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Chickens in Henrico County, April 2014 (photo by Alyssa C. Salomon, courtesy The Valentine)
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"Men with Chickens," early 20th century (Cook Collection photo courtesy The Valentine).
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A silver-spangled Polish chicken, circa 1891-1892, from Allen & Ginter's “Prize and Game Chickens” cigarette card series (courtesy The Valentine)
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Denise and Freddie Haines feeding chickens at their grandmother Emma Haines’ Ginter Park house (3602 Noble Ave.) around 1957-1958 (courtesy The Valentine).
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"Woman and Chickens in Jackson Ward," circa 1935 (Fisher Collection, courtesy The Valentine)
Alyssa Salomon remembers the great chicken wars of Richmond.
"People were agitating for chickens," the photographer and professor says, recalling events of three years ago. "People had their chickens seized, chickens were taken away from weeping children. And Animal Control was saying that they didn't want this role."
The year-long civic turmoil that hatched when urban Richmonders fought to keep chickens on their properties eventually saw poultry prevail (now even the governor's mansion has a coop). But the struggle, and the passion it evoked, inspired Salomon's photography in an exhibition, "A Chicken in Every Plot," now open at The Valentine.
Fascinated by the dust-ups over fowl at City Council meetings, Salomon hooked up with (then-illegal) backyard coop owners and started documenting their setups. "Chicken keeping is in keeping with that whole Richmond thing — that feeling of 'renovate your home, do it yourself, be innovative,' " says Salomon, who has her own coop. "The chickens were the moving entertainment in yards filled with ideas."
Meghan Glass Hughes, The Valentine's director of collections and interpretation, and the exhibition's curator, says that Salomon's photos of coops around the city "matched up" with items related to urban and suburban fowl in the museum's collection — period images, ancient egg cups and boilers, even a colorful (sometimes disturbing) local postcard collection of chickens and roosters displaying human traits.
"After The Valentine's renovation [last year], we had plans for community galleries featuring changing exhibitions on topics top of mind to the Richmond community, like should chickens be legal in the city?" Hughes says, adding that The Valentine staff combed through the archives for chicken artifacts. "We went through the entire collection — north of the river, south, east, west."
"A Chicken in Every Plot," with its colorful half-wall of catchphrases ("Don't Count Your Chickens"), and a beautifully carved wooden display of a Church Hill backyard coop (by artist Chris Chase), is everything you'd want in a chicken exhibit ... except live chickens. The takeaway is that, in Richmond at least, urban chickenry is thriving. But it isn't coming back, it's always been here.
"It's like beards and tattoos, it is both very current and very retro," Salomon says. "It's something that is very doable. It's not very expensive, you can build your own coop. And there's a strong sense of DIY here. Real estate is cheap, so you can make your home your castle. There aren't large functioning farms in downtown Richmond, but there is a chicken coop at the governor's mansion."
"A Chicken in Every Plot" opened Jan. 28 and runs through Sept. 5 at The Valentine, 1015 E. Clay St. 649-0711 or thevalentine.org.