Raising chickens changes life of fair exhibitor

Thursday, September 13, 2007
Floyd Penny held Rachel, a black rosecomb pullet he had entered in the poultry contest at the SEMO District Fair. (Fred Lynch)

Floyd Penny, 68, might have turned to a life of petty crime if he hadn't gotten a little chicken.

The Cape Girardeau County man remembers being little more than 5 years old, sneaking over to his neighbor Joe Bowling's garden, armed with a salt shaker.

Penny and his friends made off with tomatoes and watermelons and ate them. Bowling never directly accused Penny of the thefts, but he found a way to stop them.

"One day Joe called me over and asked if I wanted to trade birds," Penny recalled. "I told him I didn't have any."

So Bowling gave the boy a half-dozen young chickens, or pullets.

It changed his life.

He went from trading the animals to buying them at 10 cents each.

By the time he was 14, Penny's birds were winning awards at the SEMO District Fair.

"As a kid, it motivated me," Penny said. "It just always motivated me to keep doing good in life."

It still does.

This year, he's brought two black rosecomb pullets to compete among the bantam chickens.

Caring for chickens required getting up early in the morning to feed them before going off to school. He fought to keep raccoons and opossums at bay, too, not always winning. He learned another hard lesson while trading birds.

"I got cheated. My dad told me that wasn't a good deal, trading a young rooster for an older rooster," he said.

He improved trading skills, first with birds, then real estate.

He grew into a full, busy life, as a plumber and licensed barber, auctioneer and horse racing jockey. He traveled to tracks around Missouri, Mississippi, Illinois and Kentucky. He once raced a harness horse against a Model T car. The car won.

Still as slender as any jockey, Penny moves with ease along the rows of cages in an Arena Park tent, appraising one bird after another.

He looks for shining eyes, clean glossy feathers, lively movement and a certain body shape. Rachel, one of the black rosecomb pullets he entered in the SEMO District Fair bantam chicken competition, seemed to have all the right qualities to be a prize-winner.

"She's a calm bird, a nice bird. That's the reason she came to the fair," he said. Another one of his birds, Blackie, is a former fair winner but couldn't enter this year. She's molting.

Penny shrugs off such setbacks as minor.

"At my age, I do very well," he says, proud to have conquered a short temper that led to his nickname, "Frog." (Doesn't take much to make a frog jump, he'll say, and it didn't take much for him to get furious.) Caring for the chickens "keeps me young," he said.

Though neither his wife, Loine, nor their six children ever shared his chicken-raising passion, Penny has influenced others.

Niece Rhonda Compas and her daughter, Jordan Compas, each showed black-and-white Silver Seabrights, also bantam chickens, at this year's SEMO District Fair.

Though Joe Bowling died decades ago, Penny thinks of his mentor often.

"When him and me became friends, it stopped me from eating in his watermelon and tomato patch," he said. "It's good for kids to have hobbies. It keeps you out of a lot of meanness."

pmcnichol@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 127

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