How Hurlock's Happy Hennery was hatched

The Hurlock family earned a living in Juneau by supplying the town with fresh eggs before moving on to the movie business in Hollywood

Posted: Sunday, August 19, 2001

Real estate, movies and hen fruit are woven together in the tale of a 1950s Mendenhall Valley chicken farm owned by Roger and Mary Hurlock.

In the summer of 1951, the Hurlocks moved from Maryland to Alaska because Roger had read a book, "Opportunity in Alaska," by George Sundborg of Juneau. Sundborg's utopian vision inspired Roger, who suffered from asthma. "He came up here; he did not wheeze," Mary, now 80, said.

Roger began a correspondence with Sundborg, manager of the Alaska Development Board, recalled Sundborg's son, Pierre.

"They met in Washington, D.C., and Roger decided to move here with his wife and six children. They stayed with us in town and our five children; I got to sleep on the floor," Sundborg said.

Pierre, who lives in Seattle but remains a family friend, was then 13. The Hurlock kids were Tom, 6; Larry, 7; Ron, 10; John, 13; Don, 15, and Bob, 17.

The population of Juneau and Douglas stood at about 7,000.

"Dad didn't think the market in real estate was big enough or active enough to earn a living. Land was almost given away in the valley in those days. Auke Bay was seen at that time as the future community out the road," said Larry, who is still a Juneau resident.

So he found another way to earn a living, changing from business suit into jeans.

 

"One day Roger came in and had a big box. He said, 'You are about to become a mother.' It was news to me because we already had six sons," Mary said.

Inside the carton were 500 Leghorn chicks, the prevalent egg-producing breed of chicken in the United States. Roger had read another book, "How to Retire to a Small Poultry Farm," Mary said.

Roger soon acquired acreage on an old Army post, and the family used the former military library as its first home. Later Roger acquired about 50 acres. The property line stretched from Nancy Street to Grandma's Restaurant, near what is now the Juneau Airport, Larry Hurlock said.

"When we moved out here, eight people caused a population explosion. They had to put a new bus on the school bus line - the third bus - because of us," he said.

Juneau has little commercial agriculture today. However, in the 1950s, things were different - particularly in the Mendenhall Valley. The Smiths, Kendlers, Maiers, Sherwoods and Petersons operated dairy farms. A large mink farm operated just past the Shrine of St. Therese.

Other inhabitants of the valley included Hank Mead, who earned a living in the winter by selling chunks of glacier ice to saloons. "The tourists were told it was 'million-year-old ice,'" Larry said. Summers, Mead was a construction worker.

The Hurlocks' nearest neighbor was the Cox vegetable farm, run by a couple from Illinois. It was located where the Glacier Gardens/Yard Doctor greenhouse is today, near the present Mendenhall Mall.

"In those days, Mendenhall Loop Road was a three-rut dirt road, and when it rained the ruts flooded. It is a raised highway today, but it wasn't raised off the forest floor then," Larry said. "You pulled over when someone came by."

"And if you stopped, someone stopped to help you," Mary added.

One summer in the late 1950s, state troopers warned the Hurlocks of a "killer" brown bear in the vicinity.

"They told Roger to leave one of the pens open. The boys slept with their boots on, so to speak," Mary said. "The dog came in growling early on the Fourth of July. I looked out and this big bear was coming out with a chicken's head in its mouth. Then going back. Then coming out with another chicken head. I got the boys up and they killed it. Everybody but everybody came out to see the dead bear."

It was rural existence in all its muddy glory. A lake with a beaver dam stood across the driveway. "Ron Peterson used to ride over to visit by steer, and my brothers would ride on tractors from place to place before they had drivers' licenses, using the old Army dirt road system," Larry said.

 

In addition to black bears coming by and opening sacks of chicken feed for themselves, wildlife included foxes and escaped mink that preyed on the birds. The family often heard coyotes howling.

"Roger, no matter what adversity came, no matter who had broken into the hen house and killed off half 'the girls,' he would say, 'Here we go again' and send off for another box of chicks. He was the first true Southern gentleman I knew," Sundborg said.

Before the Hurlocks began to raise chickens, there were two kinds of eggs, identified by signs in the grocery store - boat eggs and air eggs, Sundborg said. "Then the Hurlocks arrived and we had a third and slightly higher-priced egg, 'Hurlock's Cackleberries.' And pretty soon there was no demand at all for air eggs, because nobody had any use for 'almost' fresh eggs any more."

The lack of fresh food gave Alaskans who grew up in the '50s tastes that seem peculiar today. Mary remembers complaints from people unaccustomed to fresh cackleberries: "We were told our eggs 'didn't have any flavor' and 'just stayed put.' The yolks didn't break and run all over the pan," she said.

Roger wore three hats: Chicken farmer, real estate salesman and movie mogul. He was a member of the Academy of Motion Pictures and Arts, one of few Alaskans who voted for the Academy Awards. He was a visionary who realized that the French film "A Man and a Woman" (1966) was not just about race cars and boarding schools. He helped get it completed and then released in the United States, Mary said. "A Man and a Woman" became one of the most popular film love stories of the '60s. As a result, Mary sat next to actress Anouk Aimee at the Academy Awards banquet.

 

Capitalizing on his experience with real estate in Maryland, Roger sold Mendenhall Valley lots to invest in Allied Artists, then the seventh-largest movie company in America. Eventually he owned so much stock that he was named to its board of directors. When he became Allied Artists' vice president in 1961, the family moved to Beverly Hills. Later, as president, he became a lifelong member of the Academy.

When president of Allied Artists, Roger encouraged the company to make a movie about the Trail of Tears, the forcible removal of the Cherokee Nation from North Carolina and other areas of the American South in 1838 into the drylands of what is now Oklahoma.

"He wanted it to be told from the Native American perspective, not the white man's," Larry recalled.

"He was unable to get support even from his own staff, because in the early 1960s white Americans still clung to the 'settlers' myth' that Indians were a hostile people who got what they deserved in Western movies," he said. "He even tried to get Louis L'Amour to write the book."

Roger Hurlock created a new business, Hurlock's Cine-World, headquartered in Connecticut. Cine-World distributed Allied's films to nontheater venues such as airplanes and film museums for 15 years. Mary and Roger lived in Connecticut, but ultimately retired to the home they built on Mendenhall Loop.

"My son Don raised chickens for 4-H in Baltimore, but we never imagined it would come to all this," Mary said.

Ann Chandonnet can be reached at achandonnet@juneauempire.



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