Big John Hopper Cars

In the 1960s, Georgia’s poultry industry began to experience rapid growth. Farmers were building houses, buying birds and trying to enter a market with excellent potential, but chickens need feed to grow and feed was expensive and sometimes hard to get.

Georgia couldn’t grow enough corn and soybeans to keep the increasing number of chickens fed, so the state’s farmers looked toward the Midwest for rail shipments.

“Making sure there was an adequate supply of feedstock was critical to the development of the industry,” says Mike Giles, president of the Georgia Poultry Federation.

The old boxcars in use by the railroads at the time were leaky and weevil-infested, causing losses en route. And rates were artificially high due to the capacity of the cars, the cost of unloading and a two-stage shipping process. As a result, grain had all but disappeared from the rails and was transported instead via barges along the Mississippi and Tennessee rivers.

The answer: hopper cars, also known as Big John cars. The aluminum covered cars developed by Southern Railway System revolutionized the way feedstock was transported to the South. The leader in development of the innovative cars was famed railroad leader D.W. Bronsan, a Georgian himself and a graduate of Georgia Tech. Bronsan had a keen interest in promoting Georgia industry, specifically its agribusiness.

“The hopper car was the key development that helped Georgia poultry growers feed their chickens efficiently so the industry could grow to the size it is today,” Giles says.

Bronsan’s hopper cars allowed Southern to haul as much grain in five big cars as was being hauled in 25 boxcars, which dramatically reduced the freight charges and, therefore, the cost of the grain. The cost of hauling grain from St. Louis to Gainesville, Ga., for example, dropped from $10.50 to $4.17 per ton in the five-car lots.

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Abit Massey, a former president of the Georgia Poultry Federation and a leader in the industry, remembers when the hopper cars were unveiled.

“The Federation worked with Southern Railway on this effort,” Massey says. “We circulated petitions and attended hearings to help get approval from the Interstate Commerce Commission to allow Southern to cut rail rates.”

Following a lengthy court challenge from the barge industry, Southern won its case to reduce rates as a result of the hopper cars. By the mid-1960s, the poultry industry was predicted to experience a $2 billion expansion.

Transportation is also the key to the future growth of the poultry industry, Massey and Giles say.

“We’ve had a rich history in the industry, but I also think we have an exciting future,” Massey says. “We are the hub of the Southeast for exports, and Georgia is home to the Savannah port. That’s going to make a big difference as we move forward.”
Giles agrees.

“Savannah is the leading port in the nation in terms of poultry exports and Georgia is the largest poultry producer in the nation, which gives our state a strategic advantage,” Giles says. “At least 20 percent of the poultry produced in the United States is exported, and there is tremendous growth potential in that market as world economies grow.

“Our industry is positioned from a logistics standpoint to take advantage of the export opportunities ahead. We can produce high-quality poultry products here in Georgia, get those products loaded into containers and delivered to the port quickly and out on ships to be delivered to the rest of the world. We have good days ahead for Georgia’s poultry industry.”

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