When the calendar page turns to autumn each year, home cooks' thoughts often turn to birds -- turkey, goose, Cornish hen and even quail. Quail were once a Manatee County commodity, born and raised here for both home use and supplied to game preserves.
Bentham "Ben" Richardson moved as a young child to Bradenton from South Carolina in 1909. He and his wife, Lillian Vowell, a Palmetto native born in 1907, took up residence in a wooden farm house on Morgan Johnson Road. Though not a Florida native, Ben was a Florida Cracker through and through.
Noted by Bradenton Herald reporter Becky Roberts, back in 1979: "A Florida cracker is addicted to his privacy and picks his company carefully. If you don't suit him, well, he has better ways to spend an afternoon." Ben agreed with Roberts' description and said, "I can pick up with an old cracker from Myakka City and talk for two or three hours. Why should I talk with people who've been spending the winters here for five years? They don't know anything about Florida." Suffering from poor health, Ben was primarily spending his days talking with his wife and making cast nets. But not too many years before,
he was in the thick of the quail business.
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Ben and his son, William, started Richardson Quail Ranch in 1968. Located next to their home on Morgan Johnson Road, the quail ranch was the perfect business for a man who preferred the company of Florida crackers or no one. The business kept him so busy that he didn't have time for much socializing. It all started with the laying hens -- or did it start with the eggs? It's even hard to tell in this business. Ben and William bred the hens to the point that they were all laying 20 or more eggs a month. If the hens didn't make their quota, they didn't keep them. Kept in rows of pens, high off the ground, the laying hens produced eggs which were collected three or four times a day.
Eggs went from the hens to the Cooler Rooms, which was kept between 60 and 70 degrees. The eggs were turned twice a day. From the Cooler Rooms the eggs went to the Incubator Room, where 75 degrees was the standard. Initially they used individual incubators (one of which can be seen at the Agricultural Museum) but they moved to simply controlling the temperature of the room.
Approximately 4,500 eggs could be kept in the Incubator Room. After 20 days, the eggs were candled. Candling is necessary when you are artificially incubating eggs. Candling allows an embryo to be seen inside the shell. If an embryo has died or if an egg is infertile, these eggs can be discarded so that they don't contaminate the other eggs. After candling, the fertile eggs were put into hatchers.
After approximately 23 days, the eggs hatched and the quail chicks were moved out of the Incubator Room and into the Brooder Room. Here the birds huddled together in boxes that held 250 of them. Imagine those cheeping, hopping clouds of soft feathers. Richardson Quail Ranch had a mortality rate of below 5 percent, much lower than the 50 percent rate across the state.
The quail were taught to exist in the wild by being put into isolated flying pens where wild conditions were simulated and no humans were permitted. Full-grown at 6 weeks, birds would be sold. In 1968 they sold for $1 to $1.05 each. It cost approximately 35 cents to raise each one.
While the quail business was successful, it was also hard work. Though automation enabled the two men to run the ranch by themselves, it grew to a point where more help was necessary. In speaking with Ben's daughter, Bradenton resident Jan Knaack, her dad and brother eventually sold the ranch in the late 1970s. It was difficult to find reliable, affordable help to assist them. The property currently sits undeveloped but in the twilight you can sometimes hear the distinctive call "bob-bob-white" drifting across the tall grass.
Diane Ingram, museum supervisor at Manatee County Agricultural Museum, Inc., enjoys having new folks discover the museum. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 941-721-2034.