General Articles

Millionaire On the Cheep

Young Dr. Roe found how to make chicks live longer, so the world, cash in hand, beat a path to his henhouse door

DONOVAN PEDELTY February 1 1948
General Articles

Millionaire On the Cheep

Young Dr. Roe found how to make chicks live longer, so the world, cash in hand, beat a path to his henhouse door

DONOVAN PEDELTY February 1 1948

Millionaire On the Cheep

Young Dr. Roe found how to make chicks live longer, so the world, cash in hand, beat a path to his henhouse door


IT ALL starled in an empty garage with 25 hens and $200.

Today the Elwood Roe chicken and feed empire straddles 1,100 acres, runs 20,000 head of poultry, hatches 800,000 chicks every spring, buys a million bushels of grain and manufactures 25,000 tons of formula feeds a year.

Twenty-five years ago, when the Roes were starting out in business and Mrs. Roe was a young bride, she burst into tears because the only surviving chick from 13 pedigree eggs jumped out of a shoebox to its death. She had no idea then that the struggling business she was helping to found in the leafy little village of Atwood, Ont., was to become a million-dollar enterprise which grades its own roads over her neighbors’ farmland and ships its own products down its own branch track of the CNR.

Her husband, Dr. Elwood Roe, a balding, redfaced poultry enthusiast who started out to be a veterinary, has provided the world with an astonishing example of what can be hatched out of an egg. Had he conventionally cashed in his veterinary education in fees for services to sick cows, as his father wanted him to do, he would not be in the happy position he is today. At 46, he can, if he wishes, retire and live in any part of the world he chooses.

Hut Is lie Happy?

BUT the 220-pound, honey-voiced Dr. Roe still drives himself to give 14 hours a day to work and study. ■

Arrived at the goal of most ambitious people’s dreams he asks himself: “So what?”

“I’m confused. I’m a man at the crossroads. Does it mean anything what I’ve done?” he asks. “Maybe 1 shouldn’t always be striving. What has it got to do with happiness?”

The conflict is expressed in his home, the same comfortable red brick house of his boyhood. The restless intellectual drive is expressed in his bookshelves, crammed with works on agriculture, economics, genetics, psychology and “How to Conquer Thinking.” The urge to happiness is in his superluxurious leather chairs, his heavy carved walnut furniture, the costly Persian rug on the floor above where he set his first 400 eggs. Most of all it is expressed in his choice of oil paintings. The walls of his home and offices are covered with pictures of sunny rooms where vapidly beautiful young ladies in billowing scarlet dresses are forever playing the piano.

Yet. neither money nor happiness in the usual sense of the word were ever the objective of young Dr. Elwood Roe, newly graduated from Ontario Veterinary College at the age of 20. He wanted to putter around with hens. At 46, he is still puttering, but on a vaster scale.

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He came home from college and married blue-eyed Bertha Leslie from a nearby farm. Then, with his mother’s connivance, be started experimenting with White Leghorns in the yard, garage and basement. Young I)r. Elwood had a theory. He believed poultry could be bred for what be calls “livability.”

“It seemed to me no qualities mattered in birds unless they also lived. Breeders were mating birds for their appearance, their big eggs, high production. I wanted all that and less mortality. There are always a certain number of deaths among chickens. If you sell a farmer 300 and he loses 30 fewer than usual, you’ve made him a present of 30 laying bens. At only 200 eggs a ben, three cents an egg, that’s $180 extra for him in a season.”

This was the arithmetic that rocketed the Roes to fortune. Where many hatchery men were content to pick their breeding birds for their good looks, and others for their records of performance in the nest, Dr. Roe was also keeping records of how long their ancestors and relatives had lived. He would not mate any cock and hen unless their great-grandparents and all their retinue of great-aunts and greatuncles were still alive and crowing. With “livability” proved, he then went on to select for records of production: many eggs and big ones (required minimum performance 24 ounces to the dozen).

In the early days disaster dogged the amateur hatchery. Dr. Roe and his bride started with 25 laying birds and an incubator with a 400-chick capacity. They set eggs that, were partly from their own miniature flock, partly bought from breeders.

“For one clutch of 13 eggs from a pedigree flock,” says Mrs. Roe, “we paid $150. Only three batched out. One died batching. One was hopelessly crippled. I took special care of the one healthy specimen, put him in a shoe box behind the coal oil stove. I didn’t know then bow lively chickens get soon after they hatch. In a little while 1 took the lid off to see how be was getting on. He jumped right out into an open pan of boiling water on the stove.”

Then an epidemic of salmonella pullorum (bacillary white diarrhea), No. One scourge of poultry, wiped out a quarter of the growing flock. Fowl pox once took a toll of 20% until Roe learned to vaccinate against it, then tracheitis began to choke his birds to death until friends smuggled serum to him from the U. S. A. (At that time a vaccine for this poultry throat disease was not known in Canada and there was a Health of Animals regulation banning importation of it.)

High Costs, High Profits

The “livability” method ballooned the costs of operation. Where other breeders could cheerfully send threeyear-olds, and even two-year-olds, to the pot, in the Roe plant old hens had to be honorably pensioned. The longer they lived the more they cost, but they were proving they could tough it out.

But the system paid off. “Those first 10 years were when we really made money,” says Dr. Roe.

Farmers began to notice how the Roe strain survived for them. The orders came rolling in.

“Poultry was a new industry in Canada,” recalls Dr. Roe. “There were very few breeders. The demand for chicks was terrific. We were getting 50 cents a chick, where today our price

is around 17 conts. From the first of February till the end of May and even, in those days, right on into July, we were taking $2,000 a day.”

The business burst out of the back yard and basement. On three acres a few hundred yards from his home, Dr. Roe put up a hen house 240 feet by 20. Above it were four attic rooms, two for his poultryman to live in, two to be used as offices. Today that singlestory building is dwarfed by its neighbors, 300 feet by 40 and three stories high, with twice as many birds on every deck as were penned on the floor of the original hen house. At laying time the communal cackling can be heard for three blocks.

In 1938 a fine new brick and stone office building grew up in sight of the original attics so proudly photographed for the 1932 catalogue. The blurb of that time boasted an output of 100,000 chicks a year, and the cut shows a typewriter, one telephone, and “office staff” consisting of a shy, blue-eyed blonde who had then been with the firm a year. Margaret Vipond is today dean of the 52 workers employed and the chick sales specialist. Now the output runs over 800,000 chicks between February and May.

Last March a snow-up prevented shipments for nearly a week. Breaking out of their shells at the rate of 10,000 a day, 50,000 cheeping chicks piled up in the Roe hatchery. For this emergency Dr. Roe wheeled batteries of electrically heated “brooders.” Each battery kept 1,000 downy chicks warm and sheltered.

Outguessing crises is the poultryman’s way of staying in business. Dr. Roe keeps a 130-hp Diesel engine and electric generator standing idle in the hatchery, waiting for the power to fail. Heat is not the urgency—insulation* would take care of that for nearly an hour. But the rows of room-sized incubators, loaded with a total of 200,000 eggs, depend on ventilation fans to draw off the carbon dioxide which the developing chick embryos breathe out through their porous shells. Fan failure would suffocate the unhatched lives in a few minutes and knock the plant for a loss of more than $10,000. An eight-hour power holdup would wipe out $35,000 worth.

A Mechanized Eggery

Heavy losses have not hit the Roe plant since the early years of struggle. Dr. Roe has tapped every available source of information on techniques, trying out most and inventing more. He can read and memorize a technical work in an evening, has been known to zip through four in a night. He subscribes to poultry magazines fro... every English-speaking country and reads them all. Yet he has never troubled to assimilate the rules of grammar and if he tries out an idea is apt to say, “I done well with it.”

He did well with overhead rail carriers for collecting eggs and distributing feed in his giant plant. He did well with automatic egg turners in his incubators, with electric elevators in his threeand four-story hen houses and with electric time switches to keej his hens awake and working 12 illumin ated hours a day in winter, when th« price of eggs is highest. (The plant’ top: 15,000 eggs a day.)

Ottawa steers important fact-findin delegations from other countries to tl Roe Farms. Last year the plant wj picked over for ideas by'a British wor! ing party including Dr. R. Cok adviser to the Ministry of Agricultui and Dr. A. W. Greenwood, director j the institute of animal genetics University of Edinburgh. Anotl distinguished visitor was a Mr. Hayr

New South Wales poultry marketing chief, who endeared himself to his host forever by studying the 20,000 birds and then remarking, “Of course, this is a hobby with you, Dr. Roe?”

The crack had some truth in it. THis million-dollar business has grown out of preoccupation with genetics rather than cents. That was how Dr. Roe got pushed into the feed industry. He was thinking of his hens.


Back in 1933 Dr. Roe began to wonder if some of his hens’ failures weren’t due more to food deficiencies than to heredity. He had been interested in nutrition at college. Later he had spent two summers at Cornell on the same subject. Now, faced with repeated failure to lift the “hatchability” of his eggs above 60%, he gave up buying ready-mixed feed and mixed his own.

“I put in more milk and cod liver oil, alsop-nore green food. The hatchability went up to 70% and I knew I was on the right track.”

So did his neighbors. They began driving their trucks around to ask for a few bags of Dr. Roe’s hen-stimulating mixture. He got in the habit of making up batches five and 10 times his own needs. He charged his customers what the manufacturer had charged him. They came back for more. Machinery had to be installed to help out with the mixing. So the Roe Farms Milling Co. began.

There were never any complaints. “If there was anything wrong we knew it before the customers,” says Gordon Lawrason, recruited from Hamilton in 1935 to handle public relations of a booming new business.

Hog feeds and dairy feeds were added to the repertory. Dr. Roe went into the pig and dairy businesses to keep tab on his formulas. Two hundred York pigs and 40 Ayrshire cows became guinea pigs for the new feeds. Farmland became an urgent necessity. Between 1937 and ’46 the man who had started with $200 expanded his interests over 11 neighboring farms. Dr. Roe’s men graded and graveled two miles of their own roads to link this new empire.

The mill, which had started with a few bins and a half-ton mixer, grew to eight grain elevators, four great electrically driven mixers, three hammer mills and a branch line to the railway handling 600 cars a year.

“There is no sales problem,” says Dr. Roe. “The limiting factors are materials and labor.”

But if extra labor were found, there would be no housing for it in Atwood, where every house and cottage is loaded to the sills and families are doubling up in the Roe farmhouses.

Green Gold

Paradoxically, Dr. Roe’s efforts to meet material shortages will make the local housing situation tougher. It is again a question of keeping the chicks out of hot water.

This time it is the high cost of vitamins. Any thought that poultry mash is just a mess of crushed grains can be sharply dismissed after a look at a feed manufacturer’s invoices. They include bills from B. C. and Saint John for fish meal, from Kitchener slaughterhouses for meat meal, from local and Quebec casein factories for whey powder, Toronto starch makers for gluten, Ontario creameries for buttermilk, and Vancouver for alfalfa meal. King of the vitamin sources is the “green gold” of modern farming, the mealy powder of flash'd ried cereal grasses and alfalfa.

Here was a man with a poultry plant producing 400 tons a year of the richest of all animal fertilizers, with 1,100 acres of good land to put it on, buying dried green food from other people at $119 a ton. So Dr. Roe, chick and feed man, mailed a fat check to Milwaukee and went into the dehydration business.

This summer the giant steel drum squatting on the plowland 300 yards from the mill began to turn. Burning 80 gallons of oil an hour, the tripleburner furnace blasted hot air through it. Hammer-milled to powder, Dr. Roe’s 1,000 acres of green crops fell into bags at the rate of a ton and a half an hour in the form of “green gold.”

The extra men needed to serve the dehydrator have swollen the local housing problem. With unattractive living conditions there is always the danger of a too frequent labor turnover. So Dr. Roe may find he has to learn the house construction business.

Is He Happy? He’s Not Sure

He can do it. But does he want to? He doesn’t know. The yeasty curiosity in this unusual man is beginning to turn from business to happiness.

The future is to Dr. Roe what the white line is to the chicken. If you hold a chicken’s beak to the floor, and draw a white line away from it, you can walk away and leave the bird in that position, and it will still be there when you come back. Dr. Roe has a quotation to match:

If you keep your nose to the grindstone rough,

And you just keep it there long enough,

You’ll find there’s no such thing

As brooks that babble and birds that sing.

He quotes the quip because at heart he is in revolt against the modicum of truth in it.

Only on the subject of genetics is he still capable of endless enthusiasm.

“It’s my life. I should be doing nothing else but that. Why? I’m the vessel of a genetic philosophy. I believe the science of breeding can raise the standard of life. Heredity is a treasure box. You’ve got to know how to locate the box, then how to get the lid up. Inside are all the characters you could wish for in a perfect creature. Genetics could even show the way ahead for the human race, though it may not be applied for 200 years yet.”

Schoolmates in Listowel and Atwood remember how as a boy in high school young Elwood used to race through his lessons, as he could with ease, quarrel with his teacher, as he could with even greater ease, and get sent out. Once out, he went straight to the poolroom, where he could again indulge his power of concentration, squinting over the cue at the ball, shutting out of consciousness all but the calculable, predictable, controllable.

Today close associates of Dr. Roe include his wife, Bertha, his father Dr. John, 87, his son Dr. Jack, 25, and various heads of his departments. Some of them are wondering what will be the doctor’s middle-life equivalent of boyhood’s poolroom if the sledding in his business gets too slow.

Privately this successful man is wondering, too. It is in his mind when he remarks, “Some people seem to think I work too hard. If people are appreciating what I do I can’t stop— I don’t want to stop. Is that wrong?”

Lots of folk might justifiably say, “A million dollars can’t be wrong.” To them Dr. Elwood Roe would undoubtedly reply, “Oh! to heck with the dollars!—Is it a good thing?” if