Photo credit 1handkneehigh@gamerooster
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|Known For:||Kelso Fowl|
As most of you know, Cecil Davis of Jackson, Tennessee, passed away on Sunday, March 25. All of us who know him mourn the death of one of the truly great men in our sport. This article began as a tribute to Cecil, but after talking with his son, Kenneth Davis, we decided that I should write something a bit different. It seems that after a prominent cocker passes away, we see a flurry of contradictory articles on the breeding of that man’s fowl. What I am attempting to do is provide a definitive account before memories fade and vital records are lost. Realizing that a history of one man’s breeding program is of limited value to us in developing our own, I nevertheless feel that there is a continued interest in the Kelso fowl in general and Cecil’s fowl in particular.
I knew Cecil for about ten years, first as a customer, then as a friend. I attended fights with him on a few occasions and talked chickens with him or many hours. I bred his fowl and, at least on one occasion, he bred mine. To insure that my information was accurate and as complete as possible, I talked with Cecil’s long-time friend and partner, Johnny Jumper, as well as Charles Castleman and J. C. Rodgers, men well acquainted with both Cecil and his fowl from having bred many of Cecil’s brood yards. Of course, Kenneth gave me much information, and, more importantly, graciously loaned me Cecil’s breeding records, his walk books and personal correspondence. This correspondence provided a wealth of information, containing 27 letters from Walter Kelso, as well as letters from E. C. Japhet, William McRae, Smokey Wallace, and many others. During the course of this article, I will refer to these conversations and correspondence, sometimes naming the source, sometimes not. Whenever, possible, I have tried to avoid mentioning the names of individuals who are retired from the sport, unless they played roles too important to ignore. Finally, I have not tried to list any of Cecil’s derby wins or other successes, as these are a matter of public record and can be found in your gamefowl journals.
Cecil Davis was born and raised in and around Dry Creek, a rural community in the hill country of northern Mississippi. It was probably economic necessity that prompted Cecil’s move to Tennessee. He lived most of his adult life in Jackson, Tennessee, and his fowl were always fought and advertised under the name “Jackson Club”. Until his retirement a few years ago, he worked fulltime for the railroad. During the 50’s and early 60’s, Cecil and his family lived at Westwood Gardens, an apartment complex. Cecil kept his fowl on various farm walks and at a packing plant in Jackson. The packing plant and the surrounding property were owned by Robert Caldwell, Cecil’s partner at the time. It was through Caldwell that Cecil first met Walter A. Kelso, a wealthy industrialist and cocker from Galveston, Texas.
Being a railroad man, Cecil had traveled most of the four state areas of Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas, and had obtained many fine farm walks. In addition to Kelso and Japhet, he had earlier walked cocks for their Fondren Mitchell and Johnny Jacobs, both top cockers in own right. In the mid 50’s, Cecil began walking cocks for Walter Kelso and his friend and sometimes cocking partner, E. C. “Bill” Japhet, of Houston, Texas. Eventually, Cecil walked cocks exclusively for Kelso and Japhet, being paid $2.00 advance per stag and $13.00 more for each cock returned in the fall. Even though this was good money for the time, Cecil told me he wore out a new stationwagon every two years walking cocks.
What began as a formal business arrangement soon ripened late as almost father-son friendship. I never heard Cecil refer to Kelso as anything except “Mr. Kelso”, which I took to be a sign of respect and affection. Cecil gave Kelso presents like bushels of peaches and Kelso reciprocated with gallons of his favorite syrup. Cecil always regarded Kelso as an excellent breeder and gave him credit for his own breeding success.
I can’t tell you a great deal about how Kelso bred his own fowl; Cecil didn’t talk much about it, and chances are, no one knew too much about it. Breeders of Kelso’s generation were quite secretive. Cecil did tell me once that he doubted the Kelso fowl contained any Blue blood, as has been suggested. Perhaps it had been tried, but discarded before Cecil became associated with Kelso. He also said that the various yards carried Thomas Murphy Whitehackles, Madigin Claret and Madigin Perfection, as well as McClanahan and Clipper blood. (Incidentally, the Clippers were Kelso’s famous “short-tailed” cocks. Kelso received a lot of good-natured ribbing because of their appearance, to which he would reply, “Cocks fight with their legs, not their tails!” In truth, these Clipper’s were wonderful little round-bodied cocks, but short on gameness. When Cecil began advertising and selling fowl, he reluctantly discarded the Clippers, knowing that customers would not be as understanding as he when one occasionally pulled up.) Kelso’s fowl also carried some Roundhead blood, although Cecil never mentioned the source. Finally, many of the Kelso fowl were quite heavy in Hatch blood, as I will illustrate a little later.
In the 50’s, Kelso’s fowl were some of the most sought after in the country, winning in many major derbies and tournaments of that time. Cecil’s friendship with Kelso gave him access to fowl that were unavailable to the average cocker. It goes without saying that Cecil could have bred any of the stags Kelso sent him to walk. Kelso, and later Japhet, sent Cecil many cocks and hens to breed, as well as advice to how to breed.
By the late 50’s, Kelso’s health was beginning to fail. Much of each year was spent under a doctor’s care. Summers often found Kelso in New York’s Statler hotel to escape steaming heat of Galveston and to be close to the specialists that he required. During those absence from Galveston, Cecil’s letters were answered faithfully, by one of Kelso’s secretaries. In September, 1957, a letter on hotel stationery in Kelso’s handwriting says, “My doctor has advised me to curtail my activities, and therefore I decided to dispose of most of the fowl we raised, about 125 stags at Galveston and about 100 in Alabama… We will not have any stags to walk as will sell most of those raised at Galveston. Most of the brood yards have been sold, and lots of orders for young trios,” signed W. A. Kelso. Gilbert Courtois confirmed this information in a letter also dated September, 1957, saying, “Mr. Kelso had to cut down on raising and fighting cocks on Doctor’s orders, so he turned the fowl over to me to sell, he said it was about time for me to make some money for myself as he always gave the fowl away. Have sold most of the brood fowl already and have some orders will have to refund. The young fowl going fast also.” Kelso had given Gilbert permission to advertise his fowl in the journals. There would be no “Oleander” entry for 1957.
Kelso’s health improved in 1958 and ’59 and he again used Cecil’s walks. By this time, Gilbert was gone and had been replaced by Frank Steele. Kelso’s recovery was brief, however, and again in 1960, he was forced to give up his fowl and retire. In a letter dated November 29, 1960, Kelso explains, “I have had final instructions from my doctor, advising me that I would not be able to fight any of my cocks next season, due to excitement and pressures.” He goes on to say that he has made arrangements with Dr. E. E. Robinson of the Pine Burr entry to pick up and fight the cocks Cecil has on walks. Even though Kelso remained interested in the sport, this was pretty much the last hurrah for the future, although he would continue to receive brood stock from both Kelso and Japhet for several years to come.
In discussing the breeding of Cecil’s fowl it is important to remember that he, like most good breeders, placed little importance on the word “Pure”. Rather he bred to a performance standard: those fowl that conformed to his standard of pit performance were perpetuated in the brood yard. Often he used linebreeding – the use of an outstanding individual several times in one line – to maintain a particular family. He shied away from intensive inbreeding, such as brother-sister mating, for the most part, feeling that prolonged inbreeding would destroy a family by sapping its vigor and strength. To maintain a family, he would introduce small doses of new blood over the course of several years to keep that family viable. Since he raised a large number of chickens each year, he seldom single-mated, preferring to breed several sisters to a selected cock, trusting in culling to eliminate the poor individuals.
Cecil never really like grey chickens. One of his favorite quotes was, “Grey roosters were put on earth for one thing – for red roosters to kill.” But as he began advertising his fowl, he realized it was necessary to keep some greys for those customers who favored them. So, around 1964, he began breeding and raising grey chickens. His greys were never really a family as such, but were roosters which happened to come grey in color, while still containing much red blood.
Cecil bred what he called “Kelsos” in five separate yards or families: Out and Out, Radio, Murphy, New Albany and Sweater. Each yard or family was maintained over the years in the manner I have described before. Each of these yards contained the basic bloodlines that came from Walter Kelso and Bill Japhet, with just enough outside blood to keep them strong and winning. Although he had some of the blood, Cecil never considered the Brokewing as separate or distinct family, stating that they were simply bred from an Out and Out cock called the “Brokewing cock.” I will now give you a little information on how each of the yards was bred.
On March 10, 1960, at the Hot Springs pit – the big show run by E. T. Piper – Walter Kelso gave Cecil a three year old cock that would prove to be one of the principal foundation cocks for Cecil’s fowl. In breeding, the cock was an Out and Out and had won several good fights for Kelso in fast competition. In Cecil’s records this cock stands out among all the rest as prepotent individual. He was bred as long as he lived – until 1965 – often to his daughters and granddaughters. One of Cecil’s closest friends told me the cock was snow white: Whatever his color may have been, for years thereafter, Cecil had a small percentage of cocks to come white from this Out and Out yard. In the beginning, 90% of the Out and Outs came straight combed. Gradually, by breeding to the pea-combed side, Cecil reversed this trend. One of Cecil’s associates told me that the Out and Out yard carried a heavy shot of McClanahan blood. These Out and Out cocks made Cecil’s fowl famous for their scoring and cutting ability. Even today the blood of this “Hot Springs” cock runs strongly through the Out and Out yard.
In the late 60’s, the Out and Out family began to come smaller and fragile, suffering more broken legs and wings. They couldn’t seem to finish off their opponent or come back in the drag. Cecil decided to add some new blood to increase their vigor and stamina. At the time, Johnny Jumper was doing real well with some Kelso cocks crossed on Butcher. He won an impressive derby in 1972 at Sunset with cocks that were 5/8 Kelso and 3/8 Butcher. Johnny had obtained this Butcher blood from “Big Red” Richardson around 1964. Big Red told Johnny, “This blood will help any family it’s crossed with.” That was certainly the case for the Out and Outs. A small dose (1/8 – ¼) of this Butcher blood gave the Out and Outs increased vitality and strength and improved their bone structure. Today, I would say, most of Cecil’s Out and Outs carry about 1/16 of this Butcher blood. Butcher-looking cocks often crop up in the Out and Outs, showing lemon-hackles and straight combs.
Johnny Jumper also played a major role in the development of another family, the Radio yard. The name “Radio” was given to them by Jumper’s brother-in-law because of their extremely talkative nature, always chattering and clucking. According to Johnny, the foundation cock was basically a Murphy Whitehackle, one of many cocks sent to Cecil by Japhet to put out on walk. Japhet told Cecil to choose one to breed. The one Cecil chose had been walked in Arkansas and was an ordinary-looking cock with a short tail. When Johnny asked him why he had chosen that particular cock, Cecil replied, “Hell, he was the best looking one of the bunch!” Whatever his looks, he turned out to be an outstanding brood cock when bred to Kelso hens. His offspring, mainly straight-combed with yellow legs, proved to be dynamite knife cocks, and were eagerly sought after in both the Philippines and Mexico.
When Cecil received the Murphy yard from Kelso, they were about what one would expect from Thomas Murphy fowl, yellow legged, straight combed Whitehackles. The fact that they have received an infusion of new blood since then is undeniable, since an occasional green legged individual is not at all uncommon. Personally, I think the Murphy yard today carries William McRae’s green legged Hatch blood, since I know Cecil bred more than one of McRae’s cocks. In 1963, McRae gave Cecil a cock of Blondy Rollan bloodlines to breed. Also, in 1966, McRae gave Cecil a cock he called the “Four Webber.” One of two brothers, the Four Webber cock had been an outstanding battle cock and was bred extensively by Cecil. In addition, Cecil also bred a couple of Harold Brown Hatch cocks and the Murphy may contain some of this. The last time I saw Cecil was in August, 1983. It was a blistering hot day and we sat in the shade of a pecan tree that stands at the end of the cockhouse and talked about the Murphys. Cecil told me that he had five “pure” Murphy stags at a relative’s place in nearby Humbolt. “They had been coming too big,” he said, “but they’re just the right size this year. The Murphy’s aren’t fancy chickens, but they’re good, honest chickens that never quit trying. They win a lot of fights on just that quality. You come down this fall, Don, and I’ll give you one of these stags.” Needless to say, I didn’t make it in time.
The name “New Albany” is misleading. I imagine when you first read it, you assumed this yard carried Albany blood. It was called New Albany because the chickens were raised on a farm walk in New Albany, Mississippi! I had some of these New Albany at one time, but discarded them because of their evil dispositions. Some of these came spangled with yellow legs and straight combs. One of Cecil’s friends thinks they carried Bruner Roundhead crossed with Murphy blood. Johnny Jumper doesn’t think so, though. He told me he though they were bred out of a yellow-legged Duke cock from Ray Price over Murphy hens. This cock carried a lot of Hatch, Johnny said, and some of them would come green legged.
What the Sweater yard actually consisted of when Cecil got them is anyone’s guess. Naturally, we suppose they carried a big shot of Hatch from when Sweater McGinnis worked for Kelso, as it is widely known that he added Hatch blood to nearly everything he bred. When Cecil began breeding the Sweater yard, he infused some Boston Roundhead into the family by way of hens that were half yellow-legged Hatch and half Boston Roundhead. Most of the Sweaters that Cecil bred came lemon hackled pea combs with yellow or green legs. The Sweater yard is well-known for power and gameness, winning many seemingly impossible fights with their determination and smash.
There you have the breeding of five “Kelso” yards as bred at Oakdale farm. This is by no means all of the Kelso fowl Cecil Davis bred, only the ones bred as families for several years. For example, in 1958, Cecil bred a yard of six hens given to him by Kelso to a Claret cock also from Kelso. The hens were half Madigin Claret and half Clipper. In a letter dated September 4, 1962, Kelso gives the breeding of ten pullets he has sent Cecil, “Five of them are marked Left Out and five are marked Both Out. These Left Out pullets are from the Ruble cock that he gave me at Hot Springs and bred from hens that were single mated from the Both Right hen and the Right In Clipper cock. These Both Out pullets are from a two year old Sweater cock that I saved for breeding purposes before the old cock was stolen, and they were bred on one-half Ruble hens and one-half All Four Split hens, which we fought at Hot Springs and tied Ruble for the last time that I still had Frank feeding for me up there. They are the best, I think, that I have on the yard.” Later, after the stags were trimmed Kelso sent Cecil a Left Out stag and a Both Out stag to cross over these yards.
In a letter dated February 29, 1966, E. C. Japhet describes a cock be sent Cecil, “I shipped you the cock this morning and hope he gets there in good shape. You may not like him, but the blood is there. Have fought quite a few brothers and they have done well for me. And the gameness has been tested. He is out of some hens Ray Leach raised, like the cock we walked with you, half Murphy and half the Hatch blood he got from Piper. The daddy, a cock Mr. Kelso bred several years. We called them Griffin (because Griffin raised them for Kelso – and had very good luck with them. Kelso sent the yard to Griffin, some half-Pipeliner hens and a Henie cock.”
What may lift some eyebrows is he amount of Hatch blood that went into the Kelso fowl. Examine these three breedings I’ve just described: Ruble, Sweater, Henie, Piper –all of it carrying Hatch! And we still have people who insist pure “Kelsos” always come yellow or white legged!
In closing these already too long article, I would like to add a personal note. The Jackson Club fowl will continue to be bred for many years, but the memory of Cecil Davis will live as long as men who love gamecocks continue to gather together. One of Cecil’s favorite expressions was, “You don’t go through this world alone.” That’s something I can take with me.
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