Gainesville, Ga., is a capital within a capital. Business innovator Jesse Jewell, who lived from 1902 to 1975, first carved the city’s place in international prominence as the “Poultry Capital of the World,” during the Depression era. Furthermore, in 1995 the state general assembly declared Georgia to also be the “Poultry Capital of the World.”
Both Gainesville and Georgia come by their titles honestly. The poultry industry accounts for more than half the state’s revenue and produces more than 29.3 million pounds of chicken and 12.4 million eggs every day.
More than 100 Georgia counties produce more than $1 million worth of poultry annually at the farm level, and the state processes 1.4 billion broiler chickens a year. Gainesville, a municipality of about 34,000 in the northern part of the state, and surrounding Hall County, serve as the primary hub of that production.
Until Jewell’s arrival on the scene in the 1930s, chickens had been raised primarily for their eggs in Georgia. The Depression was taking its toll on farmers, though, and Jewell hit upon a plan that infused financial CPR into a dying agricultural industry. He offered to sell baby chicks and feed to the farmers on credit: After the chicks were grown, he bought them back at a price that covered his costs and provided the farmers with a fair profit.
A man of renowned business acuity, Jewell pioneered the practice of vertical integration, combining all phases of his business within a single company, from breeding to marketing. Within a decade after the Great Depression, he integrated the poultry’s breeding, hatching, feeding, medical care, processing and marketing and became the largest chicken producer in the world.
Jewell was also a civic leader, founding the National Broiler Council and becoming its first president; establishing a scholarship fund at a nearby university; and serving as president of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce during the 1950s.
He also innovated the marketing of frozen chickens, which shipped across the globe.
The poultry industry in Georgia skyrocketed during and after World War II. The War Food Administration reserved all the processed chicken in north Georgia to feed America’s soldiers, and returning warriors and their families continued to clamor for the meat and eggs after the war.
The area initially turned to poultry as its main agriculture product for a very simple and practical reason. “The hilly country here was not good for crops,” said Abit Massey, president emeritus of the Georgia Poultry Federation and a stalwart of the poultry industry for more than 50 years. Today there are more allied industries in Gainesville than anywhere else, with people who supply equipment, medication, education, testing and the like. In fact, Poultry Diagnostic Laboratory, the leading organization that works on poultry health in the industry, recently opened a new facility in the area.
Massey tips his hat to Jewell, whom he met when Jewell was in his later years.
“I took him to lunch in what may have been his last time out of the house. He had a tremendous influence on the poultry industry, and he was a good, fair man.”
The municipality has leveraged the title as public relations fodder. It even passed a 1961 ordinance — reenacted in the 1980s— making it illegal to eat fried chicken other than with one’s hands. The first arrestee under the new ordinance was none other than Colonel Sanders, who was released under conditions of probation that required him to visit often and keep selling chicken.
In 1977 Gainesville erected a 28-foot marble monument topped with a bronze rooster at the entrance of Georgia Poultry Park. The county provided the land, businesses contributed the funds to design and build the structure and the city maintains the monument.
But Catiel Felts, Gainesville’s communications and tourism director, wants everyone to know the city offers many more diversified attractions. “If it weren’t for poultry, we might not be where we are today,” she said. “But we are so much more.”
By way of example, the chamber of commerce has worked to make the world aware of the local high tech industry, including robotics and education. Felts is also proud of another moniker bestowed upon the city when it hosted the 1996 Olympic kayaking and rowing competition.
“They called us the Hospitality Capital of the World. We appreciate that. We take hospitality for granted down here until we get out and travel around.” Referring to the city’s founding in 1821, Felts said, “We have been welcoming the world for almost 200 years.”
Gainesville is home to a number of Fortune 500 companies, including Kabota, King’s Hawaiian, Shasta and Ace Hardware.
Like an actor refusing to be typecast, the municipality is always striving to highlight its variety of natural and commercial attractions. Nearby Lake Lanier is the most-visited Corps of Engineers lake in the nation. The city’s industrial park, built in the 1970s, has brought in large manufacturing interests in a number of industries.
But cluckers are deeply — and probably indelibly — embedded in Gainesville’s culture.
Every November, to kick off the holiday shopping season, the Jingle Mingle festival in central square features the ceremonial “lighting of the chicken.” The city’s biggest event is the Spring Chicken Festival, held the last Saturday in April; it features Georgia’s official chicken cook-off, with culinary contestants dishing up about 7,000 pounds of chicken.