Like most conversations in the newsroom, a random topic led to someone — this time it was me — asking an even more random question: What happened to the giant chicken statue in Sheldon?
I never personally saw this chicken in Sheldon, but I’ve heard about this plus-sized poultry multiple times over the years, even when I lived in Sioux City.
When I first moved to Sheldon in November 2014, the location of the former A&W Drive-In that housed the chicken was El Guacamole Mexican Restaurant — and now Los Panchos — so that’s why I never saw it in the flesh or should I say “feather?”
Because of its lasting legacy, I thought people would be interested in learning its whereabouts. So I did what any good investigative journalist would do in my shoes: Asked for help on Facebook.
I posted my request for information on The Sheldon Mail-Sun Facebook page as well as the Twitter and Facebook accounts for its sister publication, The N’West Iowa REVIEW.
Considering the popularity of this chicken, I was not surprised with how many people responded.
In fact, I got more responses for my inquiry about this chicken than I did when I asked people what questions they had for U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley on The Mail-Sun Facebook page just before I spoke with him on a media call.
Within 10 minutes of the post going up, someone suggested the chicken was outside of Lally’s Eastside in LeMars, a family-owned restaurant in the Plymouth County seat community.
Even congressional candidate J.D. Scholten weighed in via Twitter. He later told me he remembered seeing the chicken passing through Sheldon on road trips growing up.
Two tipsters from Perspective Insurance put their heads together and said former A&W owner Rod Merley of Sheldon had it in his yard.
Since he was closer, I gave Rod a call first. After I told him what I wanted, man, did he have some stories for me about that chicken and his time running the drive-in.
The chicken was there when he bought the restaurant in either 1967 or 1968 and county property records date the A&W to 1964.
After he took possession of the A&W, Rod said he went to the drive-in and saw a key piece of his new purchase was missing.
“Somebody stole my chicken,” Rod said.
What a “fowl” move.
Rod contacted Dick Schneider, the longtime president of the former Security State Bank — now Northwestern Bank in Sheldon — who vowed to retrieve it.
“They were very good about it,” Rod said. “And the chicken came back.”
Turned out the previous owner took it with him; however, the chicken was included in the sale so the bank was able to recover it.
That incident was not the last time the chicken would go missing under Rod’s ownership. A storm sent the bird flying two blocks down Highway 18, an incident that gives it a distinguished feature.
“The way you’ll know that chicken — it’ll never be disguised — a storm came through and it blew the toes that held it down off,” Rod said. “I got a big truck tire, sat it in there, and I poured it full of cement.”
Rod sold the restaurant in 1977, but the chicken had more adventures throughout the years.
Legend has it members of Sheldon High School’s 1981 graduating class placed it on top of the school for a prank. The big bird remained a staple of Sheldon until 2009, when the drive-in closed.
Everything was sold off during this time, including the chicken and the Teen Burger statue, which Rod purchased and displayed in his yard for years.
He said he didn’t know the chicken was up for sale; otherwise, he also would have purchased it.
Rod eventually sold the Teen Burger to an A&W owner in Emmetsburg, where it remains.
“I thought it should go back to an A&W,” Rod said.
Rod also confirmed my initial tipster’s inclination that the chicken was now in LeMars, so I called the good folks at Lally’s.
After giggling at my reason for calling, a Lally’s employee fetched Stacey Mullally for me. Stacey is the daughter of Lally’s owners Tom and Patty Mullally.
She confirmed that Sheldon’s most famous chicken was now a resident of the “Ice Cream Capital of the World.”
Stacey’s brother, Nick, purchased the chicken statue during an A&W closing sale that took place after the eatery was shuttered.
“He said he went there to buy a fryer and he left with this in the back of his truck,” Stacey said.
Because of its size, Stacey said people from a nearby implement dealership had to use their equipment to help Nick load it into his pickup bed.
Nick told Stacey he guessed there were about 300 people taking photos of him driving away with a giant chicken in the back of his truck and more onlookers gawked at him back in LeMars.
Lally’s has been around since 1961 and the restaurant specializes in broasted chicken, so having a mascot with the words “BROASTED CHICKEN” literally painted on the side of it makes a lot of sense.
Stacey said the chicken statue has held court on the side of the business since its arrival and makes a great landmark when giving directions on how to find the place.
“We say, ‘Oh, we’re the place with the chicken out front,’” Stacey said.
The Mullally family has fully embraced the bird. Tom changes out the light bulbs in the chicken’s eyes to match the holidays, one of Stacey’s aunts knitted it a scarf for fall/winter and visitors love taking pictures with it.
“We’re actually thinking about moving it to the front of the building, so it’ll stand out more,” Stacey said.
Even without being directly in front of the building, the chicken stands out in LeMars.
“A lot of businesses here in town have ice cream cones and we have the chicken,” Stacey said.