The story of Chicken Billy Anstett

William Horkan had the prestigious job of gardener at the Commissioner’s Residence, but the horticulturist whose name stands out was William Anstett, but was widely known as Chicken Billy.

In the early days of Dawson City, William Paddock ran a large greenhouse operation in West Dawson. William Horkan had the prestigious job of gardener at the Commissioner’s Residence, but the horticulturist whose name stands out was William Anstett, but was widely known as Chicken Billy.

William J. Anstett was born in Philadelphia about 1878, and attended school there. He wasn’t yet 20 years of age when he applied to join the navy after the outbreak of the Spanish American War in 1898. He was rejected for having a heart condition, so he turned his sights northward and came to the Klondike instead.

He came into the Yukon by way of the Chilkoot Trail with another stampeder named Grant Crossan. North West Mounted Police records show him entering the Yukon in January of 1899, and again in July of 1900. Like thousands of others, he tried his hand at prospecting and gold mining, but by 1901, he had turned to ranching and farming, a livelihood that he followed for the next quarter century.

Anstett acquired land on an island in the Yukon River five kilometres above Dawson City, as well as nine hectares in Sunnydale, on the west shore of the Yukon River, across from the Klondike capital. On the island, he built a henhouse made of logs with south-facing windows. He did well at first, selling the eggs at 50 cents each. He built up a flock of 100 chickens and his eggs became so well known that he was given the nickname Chicken Billy, an sobriquet he retained for the rest of his life.

Unfortunately, others got into the chicken and egg business and the competition drove down the price of poultry, so he started raising hogs and growing a variety of crops.

Anstett was visited by Frank G. Carpenter, the well-known American travel writer, who passed through the Yukon during the summer of 1916. Carpenter wrote a detailed account of his visit to Chicken Billy’s island farm. It started with a knock on his hotel room door. When Carpenter opened the door, there stood a rough-looking man of less than average height, with bronzed complexion and calloused hands. He wore knee-high work boots, blue jeans and a flannel shirt, open at the neck.

Anstett took Carpenter upriver to his island farm aboard his new boat, a long, shallow draft affair driven by a paddle wheel mounted at the stern. It was named the Flamingo, after its unusual colour. The drive shaft broke before they reached his island, but they eventually got a lift to their destination.

First, Billy showed Carpenter his greenhouse, one of many located in and around Dawson. His building was nine metres wide by 15 metres long and was heated with a massive barrel stove.

In it were tomato plants and hundreds of cucumbers still hanging on the vine. He had already picked nearly a thousand, and expected to harvest at least twice as many before the end of the season. Many of the cucumbers were over 25 centimetres long, reported Carpenter, and the largest tomatoes were the size of a baby’s head.

Next, Billy showed Carpenter his hogs. He started out with 14 prize-winning suckling pigs of the Duroc-Jersey, Berkshire and Yorkshire breeds, which he used as breeding stock. The previous year, he had sold 100 weaner pigs at prices ranging from $15 to $25 each.

In the winter, he kept them in a dozen log buildings that were kept heated day and night, feeding them potatoes and grain grown on his farm. Even the waste produced by the hogs which fertilized the sub-arctic soils of the Yukon valley had value; each hog produced $37 worth of manure a year.

Before continuing on their tour, Billy hosted Carpenter to a home-grown meal of fresh eggs, fried ham and gravy, home-grown potatoes, hand-made bread and cucumbers just picked from the vines in his greenhouse.

Billy took him by skiff downriver to his potato field in Sunnydale, on the west bank of the Yukon River, opposite Dawson City.

“I have seen many farms,” said Carpenter, “but none better cultivated and freer of weeds than this potato patch. The vines reach to my knees. They are in rows which are perfectly straight, and the plow goes just one mile in the round trip up one row and back down another.”

Billy was expecting to harvest 100 tonnes of the tubers, which would sell for $100 per tonne. Luther Burbank, the famous horticulturist and earth scientist had visited Dawson two years before and had proclaimed the Yukon (and Alaska) to be prime land for the growing potatoes, providing the right breed could be developed for the northern climate.

The secret to Anstett’s survival in changing economic conditions seemed to be his ability to adapt to changing market conditions — plus an ample amount of hard work. In the newspapers, you will find advertisements for his “best native spuds,” vegetables, eggs, oats, poultry, “spring pigs” and even firewood. When he wasn’t farming, he hired out his boat for river trips, and even transported people to Mayo by wagon.

Billy had a brother Joe, whom he would visit occasionally, who ran a successful printing business in Bellingham, Washington. Billy never married, and his mother, Mrs. Emery E. Warren, would travel to Dawson to spend the winters with him, which she seemed to prefer over staying in Washington.

This continued until 1924. Billy, 46 years old, placed an advertisement in the newspaper selling 17 hectares for $1,000, as well as two teams of horses ($350 each), brood sows and a boar, young pigs and even the “famous fast gas launch” Flamingo. In a second ad, he offered his poultry farm and ten acres seeded with bromegrass for a mere $500. No reason was given for his decision to sell out.

He must have been successful for the Dawson News in August 1925 reports him leaving town with his mother in the Flamingo, headed downriver to Nenana, where the launch was to be delivered to the Episcopal clergyman, Bishop Rowe. With them were Mr. and Mrs. Maylor, who wished to take a leisurely trip down the Yukon.

The Dawson News does not follow his trail after his departure from the Yukon, but his name reappears in southern newspapers in early November of 1935 in an obituary, after he died near Tacoma. What had he been doing there? Raising chickens, of course.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, From the Klondike to Berlin, is now available in stores everywhere.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Willow Brewster, a paramedic helping in the COVID-19 drive-thru testing centre, holds a swab used for the COVID-19 test moments before conducting a test with it on Nov. 24. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
An inside look at the COVID-19 drive-thru testing centre

As the active COVID-19 case count grew last week, so too did… Continue reading

Conservation officers search for a black bear in the Riverdale area in Whitehorse on Sept. 17. The Department of Environment intends to purchase 20 semi-automatic AR-10 rifles, despite the inclusion of the weapons in a recently released ban introduced by the federal government, for peace officers, such as conservation officers. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Environment Minister defends purchase of AR-10 rifles for conservation officers

The federal list of banned firearms includes an exception for peace officers

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: The K-shaped economic recovery and what Yukoners can do about it

It looks like COVID-19 will play the role of Grinch this holiday… Continue reading

Jodie Gibson has been named the 2020 Prospector of the Year by the Yukon Prospectors Association. (Submitted)
Jodie Gibson named 2020 Prospector of the Year

Annual award handed out by the Yukon Prospector’s Association

A number 55 is lit in honour of Travis Adams, who died earlier this year, at the Winter Wonderland Walk at Meadow Lakes Golf Club in Whitehorse on Nov. 24. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
A new take on holiday traditions

Winter Wonderland Walk, virtual Stories with Santa all part of 2020 festive events in Whitehorse

Black Press Media and BraveFace have come together to support children facing life-threatening conditions. Net proceeds from these washable, reusable, three-layer masks go to Make-A-Wish Foundation BC & Yukon.
Put on a BraveFace: Help make children’s wishes come true

Black Press Media, BraveFace host mask fundraiser for Make-A-Wish Foundation

Colin McDowell, the director of land management for the Yukon government, pulls lottery tickets at random during a Whistle Bend property lottery in Whitehorse on Sept. 9, 2019. A large amount of lots are becoming available via lottery in Whistle Bend as the neighbourhood enters phase five of development. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Lottery for more than 250 new Whistle Bend lots planned for January 2021

Eight commercial lots are being tendered in additional to residential plots

The Government of Yukon Main Administration Building in Whitehorse on Aug. 21. The Canada Border Services Agency announced Nov. 26 that they have laid charges against six people, including one Government of Yukon employee, connected to immigration fraud that involved forged Yukon government documents. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Charges laid in immigration fraud scheme, warrant out for former Yukon government employee

Permanent residency applications were submitted with fake Yukon government documents

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decisions made by Whitehorse city council this week

Karen Wenkebach has been appointed as a judge for the Yukon Supreme Court. (Yukon News file)
New justice appointed

Karen Wenckebach has been appointed as a judge for the Supreme Court… Continue reading

Catherine Constable, the city’s manager of legislative services, speaks at a council and senior management (CASM) meeting about CASM policy in Whitehorse on June 13, 2019. Constable highlighted research showing many municipalities require a lengthy notice period before a delegate can be added to the agenda of a council meeting. Under the current Whitehorse procedures bylaw, residents wanting to register as delegates are asked to do so by 11 a.m. on the Friday ahead of the council meeting. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Changes continue to be contemplated for procedures bylaw

Registration deadline may be altered for delegates

Cody Pederson of the CA Storm walks around LJ’s Sabres player Clay Plume during the ‘A’ division final of the 2019 Yukon Native Hockey Tournament. The 2021 Yukon Native Hockey Tournament, scheduled for March 25 to 28 in Whitehorse next year, was officially cancelled on Nov. 24 in a press release from organizers. (John Hopkins-Hill/Yukon News file)
2021 Yukon Native Hockey Tournament cancelled

The 2021 Yukon Native Hockey Tournament, scheduled for March 25 to 28… Continue reading

Lev Dolgachov/123rf
The Yukon’s Information and Privacy Commissioner stressed the need to safeguard personal information while shopping this holiday season in a press release on Nov. 24.
Information and Privacy Commissioner issues reminder about shopping

The Yukon’s Information and Privacy Commissioner Diane McLeod-McKay stressed the need to… Continue reading

Most Read