During the grandiloquent debate several years back over whether Arlington should allow backyard chicken coops, references were made to the glories of household egg production practiced by our forebears.
Last month I got to chat with one such natural foods practitioner: The almost-80-year-old Sam Day, an exemplar of our county’s salt-of-the-earth workforce.
I was also able to update him on county preservation developments in his own chicken coop story.
Growing up in the 1940s on N. Kenmore St. in the Maywood neighborhood (at 21st Ave., “the only avenue in Arlington,” he notes), Day helped with his father’s egg business.
Behind the 1908 house in which Sam Day was born was the two-story “chicken house” built in 1920. “The chickens didn’t run loose,” he assured me. But the birds were fed well enough to support a basement egg distribution operation that endured for 35 years.
As a boy, Sam and three siblings helped judge and grade the eggs (looking for blood spots, considered a flaw). The family sorted them — medium, large, extra-large, jumbo and double yokes. Then they packaged them, first in brown bags, later in boxes they made with a hand-operated machine. “Some eggs were brown” from Rhode Island Red hens, he says.
The Days would pack 30-dozen crates in a gutted 1935 Dodge for delivery to regular customers in North and South Arlington, as well as across the Potomac. Because the customized car held only two people, Sam would catch the old Arnold bus at Quincy St. at Wash. Blvd., ride into Georgetown and transfer at Wisconsin Ave. to meet his dad at Massachusetts Ave. They delivered eggs until 7 or 8 p.m. every day but Wednesdays and Sundays.
Customer demand exploded. So his father began driving weekly out to farms near Culpeper. “He bought them as is,” Day remembers, “and while most farmers cleaned their eggs, one didn’t.” So it was left to the Day kids to brush away the manure.
Sam played the egg man until he began junior high in 1951 at the still-under-construction Stratford building, before moving on to Washington-Lee High.
While the egg profits allowed his siblings to attend American University, Sam tried it but chose a different path. “I wanted a job where I didn’t have to depend on anyone else,” he said. First he went full-time delivering eggs. Then he landed a job driving a delivery truck for Schlitz beer out of a warehouse at Four Mile Run and Walter Reed Dr. Putting in 60-70 hours a week, Day married, and, with two children, bought a house in 1964, mortgaged “for $169 a month.”
His father retired from the egg business in 1968. When his mother died in 1995, the Kenmore St. house (their home for 70 years) was sold. The chicken house fell into disrepair.
Last year, the home was purchased by Tom and Chrissi Gelson, from Marion, Mass. “We knew it was one of the oldest homes in Maywood, and the chicken coop one of the oldest agricultural outbuildings standing in Arlington,” Tom told me.
During renovations — still ongoing under strict guidelines of Maywood and the Historical Affairs and Landmark Review Board — they kept only the shed’s brick chimney as a memory. “We wish we could have restored the chicken coop,” said the new owner. “But much of it collapsed years ago because of disrepair.”
Update on a traditional rivalry: At the Jan. 26 high school basketball game between Yorktown and Washington-Lee, an unusual ritual unfolded.
In a nod to the recent fight over renaming W-L, Yorktown Patriots taunted the Generals by sporting T-shirts reading “Beat W-?” They chanted, “What’s your name?”
Apparently unfazed, W-L students in the opposing bleachers shouted back, “Lib-er-ty!”