The Rooster Bridge: How one man’s vision paved the way

Frank Derby, front left, accepts a rooster presented by President Woodrow Wilson, center. (Contributed Photo)

Frank Derby, front left, accepts a rooster presented by President Woodrow Wilson, center. Derby is holding the rooster on a tray in this photo. (Contributed Photo)

Frank I. Derby didn’t present a commanding presence. At most he weighed 125 pounds.

But he knew how to promote an event, and once Derby set his mind on something, he never gave up, said his daughter, Patsy Derby Chaney.

Chaney, who lives in the family home in Ward with a century of memories covering its walls, recalls that her father had what came to be called “the Derby determination.” Once he got an idea, she said, he stuck with it to the end.

At the early part of the 20th century, the Dixie Overland Highway Association was looking to complete a major road from Savannah, Ga., to San Diego, Calif. The only spot along the route without a bridge was between Marengo and Sumter counties in Alabama. A ferry connected them.

Derby came up with the idea for a rooster auction in 1919 to raise money for a bridge across the Tombigbee River. At that time cock fighting was both legal and popular.

Calling on politicians and businessmen, and working with others in both counties, Derby organized the famous two-day Rooster Auction held in Demopolis.

“It’s a story that got told every time we had dinner,” said Chaney.

Patsy Derby Chaney shows memorabilia from the 1919 rooster auction in Demopolis. (Contributed Photo)

Patsy Derby Chaney shows memorabilia from the 1919 rooster auction in Demopolis. (Contributed Photo)

On April 9 the auction will be remembered when Demopolis hosts Rooster Day, a project to benefit the Marengo County Historical Society. A full day of activities is planned in the city’s Public Square, beginning with a Cock’s Crow 5K Run. Booths of handcrafted items, a children’s area and entertainment and demonstrations are planned throughout the event. It will end with silent and live auctions of items – including a rooster – at historic Lyon Hall.

Born in 1881, Derby was 38 at the time of the auction, but it wasn’t his first foray into major auction events. The year before he arranged for a sale of registered bulls to benefit the Red Cross in Birmingham.

Chaney said her father was not able to serve in World War I, and he felt the need to do whatever he could to help the fighting men.

She said 57 bulls were donated, raising a total of $73,756, a princely sum for the Red Cross. The diminutive showman drew interest in the auction by hosting a parade of the bulls through the city and by making a room reservation for his own bull at the Tutweiler Hotel.

“He could get more for the pea shells than he could for the peas,” said his daughter.

Chaney said once her father started working on the rooster auction, he worked with Alabama’s senator.  Together they convinced President Woodrow Wilson and the prime ministers of France, Georges Clemenceau; Great Britain, David Lloyd George, and Italy, Vittorio Orlando, to donate roosters.

Others got into the act as well. Roosters were donated by Gen. John J. Pershing and Hollywood personalities Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, and Mary Pickford. Helen Keller sent a little blue hen.

A rooster named “Bob Jones,” which served as a model for auction publicity, was named for the famous evangelist. It sold for $7,500. Some buyers donated their roosters back again to be resold.

The two-day event featured the largest barbecue and Brunswick stew dinner ever held in Alabama. The state legislature closed up shop, and all the politicians came to Demopolis. Trains carried folks from all over to the small west Alabama city.

The sale raised enough in pledges to build the bridge, but not all the money was collected. Chaney said the auction raised awareness that a bridge was needed, and the state came through. With local, state and federal money, the bridge was built.

The bridge at first was named “Memorial Bridge,” although no one in the area ever called it that, said Chaney. Everyone always referred to it as the “Rooster Bridge.”

Frank Derby and his first wife Kate next to a marker in front of the Rooster Bridge. (Contributed Photo)

Frank Derby and his first wife Kate next to a marker in front of the Rooster Bridge. (Contributed Photo)

Finally, under Congressman E.O. Eddins, the name officially was changed to the Demopolis Rooster Bridge honoring F.I. Derby.

Chaney has a host of memorabilia from the auction. More items are housed at the University of West Alabama, including a scrapbook of the event kept by the first Mrs. Derby.

Derby and Kate Horn, had four children who survived to adulthood. She died in 1929, and nine years later Derby wooed and won Minnie Wade Cory. Chaney was their only child.

He died in 1963, the year Patsy graduated from Randolph Macon College in Lynchburg, Va. Chaney went on to get her master’s degree from Georgetown in American Government.

Lady Bird Johnson was Chaney’s mother’s cousin, and she hired Chaney as a chaperone for her daughters. Chaney later became assistant to Lady Bird’s personal secretary for 18 months before her marriage.

She met Burnell Chaney, and ordained minister, during her time in Washington. Their first date was to rent a canoe and paddle to the concert at the Watergate.

After their marriage they moved to Princeton where he earned a masters theology degree. Their sons Michael and Andrew were born in Princeton.

When Chaney’s half-brother Frank Derby died, the couple came back for the funeral and through connections discovered the need for a minister at the Presbyterian Church. He interviewed, was accepted, and the couple lived in Livingston for 24 years.

After her husband’s death, Chaney, too, felt the call to preach and now serves as the pastor for the church.