One of the few poultry breeders who raised Lamonas years ago has set his breeding pens to re-create the breed. Seven years into his project, he’s cautiously optimistic.
“They are a valued piece of history to me,” said Stephen Gerdes of Illinois. “They recall so much of my youth and the breeders of the time.”
That was the 1960s and ‘70s, when he and breeder Marion Nash established their friendship over breeding pens and the show circuit. Gerdes is included in Nash’s book, The Stringman’s Scrapbook, published in 1974. The second edition is the one that includes details of Lamona breeding.
The first time Gerdes saw Lamonas was those of Pennsylvania breeder Henry Miller in the 1960s. Gerdes bred and showed Lamonas through 1978, when his Lamona hen was Champion American Hen at the Illinois State Fair.
The breed’s name was conferred by Henry A. Wallace, Secretary of Agriculture under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in honor of Harry M. Lamon, senior poultryman of the Bureau of Animal Husbandry who originated the project. Three books by Harry Lamon, who developed the Lamona, are included in the SPPA's collection of antique poultry books: The Mating and Breeding of Poultry (1920), Practical Poultry Production (1920) and How to Select the Laying Hen (1931).
After being admitted to the APA Standard of Perfection in 1933, the Lamona’s popularity as a general purpose breed was eclipsed by intensive industrial poultry practices. The breed disappeared by the 1980s, when Nash turned his last birds over to a Missouri breeder. It remains in the Standard although none have been shown in years. Rumors have swirled around the poultry world for several years of breeders re-creating Lamonas. Gerdes is not the only breeder working on re-creating them. He decided to come forward after his sons reported that breeders at the Crossroads of America Poultry Show in Indiana showed interest.
Being true to the history
Back in 1912, Lamon initiated a project to develop a dual purpose breed for the American market. Working at the U.S. Government Experiment Station in Beltsville, Maryland, he began with Silver Gray Dorkings, White Plymouth Rocks and Single Comb White Leghorns. Gerdes is staying with that formula to develop the breed again.
“I want to stay with the project as it was originated,” he said. “I’m trying to copy it as close as I can to the historical breeding.”
Lamonas have red ear lobes but lay white eggs. Most breeds that have red ear lobes lay brown eggs, but the traits are not connected genetically. Dorkings, Redcaps and Hollands also have red ear lobes and lay white eggs. Consumers wanted white eggs, and the Lamona was developed to meet that market goal.
They have yellow skin, important to the American consumer for meat. English breeds such as the Dorking have white skin, preferred by English consumers. White plumage makes pinfeathers less noticeable. The Lamona is well-feathered to stay warm against the cold. Their small combs and wattles are not as subject to frost as the larger combs of Mediterranean egg breeds such as the Leghorn.
Leghorns were part of the breeding for their egg laying ability, but Lamon wanted a larger bird for the table, one that produced a dressed weight of four to six pounds. Lamonas eventually were recognized at eight pounds for cocks and six and a half for hens.
“One of Marion’s goals was to produce a bird not only valued for white eggs, but also its yellow skin for the table,” he said.
The pluses and the minuses of breeding
That Dorking shape, with a long back and deep breast, supports a meaty carcass. There’s plenty of room for egg-laying organs. The Dorking’s fifth toe is a dominant characteristic, difficult to breed out while retaining the desirable characteristics.
When Gerdes decided to take the project on, he started by looking for Plymouth Rock roosters with backs too long and legs too short to meet the Rock standard. He found some through contacts with other breeders.
Finding Silver Gray Dorkings was more difficult. He contacted colleague and lifelong friend Duane Urch of Urch/Turnland Poultry in Owatonna, Minnesota. Gerdes, Urch and Nash were active in founding the Society for Preservation of Poultry Antiquities in the 1960s to focus attention on preserving the traditional breeds. Urch sent Gerdes 25 chicks. Three of the pullets from that group had the red ear lobes and long back Gerdes wanted for his first breeding pen.
“You can produce a hundred chicks and get four or five for the next year’s breeding,” he said.
After mating the Dorkings to the Rocks and the Dorkings to the Leghorns, he selected the white birds that had the most Lamona traits for the next year’s breeding pens. The males from the Rock mating and females from the Leghorn mating tended to be whiter.
He’s not ready to share stock with anyone yet, or ever. His experience with encouraging new flocks hasn’t succeeded. He refers to the black & white edition of the Standard and his own memory as he makes culling decisions.
“I have to keep working with them,” he said. “This project is in its infancy as far as I’m concerned.”
He keeps his flocks in several locations, after devastating experiences with predators and disease in the past. His flocks include about 500 breeding birds and a large collection of waterfowl. He keeps Single Comb Black Leghorns, Anconas and White Faced Black Spanish breeding flocks. With his network of friends among poultry judges and breeders, he also keeps a few of the rare breeds that turn up at shows. He supplies stock to experienced exhibitors.
“I undertook this project for personal satisfaction and in remembrance of Marion,” he said. “I see so much that was given to me back in the 1960s and ‘70s.”