When I was in the fourth grade, my teacher gave me a project that opened my eyes to the diversity of our state. Everyone in our class had to write a report about a randomly-assigned county in New Jersey and present it to our fellow students. With 21 kids in the class, we were all guaranteed to learn about areas of the state we knew little of.
I got Hunterdon. Hunter-who? Clear across the state from my Union County home, I'd never heard of it. Dutifully, I sent a letter to the courthouse in Flemington, wondering what this far-off place had in store for me.
A few weeks later, I got a big manila envelope from the Hunterdon County clerk, loaded with pamphlets chock-full of facts and figures. While some of my classmates had gotten pretty tourist brochures featuring shore locations or historic sites in their assigned counties, the data-laden Hunterdon literature made one thing very clear: the county was where food comes from. And it was big business.
I was reminded of this recently as Ivan and I wandered just a block off Main Street in Flemington and came upon an office building labeled "Old Egg Auction Prestigious Offices." With a liberal number of rooster statues strewn about, the building clearly had been repurposed after an industrial past.
A county historic marker told the tale: "FLEMINGTON EGG AUCTION. The country's first, and, at one time, the largest cooperative egg auction operated here from 1932 until the death of the egg business in the 1960s."
The "first and largest" fit perfectly with my childhood impression of Hunterdon County, but what was this about the death of the egg business? Isn't that just a little dramatic? I mean, I'd had a Taylor ham, egg and cheese that morning for breakfast. Obviously, this warranted a bit more research once we got back to Hidden New Jersey headquarters.
Our usual sources gave but a hint of information. Published a few years after the auction's founding, the Flemington chapter of The WPA Guide to 1930s New Jersey noted that the auction had started in 1930 to ensure the county's poultry farmers could attract better prices for their wares than they presumably could by seeking buyers independently. More research revealed that the auction had operated from the basement of one of the downtown stores before moving to a Park Avenue factory that had once housed the Empire Glass Company. Not long afterward, the Flemington Egg Auction expanded to live chickens and other livestock, eventually becoming a model for other agricultural cooperative auctions around the country.
That was just the start. These days, the big Mid-Atlantic chicken states are Delaware and Maryland, but poultry was big business for New Jersey in the early- and mid-20th century. More than 1200 egg and livestock producers participated in the Flemington Auction in the late 1940s, and Hunterdon County wasn't even the largest poultry producer in the state. By 1956, sales of meat chickens and eggs accounted for nearly a third of all farm cash receipts, and we were fifth among all states in egg production. The Egg Auction alone was pulling in about $2 million a year.
Not long afterward, the tide turned, as oversupply and grain prices led egg producers out of the marketplace. Undoubtedly, improved transportation systems made it easier for lower-cost southern factory farms to ship fresh product to New Jersey at competitive prices, too. Maybe the egg business didn't die, but its New Jersey division wasn't doing very well. Farmers around the state, Hunterdon included, were discovering their land was worth more to developers than it would ever be if they continued producing eggs. Starved by a lack of suppliers, the Flemington Auction closed in 1976.
Its property festooned with painted rooster statues, the Old Egg Auction building got us thinking about evolution -- not just the fate of the egg industry, but the old chicken-and-egg question. In Flemington, the egg was clearly sold at the auction before chickens ever came before the gavel. Will it ever come back to roost? That's a debate for another day.