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Banker hatches a successful enterprise

Murray McMurray Hatchery celebrates a century of business

— Photo from McMurray Collection at Kendall Young Library Hatchery employees, shown in front of the Ohio Street building, celebrate the company’s first year to sell a million chicks in 1942.

Murray McMurray was an extremely busy man in 1917. He worked in his father’s bank, was scout master to more than 50 rambunctious boys and headed the county’s fund drive to support the Army YMCA facilities, the war time boys and girls vegetable garden work and the county’s war food conservation committee.

Somehow, he also managed to find time to expand his poultry hobby.

McMurray, born in Webster city in 1888, graduated from the local schools. He received a degree from Grinnell College in 1910, going immediately to Yale College in New Haven, Connecticut for graduate work in forestry. Graduating from Yale in 1912, he returned to his hometown to work in his father’s bank.

The McMurray family, coming from the New York and New Jersey areas, were early landowners in Hamilton and Wright counties beginning in 1856, buying unsettled lands with military bounty land warrants. While still living on the East coast, the family made many trips to the area to oversee their holdings.

Leslie A. McMurray, father of Murray, purchased the Hamilton County Bank in Webster City in 1875 and became a full-time resident. An 1871 graduate of Andover College, he had a keen interest in scientific matters and passed that passion on to his son Murray and daughter Jesse.

Murray McMurray married fellow Grinnell graduate Margaret Miller in 1913 and became a cashier in the Hamilton County State Bank. He was quickly enlisted to share his forestry degree and love of the outdoors as the leader of the Boy Scout program in Webster City. It was also during this time, he began his scientific approach to raising and exhibiting purebred breeds of poultry.

Hobby gains attention

McMurray’s hobby of raising prizewinning chickens garnered attention and the demand for his knowledge and production grew. He was soon selling his bounty to residents from the backroom of the Hamilton County State Bank.

Americans were asked in 1917 to conserve food and expand agricultural production as the country entered World War I. Poultry raising and egg production had long been the farm woman’s cash crop. As Extension services expanded to share their knowledge, it became clear that raising poultry using the latest research data could increase production and profits. Demand for purebred poultry increased.

Selling proven purebred strains of poultry became a commercial enterprise for Murray McMurray in 1917. During the first two years, sales were to county residents as he placed orders with trusted out-of-state hatcheries for March and April delivery of hundreds of baby checks.

McMurray advertised in early 1918, Rhode Island Reds and Plymouth Rock chicks at 18 to 20 cents each with special pricing for lots of 100 or more. “You ought to raise a few chickens. It pays big. With 25 or 30, it’s more fun than work”, he wrote.

In early February of 1919, the Freeman Journal noted that McMurray expected to sell 10,000 purebred chicks that year – “5,000 chicks here in town and 5,000 over the county”. As it turned out, that was a low estimate.

An article by McMurray appeared in the February 1919 Iowa Homestead farm magazine which shared his poultry knowledge. He contended that “the hen that lays is the one that pays” and shared his poultry and record keeping advice. The article, along with his prizewinning poultry show birds, gained the McMurray Hatchery national exposure.

In mid-April of 1919, the U. S. Postal service issued new parcel post orders which allowed shipment by mail of harmless live animals.

The new postal rules allowed the newly hatched chicks to be shipped to Webster City, where McMurray fed, watered and boxed them before sending them on their way to customers. More than 25,000 chicks were sent to almost every central Iowa town and to Minnesota and Illinois in 1919. The first printed catalog was also issued in 1919.

The expanding business meant the family’s dining room table was no longer big enough to handle the orders. A home on Ohio Street on the south edge of McMurray’s Webster Street home was purchased in 1920 to be converted for his business.

Small classified advertisements were placed in newspapers and farm magazines throughout the country. Demand and his reputation for quality advice and product expanded the business.

Leslie A. McMurray died in mid-1920. In January 1921, Murray McMurray was elected president of the bank, a position he held until the Hamilton County State Bank was closed in December 1926, a victim of the deepening national financial crisis.

By late 1926, the firm offered 50 common and rare breeds to their customers and the hatchery become McMurray’s sole business.

To meet the demand, the Hatchery added a Smith Incubator in 1927 to supplement the 1924 10,000 egg Buckeye Mammoth incubator already in use. The Smith incubator had a capacity of 47,000 eggs, nearly three tons of eggs from 5,000 laying hens. About 15,000 eggs were loaded each week for the 21-day hatching cycle. The eggs were timed to hatch each Monday and Thursday, generating about 8 to 10,000 baby chicks for sale each week.

Eggs were supplied by 75 different breeders in Hamilton County. Those flocks were inspected and culled regularly by the Hatchery to ensure high quality, healthy stock. Breeders were paid a premium for their egg production.

The company’s first open house was held in mid-February 1927. More than 1,000 people toured the plant, each one receiving a souvenir pamphlet with a blueprint of a model brooder house. Local school classes also came to the Hatchery to learn about poultry production.

With the Hatchery running at full capacity on the two incubators, McMurray planned to hatch more than 150,000 chicks that spring.

Roy Gore was in charge of the incubators at night with Arnold Henegar, Carl Gore and Milton Frank on the day shift. Carl Gore also assisted with flock management. And of course, Myrtle Maxon, who joined the firm in 1921, oversaw the office. Most of these employees would work for the firm for more than fifty years before retiring in the 1970’s.

Many orders for birds and ducks came in from foreign lands and territories. A few Silver Sebright bantams sent to Lady Grace of Ireland were prizewinners at the Royal Poultry show.

In December of 1927 McMurray sent nine full-grown Bourbon Red turkeys to the importing firm of Ozaki Brothers in Tokyo, Japan. Freight express on the birds was about $128, which was more than the birds cost. Included in the freight cost was $10 to the ship’s butcher for feeding them in route and more than $3 for insurance against drowning.

The firm’s reputation for quality stock has continued to make them longtime suppliers to national celebrities, major zoos, and historical sites. In addition, many of their rare birds, part of the current backyard chicken sensation, are at home on rooftops and tiny green spaces in many of the metropolitan cities.

By 1938, just twenty-one years after their commercial start, the Hatchery grew to a capacity of more than 250,000 eggs at one setting. Around 190 flock owners from within a 20-mile radius of Webster City brought in eggs twice a week from January to July for hatching. The firm supplied more than 60 different breeds of chicks, more than any other hatchery in the country.

A staff of 19 men and 21 women helped the firm produce and sell a million chicks in 1942. The group was treated to a grand celebration hosted by the McMurray family on reaching this milestone.

The first fly-in pickup of chicks occurred in March of 1948. The Yale, Iowa Farm Implement Company, needing 100 cockerels for a display, dispatched a plane to the Webster City airport to pick up the order. Freeman Journal editor Max Maxon humorously noted the “air-males were not going all the way on their own wings”.

A pending railroad strike in May of 1948 elicited a one page Hatchery advertisement in the Freeman Journal. The threatened lack of railroad transport forced the Hatchery to sell 20,000 chicks locally at reduced prices when the current orders couldn’t be sent out. Chicks and ten pounds of feed were offered to Boy’s and Girl’s poultry club members on a no-charge plan. The members each received 25 chicks and could pay for the entire package by bringing four cockerels back to the Hatchery in the fall. A similar plan was offered to adults. The community rallied to help and every chick found a home.

On the Hatchery’s 40th anniversary in 1957 the company handled 67 different varieties of poultry, using more than 20,000 hens from 100 farm flocks to supply the eggs. In the 40-year interval, around 25 million chicks were hatched for more than 65,000 customers in all fifty states and many foreign countries.

Baby chicks absorb their yolk sac just before hatching. This natural element allows the chicks a three-day interval before needing additional nourishment or water and allows for shipping.

Getting the chicks to customers began with truck delivery or local pick up. Soon, the company could box the birds and ship by the post office and the railroad. Now the chicks, just a few hours old and comfy in their specially designed shipping boxes, get a truck ride to major airline terminals to reach their destination by air.

By 1991, McMurray Hatchery had outgrown the 609-615 Ohio Street buildings. Grandfathered into a residential neighborhood with no room to expand, the company elected to become the first business to locate in the Closz Drive industrial development park.

The new state-of-the-art building at 26,000 square feet, would increase hatching capacity from 93,000 to 168,000 eggs a week. Using Nature Form setters and hatchers, the facility included separate rooms for each stage of production and insured increased biosecurity.

Orders come in from all around the country each year. Most are handled by the firm’s on-line ordering website. Office staff are still on hand to handle telephone orders when needed.

As a full-service Hatchery, poultry enthusiasts and producers can order from a full-color catalog issued each year. More than 100 standard and rare breeds are available along with equipment and products necessary for successful poultry raising.

The company also continues the tradition set by Murray McMurray of sharing information and advice on poultry raising. When interest in backyard poultry raising increased in the early 2000’s, the Hatchery wrote a book “Chickens In Five Minutes A Day” as a guide to successful chicken raising.

Through their support and maintenance of flocks, the Hatchery has insured the survival of many rare breeds of poultry and waterfowl. Cooperating with The Livestock Conservancy, the company aided in a 2015 bird count census to learn which breed populations were endangered or growing. Knowing it is important to preserve the older heritage breeds to maintain biodiversity, Murray McMurray Hatchery will continue to be the “Rare Breed Headquarters of the World”.

Within twenty-fours of the 2015 confirmation of avian influenza in Iowa, McMurray Hatchery owner Bud Wood loaded 50 females and 15 males from each of their 55 breed lines on a truck and trailer. With clearances from the Iowa and Texas authorities, he drove fourteen hours to give the birds a safe, new home in Texas. Dubbed the “Noah’s Ark” trip by Hatchery employees, moving the birds out of danger insured the company’s and the bird’s survival. While the Iowa bird flu epidemic did not affect any of their flocks, the birds will remain in the south for the time being.

Ownership of the Hatchery has remained local. John McMurray joined his father, Murray, in the business in 1938 with youngest son Charles joining in 1948. Both boys took over when the senior member died in 1959.

Grandson and namesake Murray McMurray with longtime family friend Mike Lubbers became owners when John and Charles retired in the mid-1990s. Today, Bud Wood, another longtime family friend is at the helm to ensure the continuation of the same Murray McMurray standards set 100 years ago.

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