A Chicken Walks Into A Bar

A Chicken Walks Into A Bar

There’s a tiny old house on Porter Avenue in Ocean Springs that has a fresh coat of blue paint holding together the miss-matched siding. Around 1972, the windows were boarded up, and it became a beer joint called Bunk Terry's. (The original Bunk Terry’s opened in 1943 and was in an old gas station.) The place went through a few other name changes but, since 1987, it’s been Sweet’s Lounge. When considering all of its previous incarnations, the place is arguably the oldest watering hole in continuous operation in this small Gulf Coast town. The parking lot is littered with bottle caps. Inside, there are seven seats at the bar, a few side tables, a jukebox, and a pool table. They only serve beer, mostly domestic. Corona is the exception, along with a few regional craft brews. There’s a limited assortment of bar snacks that they’ll gladly warm up for you in the large toaster oven behind the bar: frozen pizza, egg rolls, corn dogs. The walls are adorned with vintage beer signs, a dartboard, and some artist-made lightboxes depicting scenes from the bar. There are four televisions and a Wii console that is yellowed from tobacco smoke. The clientele is a mix of young and old, mostly locals. Their occupations range from lawyers to public works employees, waiters and aldermen, retired or jobless. The owners throw birthday parties for their regulars and hold benefits to raise money for friends in need. But there’s one event that outshines all the rest.

A photograph of the original Terry’s, which later became Bunk Terry’s, then moved to its current location as Bunk Terry’s, then the name was changed to Sweet’s, after Miss Pauline. This photograph was taken somewhere around 1954, but talking to Bunk’s great-grandson, he is pretty sure that the bar was there when Bunk was born in 1943. All photography by Jessie Zenor. 

About four times a year, a vinyl banner appears on the exterior of Sweet’s, announcing the next Chicken Drop Contest. (This tradition is better known as a Chicken Sh*t Contest, but the beer company that provides the banner won’t print swear words.) For regulars, this is cause for anticipation, and people start buying two-dollar tickets—little paper raffle tickets—by the handful in the weeks leading up to the big day. If you wait too long, they sell out. This year, the tickets sold out in four days, so they decided to sell second batch, and those sold out in a week and a half. Each ticket is a bet and, on the day of the contest, you hope it’s your number that gets, um, called.

The Chicken Drop Contest is not really unique to Sweet's, but the scene inside this tiny bar is definitely one of a kind. They open at noon, as they do every Saturday and Sunday. But on Drop Day, the air hums with the same kind of excitement you would expect before a big football game on a college campus. The owners, Ron Blanton and Terry Franklin, along with their wives, buzz around to make sure everything is in place. With help from a few of the eager regulars who arrive right at opening time, they pull out a large sheet of plywood that has a grid of 220 squares marked on it. Kevin, a former bartender at Sweet’s, and Ron worked together to create the board a few years back. They work together to staple the tickets onto each space on the grid. This year, because of the high demand, there are two tickets per square. Once they’re ready to begin, the board will sit atop the pool table but, for now, they set it aside until it is time for the show. 

Calvin Brown, on the front stoop of Sweet's with his chicken, the star of the show.
 
Calvin Brown, on the front stoop of Sweet's with his chicken and a few onlookers.

Calvin Brown, a regular at Sweet’s, arrives with the chicken—his chicken—and sets her in the shade.

Even though it is a gray and rainy Saturday, the crowd arrives early enough and most bring dishes for the potluck spread: deviled eggs, homemade barbecue, pizza, casseroles, chips and salsa—the hallmarks of a special event at Sweet’s. Folks are loud with excitement, happy to be together for this community’s version of a church picnic but with cold beer and cash prizes.

Each ticket is a bet and, on the day of the contest, you hope it’s your number that gets, um, called.

At 1:30 p.m., the pool game is stopped, and the balls are pushed into the pockets. A comforter is laid over the table to protect the felt, and the ticket-covered board is put into place. Calvin brings the chicken into the packed bar and sets her onto the pool table. Feed is then scattered over the board, from corner to corner, and everyone gathers around to watch and wait—and to make sure the hen doesn’t decide to make a run for it. This happened once. The hen ran right out the door, and it took half of the bar to catch her.  

The jukebox is roaring old country songs, new country songs, classic rock, and a few bouncy pop songs that everyone seems to know. Folks are rooting for the chicken, giving her words of encouragement, and begging her to “pick” their ticket. But no one knows which ticket is theirs because names are written on the underside.

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    Sweet’s, during The Chicken Drop Contest.
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    Before 1987, Sweet’s was Bunk Terry’s Lounge.  Paul Reed, now deceased, sitting with a chicken in people’s clothes.
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    A little boy watches the chicken closely.
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    The chicken was just placed on the board.  They are waiting for her to start doing her business.
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    She is making a show of the day.
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    The Chicken Drop t-shirts. All photography by Jessie Zenor. 

After about an hour or so, the bar breaks out into cheers. The chicken pooped on a square! Armed with latex gloves and plenty of paper towels, Miss Amy, Ron’s wife, picks up the lucky tickets. There are two third-place winners, and each of them gets $135. The suspense builds, and now they must wait to see who will win second ($145) and then first place ($160).

The game is only partly about chance.

Mostly, it’s about community—the community of Sweet’s Lounge.

The whole show took about two and a half hours—this time. “It all depends on the chicken,” says Ron. “We’ve had them run from forty-five minutes for all three drops to eight hours.”  

Once the chicken has finished her business, all of the winners celebrate. Those who didn’t get chicken poop on their ticket are still happy to have been a part of it all. Maybe they’ll have better luck next year.  The crowd stays well into the evening, riding the wave of excitement and enjoying the potluck supper. “It’s a big party,” says Ron. “We don’t have chicken, but we have a cook-out of some sort.”

The owners of Sweet's behind the bar. Terry Franklin, left, who has been part owner of the business for 5 years. Ron Blanton, right, who has been owner for 15 years.

The Chicken Drop Contest has been going on for at least thirty years, maybe longer, according to the best guesses of the owners. The game is only partly about chance. Mostly, it’s about community—the community of Sweet’s Lounge. “Its all about the people, baby, you know that,” exclaims Ron. “The customers, we have a great group of people coming in here.  A lot of them have been coming in here their whole lives. Some of them drank their first beer in here.” “I played Hot Wheels here, grew up here,” recalls Raymond Bennett, a longtime customer who had his first drink at Sweet’s. “Daddy used to bring me up here. About three hours after [he] died, once I pulled myself together, I came up here and drank to his memory.”  A lot of people have similar memories associated with Sweet’s Lounge, but the Chicken Drop Contest can be a life-changing experience in itself, just ask Amy Blanton: “I came up here for the first time to see the chicken sh*t and ended up marrying Ron.”

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Sweet’s Lounge Chicken Drop Contest Dates (A Rough Estimate)

* The weekend after Memorial Day

* The weekend after Labor Day

* The last weekend of October

* Somewhere around Ron’s Birthday (January 22)

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Jessie Zenor

Jessie Zenor

Jessie Zenor is co-owner of the Greenhouse on Porter, a coffee, biscuits, and beer shop in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Originally from Auburn, Alabama, she moved to Mississippi after earning her degree in architecture and a year after Hurricane Katrina. For seven years, Jessie worked at MSU’s Gulf Coast Community Design Studio, designing low-income housing in response to the storm. While working at MSU, she picked up a few shifts at Sweet’s Lounge. Jessie is an award-winning paddle-boarder and a beginner surfer.