, Tweddle had struck up a conversation with a stranger on a train while returning to Fergus. The man was a vocal proponent of raising and selling baby chicks to farmers who wanted to maintain flocks of laying hens.

When he got home Tweddle did some additional investigation, and concluded that the man’s ideas had merit. With a partner, J.D. Johnson, Tweddle began a hatchery in 1925. He and Johnson got their hands on three second-hand incubators able to handle about 1,800 eggs at a time. They found a ready market in the area for the chicks. Farmers were happy to buy the young chicks rather than go through the trouble and inconvenience of hatching the chicks themselves.

After a few years Tweddle and Johnson dissolved their partnership. For a time both operated hatcheries in Fergus, but after a couple of years Tweddle had the field to himself. He found the market almost insatiable, and added constantly to his equipment. By 1931 he was sometimes shipping 5,000 or 6,000 baby chicks in a single day.

Shipping day-old baby chicks had, by 1930, evolved into a business that blanketed North America. The freshly-hatched chicks had to be sorted and graded. They were placed in crates that had a built-in water supply, and that insulated the young birds from cold and drafts.

Canadian National Railways was a vital partner. Tweddle or one of his employees took the crates to the railway station as train time approached. Baggage men quickly loaded the crates into the railway car. The chicks would normally be delivered to their destination in a matter of hours.

Tweddle informed the buyers when the chicks were to arrive, and the buyers would be waiting at their station with their car, truck or horse and buggy. Farmers would wrap the crates with blankets if necessary, and speed them on to their farms.

Tweddle’s business was one of the few to not only survive the Depression, but to actually thrive during those years. With declining markets and prices, farmers and their wives maintained flocks of hens to supplement their incomes with egg money and with poultry sales. The latter were especially popular at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Tweddle, in the early 1930s, constantly added capacity to the operation. Central to the operation was a battery of incubators, each holding between 12,000 and 16,000 eggs. He bought the equipment locally, from Beatty Brothers. That firm had recently begun manufacturing incubating equipment for the Canadian market to designs developed by the Buckeye Company of Ohio.

The incubators resembled large refrigerators, but rather than cooling the eggs, they maintained a constant temperature of 100 degrees Fahrenheit, at 85 per cent humidity. Inside, the eggs were held in trays tilted at a 45% angle. Every 24 hours the trays could be tilted in the opposite direction, which turned the eggs.

When trays in the incubators were filled with freshly laid eggs, they were placed at the top of the cabinets. Gradually they moved to lower and lower levels. The chicks hatched when the tray reached the lowest level.

The room containing the incubators had three fans operating constantly to keep the temperature uniform. If humidity was low, the air currents blew over pans, into which water dripped. The system maintained constant temperature and humidity in both the incubators and in the room holding them.

When they hatched, employees removed the chicks from the incubators, checked and graded them, and placed them in the special flat boxes, which contained 25 to 100 chicks each. Freshly hatched chicks can live for several days without food. They were packed so they were close together in the boxes to keep one another warm.

By the early 1930s Tweddle was shipping chicks as far as Nova Scotia and Alberta, and to many locations in the United States.

Competition had by then become keen in the day-old chick industry. Tweddle attempted to stay at the front of the pack. The major objective was to breed strains of hens that would lay more and more eggs each year.

When Tweddle started in the business, it was not unusual for hens to lay between 100 and 125 eggs per year, with long periods when they produced no eggs. By selective breeding, Tweddle was able, within a decade, to raise that average above 250 per year. That made a dramatic difference in the profitability of keeping a flock of laying hens for farmers.

As well as productivity, Tweddle constantly strove to develop strains of healthier birds. Using blood analysis through the Ontario Veterinary College in Guelph, he identified strains of birds prone to various diseases, and used the results to breed only those birds with the best tolerance and immunity to various avian diseases.

Consequently, it was foolish for farmers to try to hatch laying hens on their own, when Tweddle was able to supply much superior birds.

By the late 1930s the Tweddle Hatchery was a leading Canadian supplier of day-old chicks, and a major business in Fergus. That status continued through the 1940s and 1950s.

With the 1960s rise of specialized egg producers operating on a large scale, the demand for day-old chicks by small farmers fell slowly, as many abandoned the keeping of small flocks of hens.

Jack Tweddle exited from the business in 1981, after 56 years. The day-old chick baron of Fergus died in 1987, at the age of 91.

His place in the ranks of Wellington County’s successful and significant entrepreneurs is assured.

And the steel advertising signs for Tweddle’s Chick Hatchery will long be treasured keepsakes by collectors of Wellington County memorabilia.


Stephen Thorning