Chickens To Moscow


Marjorie Daw Johnson, for many years a vocational teacher in Madison, Wisconsin, died in 1975 at the age of ninety-three. Among other mementos, she left this account of her entirely unforeseen experience as a courier to the Soviet Union in the days before the United States recognized that country. It is published here for the first time by permission of Dr. David B. Johnson, her nephew and executor of her estate.

In 1926 I began making plans to travel in Europe the following summer. Articles in some of our biggest newspapers had been devoting so much space to Russia that I thought it must be worth seeing. So, being, like the elephant’s child, “full of satiable curiosity,” I decided to also go there in the summer of 1927.

When I announced my decision to my family and friends, their reply was, “But you can’t. America doesn’t recognize Russia. How do you expect to get in or get out?” I said, “I don’t know. I only know I’m going.” So I began. I wrote to our State Department but drew a blank. I wrote to Canada and Mexico with no better results; they could do nothing for an American citizen. Nothing daunted, I did what I should have done in the first place. I wrote to Russia: “The Foreign Affairs Department, Moscow, Russia. To Whom It May Concern: I am a teacher in a Vocational School. I have read that you are doing some interesting things in adult education. I am coming to Europe this summer and I would like to visit the U.S.S.R. I know the following people who will vouch for me if you so desire. Mrs. Florence Kelley, Miss Lillian WaId, Miss Jane Addams, and Mrs. Raymond Robbins. I have only my summer vacation and do not want to spend it on the border. So, will you please do any investigating you want to do before June? Can I get in? What will it cost, and can I get out?”

Then I waited and waited for an answer that didn’t come. Nevertheless, I went ahead with my plans. My school board was so intrigued that they agreed to give me all of June and September off if I needed it. As month after month went by with no word, my skeptical friends grew more and more skeptical, but I continued to talk about going to Russia, for I felt that somehow I would get there.

Finally, on the first of May, I was called from a class to answer the telephone. That in itself was alarming, for a teacher is never called from a class unless it’s fire, murder, or sudden death. “What’s the matter?” I asked anxiously.

“It’s a cablegram. They say it’s from Moscow, Russia.” It was. It said. “Your visa awaits you in Berlin.” So much for the skeptics!

I planned to leave at the end of May, and booked passage on a small French ship sailing to Italy, where, after visiting some Italian friends, I would take a train up to Berlin.

About the middle of May I was again called from class to answer the phone, and again it was from Moscow. The cablegram read: “Bring eight hens, two roosters. Best standard leghorns urgently needed. Donchakoff, Timiryazev Agricultural Institute.”

“It must be a code,” said the school supervisor.

I shook my head. “I doubt it. I have a sinking feeling that it means chickens.”

“But you can’t take chickens.”

“It looks as if I’ll have to, to get in.”

So I put on my thinking cap and began telephoning. First, American Express. Nothing doing—no one sends anything to Russia. Next I tried the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture. No help there. They knew nothing and cared less; they probably thought I was crazy. So did almost everyone else.

I next telephoned the head of the Poultry Department of the University of Wisconsin:

“How do you send chickens to Russia?”

“We don’t.”

“How would you if you did?”

“We wouldn’t.”

“What would you do if you got this cablegram?” and I read it to him.

“Reply, ‘Not coming.’ ”

“Well,” I said, “you aren’t very helpful. Have you got standard leghorns?”

“Oh, yes, but we don’t sell them.”

“Do you know who does?”

“Yes, Howard King has them for sale.”

That was the first break. I had known Howard since he was a small boy, so I went to see him.

“Howard, do you have standard leghorns?”

“I certainly have.”

“Well, what is the difference between an ordinary hen and a standard bird? Surely a leghorn is a leghorn.”

“Yes, a leghorn is a leghorn, but there is a big difference. An ordinary leghorn costs two or three dollars. A standard bird costs ten dollars. You see, a standard bird is tougher and can stand more hardship and colder weather. It has a longer pedigree and the biggest egg-laying capacity of any hen.”


“Hm,” I thought, “nothing small about the Russian desires,” and I have had no reason to change my opinion since.

Then I took a rather unfair advantage of Howard. “Well,” I said, “if I buy eight hens and two roosters, best standard leghorns, and pay you one hundred dollars, isn’t it up to you to deliver them?”

“Sure,” said Howard.