State Fair Spotlight: Cock-a-doodle-doers 

click to enlarge Photo by Hannah Fehrman
  • Photo by Hannah Fehrman

You can have your corndogs, your Tilt-A-Whirls and your horse shows. For me the Indiana State Fair is about the roosters, and the annual competition to see how many cockadoodle-dos can be teased from their beaks.

To use the word competition, however, might be a bit misleading. The roosters — who reach the final via a NCAA bracket-style advancement process — are separated from each other, housed in individual cages. They don't seem to be paying attention to each other, and they're barely noting the existence of their owners and handlers as the humans shake their keys and snap their fingers in an attempt to coax the rooster to crow.

It can be tough on the audience, too, in its own way. The Rabbit/Poultry Barn is a large, cavernous room with concrete floors. Fans permeate the room with the numbing drone of white noise. Especially if you've stuffed yourself with fair food you're likely to fall into a soporific state, punctuated by the occasional, distant, as-if-in-a-dream sound of a rooster's crow.

The whole folderol doesn't last all that long: 15 minutes.

The Master of Ceremonies at this annual event, keeping everyone awake and entertained, is Jack Patterson. At 75, Patterson's been dealing with roosters since he was 12 years old. When I talked to him a couple weeks ago, he was looking forward to another season of judging roosters, working with 4-H kids and emceeing rooster crowing contests.

These contests, he notes, "are just extra attraction to draw spectators," akin to "cow dung throwing or watermelon seed spitting or celebrity milk the cow, ride the hog."

Oddities in chickens

Once drawn into the Rabbit/Poultry Barn by the allure of a crowing competition, the fair-goer is likely to be mesmerized. "It's still amazing to me," Patterson says, "the number of people that go through the poultry barn at these fairs and are just awestruck by the number of varieties, different shapes, colors. It's fun watching people look at the chickens and rabbits and ducks and geese and guineas and turkeys and the whole scene."

Growing up with roosters, Patterson says he never treated them like pets. Initially, raising and showing roosters was his father's hobby, but it ended up being a money making endeavor. Patterson says, "I paid three years of my college by showing at fairs."

By the time he was in high school and college, "We were up to five to 600 head in nine states with 13 fairs, county and state, anything that paid premiums for entries. So that gave me access to obviously a lot of different breeds, a lot of knowledge of different birds."

I ask Patterson to describe his impressions of these creatures. He responds, "Some are a little bit more domestic and a little easier to get along with, some are quite flighty and scary and some can be mean, some breeds. You have favorites. You have your favorite breed. You might pick the breed that you like because of the plumage, the beauty of the plumage, or the structure of the type.

"Do you like big bodied birds?" he asks. "Big round birds? Do you like birds with top knots? Do you like birds with beards? Do you like birds with feathers on their legs? You know, there's a lot of oddities in chickens. It's not just the white chicken that lays the egg that you buy at the grocery store."

Harmony love to the female

Jack Patterson knows his roosters, sixty-some years of experience. His relaxed and persuasive performance at the contest each year is enjoyable, but it never comes across as an act. I am convinced that if a movie were made of his life, he'd have to play himself; no one else could do it half as well.

Patterson is retired from his job at RCA Thompson at being he calls "a peddler. I sold consumer electronics to basically large chains: Walmart, Kmart, Target." Now, he says, "I complain about the weather from like December to March, and then I'm happy and I play golf."

And then there are the county — and the state — fairs. "I'm not a licensed judge, but I do work with 4-H kids." And of course, emceeing the rooster crowing contests.

After all these years, though, Patterson says "It's almost impossible to pick a winner. And it's almost impossible to make a chicken crow. There's some tricks that people try to do. Some people will go get the female of the same breed and show it to the rooster which makes him, y'know, makes him wanna crow and start making some kind of harmony love to the female."

You can do about anything, Patterson notes, to get your rooster to crow, except touch the bird. One contestant, he recalls, used a red bandanna handkerchief as kind of visual cue to crow. "He got that rooster trained to the point where most days, not every day, but most times when the man would throw that red bandana up in the air, the rooster would raise his head and crow.

"Other people try keychains, they rattle keys, they blow on them, they whistle at them, they talk to them. We have a couple of actors; I think they're frustrated stage people. They like to dance and chortle and have a big time, which is part of it."

Patterson pauses, then adds, "It's just 15 minutes of fun. That's about all it is."

Crowing rights

Patterson notes that 90 percent of the winners of the Rooster Crowing Contest have been younger than a year old, otherwise known as cockerels. Roosters over a year are known as cocks. "You know, you and I," Patterson says, "when we were younger, we had a lot more vitality. We could run a lot faster and run a lot longer than we can today. And that's true of chickens, as they get older, they don't have the vitality."

Some breeds, Patterson continues, "like old English game bantams, they're bred down from fighting cocks actually, they look like a fighting cock, a miniature one, they're really small and they have a small body so it doesn't take a lot of energy to crow."

Winners' rewards are nothing to crow about. There's a daily prize, daily ribbons and the daily winner receives 10 dollars, second place gets five. "And if they win the overall," Patterson says, "it's a 50 dollar bill, 25 and 10 for first second and third. And a beautiful rosette, purple rosette. It's enough to get a half a tank of gas to go home."

The true purpose of the crow-off, says Patterson, is "to see which bird has the crowing rights for the rest of the year."

And what if the roosters are having a bad day and aren't crowing?

Patterson says, "Then the emcee's gotta make up a lot more stories." He laughs. "Oh, I'll make up some."

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Jim Poyser

Jim Poyser

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Jim Poyser is Executive Director of Earth Charter Indiana, a statewide organization that was one of over two dozen nonprofit partners in Greening the Statehouse. A former managing editor of NUVO, he won HEC’s Environmentalist of the Year Award in 2013.

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