Sporting homemade tail feathers, Del Hampton struts around the open-air stage in Wayne, Neb. (pop. 5,583), clucking like a nervous hen. In fact, Hampton’s poultry performance is so impeccable that a panel of judges last year named him the National Cluck-Off champion for the ninth consecutive year. The clucking contest is one of the highlights of the Wayne Chicken Show, a celebration of the town’s early days when nearly all local farmers raised chickens.
“I always loved making up funny voices for my daughter when she was little,” says Hampton, 42, of Fort Smith, Ark. “I was watching The Tonight Show and saw former Cluck-Off champion Joel Vavra talking with Jay Leno. I thought that was pretty cool, so the following year I drove up to Wayne and gave it a try.”
The rules are simple. Contestants have to be heard across the barnyard, act and sound like a chicken, and cluck for at least 15 seconds.
The Chicken Show was started in 1981 by the Wayne Regional Arts Council as a nod to the town’s farming past and to allow artisans to have creative fun at the expense of the domesticated fowl. Each year, the event has a new poultry theme, such as “Lewis and Cluck” or “Our Coop Supports the Troops,” that adorns T-shirts and other “cluck-tibles,” as organizers call them.
“Chickens are funny,” says Irene Fletcher, 50, office manager for Wayne Area Economic Development Inc. “They are easy to make fun of and have fun with.”
Up until the 1970s, every Wayne County farm had chickens, but times have changed.
“Today, even adults haven’t had contact with chickens or any farm animals,” says Clara Osten, whose family farm provides live chickens for the festival’s rooster-crowing and chicken-flying contests, and live chicken-scratching area. “To watch the faces of the little kids light up when they touch a chicken is really priceless.”
The festival, scheduled July 11 to 13, annually hosts about 15,000 visitors from across the state and nation. “I enjoy looking over the crowd and seeing people clapping and laughing,” says Wes Blecke, 29, program manager for the Wayne Chamber of Commerce.
Highlights of the festival include the world’s largest chicken dance, featuring 500 dancers strutting in downtown Wayne, and a fowl-themed parade, with chicken-related floats and live entertainment such as the “Chickendale Dancers,” comprising students from Wayne State College. Visitors, through raucous cheering, choose the human winners of contests such as best chicken legs and best chicken song.
A messy egg drop and catch contest features participants who try to catch a raw egg dropped from 60 feet overhead. “The trick is to catch it without getting egg in your face or yolk in your eye,” Blecke says.
More than 1,000 volunteers help the festival run smoothly. “There are so many behind-the-scenes helpers,” Fletcher says. “We know the Chicken Show is also the basis for class reunions. People who have moved away come back home especially for the celebration.”
Dana Rethwisch, 43, of David City, Neb. (pop. 2,597), and her husband, Michael, a Wayne native, recently relocated, with their three children, from California. “We came home after the show and the kids wanted to raise chickens, so they could watch them and learn how to act like a chicken,” Rethwisch says. “They practiced their chicken walk, pretended to lay eggs and they made up chicken songs, so they can compete next year.”
So while Hampton is the reigning Cluck-Off champion, the next serious challenger might be waiting in the wings. “I don’t take my title for granted,” Hampton says. “You never know who will show up each year and put on a performance.”