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Scotsman, James Rankin, was one of the first large scale Pekin duck breeders in the U.S. and his Maplewood Farm grew from a collection of run-down buildings and appurtenances into one of the most well known and profitable farms in turn of the century New England.

James Rankin was born Dec., 20, 1830 in Glasgow City, Scotland and died in Easton, Mass on Dec. 13, 1914.  He purchased Maplewood Farm in 1876.  It is unknown at what age he left Scotland and settled in Mass.

In his obituary was found:  “For more than forty years of his active business life he was prominently identified with the poultry industry, and, to the older members of the fraternity, was known as the ‘Father of the Pekin Duck Industry in America…He made his start with ducks shortly after the close of the Civil War, and about 1876 came into prominence as the inventor and manufacturer of a successful incubator and as an advocate of artificial hatching and rearing of both chickens and ducks.”

Rankin’s incubators were sold for a quarter of a century before high manufacturing costs forced him to concentrate on other areas of production.  After he stopped manufacturing them for sale he continued to use his incubators in his own duck ranching enterprise.  He was a contributor to the poultry press and because he was considered an expert in practical poultry husbandry, his book “Duck Culture” became the standard treatise undergoing numerous editions.

Rankin operated his business until the age of 77 when he passed it over to a young man in his home town who sought to emulate his success.  He died at age 84.  Perhaps the greatest thing that can be said of him is that he was always willing to talk with and instruct younger men interested in pursuing a living breeding and selling poultry.  “He leaves a host of friends among the poultry fraternity and not a few of them owe some small measure of their success to his kindly advice and counsel.”

Having paid just homage to Mr. Rankin, let’s take a look at his farm in its heyday.  In 1906 Maplewood Farm was home to 1,100 head of prime young breeder ducks and on an average year some 25,000 to 35,000 ducks were taken to market in a season.  His breeders were chosen from the growing pens before the remaining ducks were taken to be fattened for market.  “Only the choicest and most vigorous, healthy specimens are selected”.  His breeding hens were chosen in a like manner.

Some of his advice seems contrary to that published today, but this author has found the older books to be more helpful than the plethora of articles and books published today by individuals who have acquired a few birds and decide they are expert enough to publish advice for others to follow.

He believed in keeping hatching eggs cool while waiting to go into the incubator recommending a temperature between 40 and 50 degrees.  He claimed the eggs could be held up to three or four weeks before setting them as opposed to the one to two weeks advised today.  “Eggs lose vitality rapidly when exposed to a temperature above 75 degrees and are seldom fit for hatching when kept for more than three or four days at this temperature…Only well formed, medium-sized eggs with sound shells are used for hatching.  As a rule the fresher the eggs the better for incubating purposes but entirely satisfactory results have been obtained from one month old eggs, when they have been properly kept.”  He did not turn the eggs prior to incubating them.

His eggs were turned twice per day beginning on the morning of the third day of incubation, taking care not to jar or shake the eggs.  The incubation temperature was kept at 102 degrees, “with a thermometer on a live egg until the animal heat begins to get well established which is on or about the fifteenth or sixteenth day, when the heat is allowed to go to 103 degrees…”.  He candled the eggs on or about the twelfth day and again on about day 24 after which any non-viable eggs were disposed of.

On about the 24th day he placed a layer of burlap over the incubator’s metal mesh trays and the eggs and burlap were sprinkled with warm water to raise the humidity inside the incubator.  On the 26th day the moisture was increased, the machine closed and remained so until after hatching when the ducklings were put into the brooder.

Anyone who has raised ducklings knows the biggest negativity is their propensity for dropping food which then becomes wet when they drink and dribble water producing a foul stench unless the brooder is cleaned every 2 to 3 days.  Mr. Rankin had an ingenious method of avoiding this problem.  First, the only water he provided was for drinking, not bathing.  His watering troughs sat on a wooden frame covered with wire mesh above a trench dug in the ground so that as the ducks drank and naturally dribbled water, it fell through the mesh into the hole.  When it began to take on an odor, the frame and trough were placed over a newly dug trench and the previous hole was refilled with dirt.

“The water founts are galvanized iron and are placed on a wire cloth fastened on to a board walled pit at a level with the earth floor of the run so that any water slopped is quickly drained away and does not mess up the brooder house”.

Rankin and his hired hands fed the ducks twice a day a mash made from three parts heavy wheat bran, one part low grade flour, and one part corn meal mixed with five per cent beef scrap, three per cent fine grit, and all the green food they would eat, usually corn fodder, clover, alfalfa, oat fodder, or green rye cut fine.  His layer feed consisted of equal parts of wheat bran and corn meal with ten per cent beef scrap, twenty per cent low grade flour, ten per cent boiled turnips, mangel beets or potatoes, fifteen per cent clover, rowen or alfalfa, green rye or refuse cabbage cut fine with three per cent grit.  “The mash food is never cooked and is always mixed with cold water”.

When the ducks had gone to market or been sold the ground for the pens was turned and planted in rye, clover, alfalfa, corn or other crops.  They grew enough on those spaces to feed the ducks during the growing season while putting away enough mangle beets, turnips, and cabbages to feed the breeder ducks through the winter.  “Rye is kept growing the year round.  Clover, alfalfa and corn fodder are grown in large quantities.  Fresh cut, green corn fodder is considered one of the best green foods for ducks of all ages”.

James Rankin sold eggs and breeders and took huge numbers of green ducklings to market.  “Green” was a general term for poultry which meant “young”, that is 8 to 10 weeks old.  Mr. Rankins preferred to market his fattened ducks at 10 weeks.

James wasn’t the only member of the Rankin family involved in large scale duck and poultry production, his brother William Rankin of Brockton sold ducks and geese at markets in Boston.  William, three years older than James, was also born in Glasgow, Scotland.

  • “Successful Poultry Keeping”.  Rankin, James.  “Natural and Artificial Duck Culture”.  Numerous magazines published between 1905 and 1915.

Blissful Meals and Happy Incubating, Vickie (Thehistoricfoodie)©

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