Hail to the Queen
You know it's summer in Maine when young men like the ones at far left begin braving a dip in the bay and young ladies like Miss Betty Perry, shown here, bring out their pearls, sequined tiaras — and livestock. At least that was the case back on the afternoon of July 14, 1949, when Miss Perry posed on a picnic table in Belfast's City Park shortly after her inauguration as Maine's first broiler queen. Hastily conceived just the previous year as a trade show for the poultry industry, the first Broiler Festival had attracted some 2,000 people who gorged on 3,000 pounds of chicken cooked in an eighty-foot concrete barbecue pit, according to the History of Belfast in the 20th Century.By 1972 those attendance figures would spike to 17,000, as the addition of entertainment and amusements turned the event into more of a family affair (a demographic reinforced in 1985, when the city council turned down a request by the festival to host a stripper).
The shiretown at the head of Penobscot Bay had reason to coddle its appetizing export as tenderly as Miss Perry cradles it here: in 1956 poultry was the biggest agricultural commodity in Maine, bringing in $71.6 million annually, and Belfast was the undisputed king of the roost. One of the city's two factories processed up to 180,000 birds a week. (Indeed, the lads changing into their swim trunks at far left may want a shower after their dip in the bay, as the chicken blood and remnants were washed straight into the harbor for many years.) And while competition was stiff from southern processors, Maine broilers enjoyed a three- to five-cent premium due to their superior quality. But by the 1980s the Maine broiler industry had all but collapsed, and despite being rechristened as the Bay Festival the annual gathering soon lost its cluck. This spring a last-ditch effort to invigorate the fair by moving the festivities downtown was stymied over concerns about access to the waterfront and the need to close several streets.
But such events couldn't have been further from the mind of Miss Perry when she sat on this Belfast beach nearly sixty years ago, her hands clutching the chicken as if it were a family pet. "It was a life-changing experience for me," says the former queen, who now lives in California. "I came from a very poor family and I got a new wardrobe, flew in a plane — all things I never would have gotten to do otherwise." Her fortune came with a price though: a clucking companion accompanied her and all future broiler queens at public appearances. In the end, surely it must have been easier for this queen to give up the bird rather than the crown when her reign ended.