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History corner: Poultry profits in Petaluma

By the late 1800s, Petaluma had established itself as a major trading partner with San Francisco, providing everything from produce to poultry. Even though demand for poultry was plenty, supply was limited by how long it took hens to lay eggs. Local farmers were aware that money was being left on the table as demand in San Francisco exceeded the supply Petaluma could provide.

However, in the spirit of the gilded age, where opportunity for profit sparked innovation, the problem would soon be solved when a medical student named Lyman Byce arrived in Petaluma from Canada in 1878. Within a decade, Byce would become the central figure in Petaluma’s industrial growth. Local papers like the Argus-Courier would celebrate his role in the town's success with headlines describing him as “American Ingenuity Again Exemplified.”

Born in 1852, Byce made his way to Petaluma to live with his sister and her husband and started raising chickens to earn extra money. He had an interest in technology and was known to tinker with tools to improve productivity as a hobby. But a chance meeting with the town's dentist Dr. Isaac Lopes Dias, over a toothache would lead to the development of the world’s first mechanized artificial chicken incubator.

Byce and Dias became fast friends over their shared love of technology and began collaborating on the prototype design for the incubator after recognizing the need for such a device. The challenge was maintaining the 103-degree environment eggs needed to hatch. After months of failed experiments, they solved the problem using a coal oil lamp and electric regulator. The peculiar table-looking design featured a glass door for observing the eggs and turning them over three times a day as a hen does.

The pair formed the Petaluma Incubator Company in 1883 and sold 200 units at $90 in their first year. However, the partnership was tragically short-lived. On the morning of November 30th, 1884, Dr. Dias died from the accidental discharge of his rifle during a hunting trip. Afterwards, Byce would buy out Dias’s shares from his widow and become the sole owner. By 1889, the company had expanded into a new factory with offices and a showroom on Petaluma’s growing main street.

But innovation tends to inspire innovation. The new incubator technology allowed poultry farming at scale, and a Prussian immigrant named Christopher Nisson would do just that by capitalizing on the new technology in the 1890s. Nisson created the nation’s first commercial hatchery in Petaluma, and his operation grew rapidly throughout the decade. Nisson’s success in commercializing mass-scale poultry also inspired other farmers to convert their farming operations to focus on poultry. Before the decade's end, there were six more commercial hatcheries in Petaluma, including one owned by Byce himself.

During an age when commerce was driving the country's rapid industrialization, Petaluma was happy to contribute its entrepreneurial spirit. As a result, the town entered the twentieth century with two major innovations and dominance in a thriving industry. This brought more people flocking to the town in the early aughts, purchasing land to capitalize on the opportunity.

Petaluma’s poultry industry grew faster than ever, with production increasing annually. In 1904, Petaluma shipped 3,493,321 eggs. By early 1910’s that number had grown to an estimated 10,000,000 at $0.30 per dozen and production reached hundreds of millions of eggs by the decades end. This growth coincided with an increased population, as the town grew from 3,871 in 1900 to 6,266 residents by 1920. Between 1907 and 1915 came a construction boom, with hundreds of new houses and 25 commercial buildings in the downtown area, most of which are still preserved.

However, as the 1910s ended, growth stagnated. Anxieties of economic decline after World War I stoked fears amongst Petaluma’s leaders. The town's leadership did not want to lose the momentum of the previous two decades and fall into decline like other small towns.

To remedy this, they turned to a San Francisco publicist named Bert Kerrigan. With funding from the chamber of commerce, Kerrigan would mastermind an audacious campaign to bring Petaluma a level of national recognition it had yet to experience.

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