FITZGERALD — There it rests, hard on the edge of the parking lot at Harveys Supermarket – a creature of renown in this part of South Georgia, an image of steel and hope, a flight of fancy featuring a flightless fowl.
Folks around here call it The Big Chicken. No elaboration necessary.
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
About four years ago, a guy named Joe Kyte — aka Topiary Joe — came to Fitzgerald, a town of 9,000 three hours south of Atlanta. With a mandate from the mayor and money from a special tax fund, Kyte got busy.
First, he fashioned the base: As one rod of rebar followed the next, the body of what appeared to be a well-fed barnyard bird, a Gallus gallus domesticus of the highest order, took shape. Kyte then looked skyward. He built something that resembled a huge avian neck. The finishing touches followed — a door-sized sheet of steel that reminded passersby of a chicken’s wattle; above that, a beak as pointed as a spouse’s warning glance; and, atop its massive head, an undulating expanse of metal that could only be a colossal comb.
And, inside this creation, a frame-and-concrete-board enclosure shaped like a shoebox — overnight accommodations for anyone willing to pay for the privilege of sleeping in a big bird’s belly. The plan was to envelope the whole thing in greenery, a topiary like no other.
Thus did Fitzgerald, a town that knows a thing or two about chickens, lay claim to the biggest yard bird of them all.
It is 62 feet tall, exceeding by 6 feet that roadside attraction on Cobb Parkway in Marietta; henceforth, the Cobb creature should be called the Sorta Big Chicken. The Fitzgerald chicken weighs roughly 19 tons. So far, its construction costs have hit $291,000. That’s $7.66 per pound. Even the fanciest free-range chickens, raised organically and sold only in stores with Tesla-packed parking lots, aren’t that pricey.
It isn’t complete, either.
Work on the big bird, including its 240-square-foot apartment, stopped as the 2021 municipal election neared. That contest pitted the incumbent mayor, Jim Puckett — he was, and is, the big chicken’s biggest champion — against challenger Jason Holt and another contender. The word landslide is often overused in politics, but not in this case. Holt grabbed more than 60% of the vote in the three-way contest; Puckett collected less than 5%.
Everyone agrees that the election was a referendum on the steel creature on the edge of downtown.
Now, the Fitzgerald City Council is poised to vote on the fowl’s fate. A citizens’ committee has been studying the structure for the past year, pondering what to do with it. The panel is scheduled to make recommendations to the council Monday.
The honorables likely will face three choices: Finish the bird as a topiary, allowing greenery to cover the steelwork while also dropping plans to include an apartment; cover the bird’s steel skeleton with some sort of skin – aluminum, perhaps? – and maybe adorn it with lights; or tear the thing down.
No matter their decision, the council members will surely leave some folks peeved. What Puckett proposed as a magnet to lure tourists to Fitzgerald, a 20-minute drive off I-75, is a rusting reminder that there’s just no pleasing everyone.
Across Fitzgerald, people have their own suggestions on what should be done with the big chicken. Some can even be printed.
Fitzgerald has two claims to fame. In the late 19th century, former Union soldiers helped settle Fitzgerald, becoming neighbors with ex-Confederates whom they’d once tried to shoot, and vice versa. The sidewalks are dotted with markers depicting the former combatants shaking hands.
The town also is home to Burmese chickens, descendants of a flock released near the Ocmulgee River. For reasons only the chickens know, they migrated to Fitzgerald and stayed. Boosters embraced the feathered, iridescent residents. Businesses across Fitzgerald have metal chicken statues in their parking lots. The town celebrates its birds in the annual Wild Chicken Festival, where the piano-playing chicken is always a hit.
Puckett, who grew up here, figured Fitzgerald couldn’t miss if it went big with a chicken to attract tourists. With Puckett’s urging and the recommendations of a committee, the city council approved creating a soaring topiary in the likeness of Fitzgerald’s signature creature. It would contain a living area suitable for overnight visits, where people could peer out of the topiary’s foliage while having their morning coffee. The town would pay for it with $150,000 from SPLOST, its special local option sales tax. The council agreed.
But then COVID hit. Topiary Joe, a Tennessee resident who signed up to build the chicken, faced delays. Material and building costs spiked. So did criticism of Puckett’s big bird.
Enter Holt, who owns funeral homes in Fitzgerald and nearby Ocilla. A former council member, he campaigned on a promise to return Fitzgerald to “fiscal stability.” It struck a chord. In the November 2021 vote. The only thing bigger than the vote against Puckett was the chicken itself.
The former mayor remains unbowed by chicken critics.
“We wanted people to come off the interstate,” Puckett said. “It’s doing what I wanted it to do.”
True enough. Newspapers, radio outlets and TV stations have visited Ben Hill County to behold Fitzgerald’s version of the statue of Ozymandias, the decaying monument that inspired a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley. Reporters have used every crummy bird pun ever coined to describe the roadside wonder.
Now, the chicken is a tangible reminder of a dream not realized. “I try not to drive past it on the way to work,” said Puckett.
Fitzgerald’s current mayor recognizes the structure’s potential. How many other towns can boast such a thing?
“When I say I’m the mayor of Fitzgerald, that’s the first thing I get: a question about the chicken,” Holt said. “To that extent, it’s been a success.”
Elephants, ducks, dogs
Margate, New Jersey, has Lucy. It is a six-story likeness of an elephant, built in 1881 to attract overnight visitors to the Jersey Shore town. In Long Island, New York, there is the Big Duck, a building with a name that is self-explanatory. Visitors to Cottonwood, Idaho, can spend the night at the Dog Bark Park Inn, inside what is billed as the world’s largest beagle.
These creations are “mimetic architecture,” structures that attract attention because they mimic something in nature. Matthew Lasner, who teaches architectural history at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco, thinks the world could use more structures shaped like pachyderms, waterfowl, canines — and, yes, chickens.
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
“We live in an era of Instagram,” said Lasner, who taught at Georgia State University and visited that other chicken in Cobb County during his 2007-2011 tenure in the metro area. “I think people would love to go out of their way to a small town” to document their time in the belly of a bird.
It would make a great holiday rental, he said. “I think it is fantastic,” he said.
Maybe, said H.J. Johnson, a Fitzgerald longtimer. But does such a thing need to be in his town?
“It looks more like a turkey than a chicken to me,” said Johnson, taking a break recently after pressure-washing a mortuary parking lot. “We got other counties laughing at us.”
The money would have been better spent on town improvements — perhaps a recreation center, suggested J.J. Givens and his pal, Jay Alexander. They’re rising seniors at Fitzgerald High School and play for the Hurricanes, the school’s football team.
“It’s been like, two years. Two years, and they still haven’t finished it,” said Givens, awaiting his turn in the chair at Fade “N” Snip Barber Shop downtown.
Alexander nodded. “I think it’s a waste of money,” he said. “It’s just sitting there.”
From her office in the town’s refurbished train depot, Brandy Elrod — Fitzgerald’s director of tourism, arts and culture — can eye the rebar leviathan just across the road.
“It isn’t necessarily what I had in mind,” she said. “I had in mind a 10-foot sculpture or something like that.”
Not everyone is unhappy with the chicken. Neal Bussone and Jonathan Bargeron, who own the downtown motorcycle shop Lil Chub Customs, think Fitzgerald has something cool.
“I like it,” said Bussone, who has a thing for two-wheeled creations that look like they rolled out of a “Mad Max” movie. “It could be a world record.”
“I think it was a good idea, but poor execution,” Bargeron added. “I think it’s a salvageable idea.”
Is it? Can this idea — did you think you’d get through this story without a pun? — fly?
That’s the question Fitzgerald’s elected leaders will take up Monday.