MARIETTA — In as soon as eight weeks, Marietta’s Big Chicken may be eclipsed by an even bigger chicken in Georgia.
The frame of a 62-foot-tall chicken-shaped topiary, at least 6 feet taller than Marietta’s 56-foot Big Chicken at the KFC off Cobb Parkway, is slated for completion in eight to 10 weeks, according to Jim Puckett, mayor of Fitzgerald.
The steel frame of the structure towers over homes in the city and is intended to bring tourism to the small south-central Georgia town of around 9,500 people.
The massive fowl gives a nod to the city’s invasive species of Burmese chicken that commonly crow at 4:30 a.m. and hold up traffic while crossing streets. The chickens have become somewhat of a city mascot, but residents have a “love-hate” relationship with the birds, Puckett said.
In terms of the structure’s height, Puckett didn’t hide behind his reason.
“When we decided to do this, my first order of business was to find out how big the Big Chicken in Marietta (was),” he told the MDJ on Tuesday, adding that the original plan was to make Fitzgerald’s chicken only 2 feet taller.
Then came another challenge.
“And then we get with Topiary Joe, who’s building this thing, and he says, ‘Mayor, we can do that, but the largest topiary in the world is 59-and-a-half feet and it’s in Dubai, so if we go to 62 feet, we’ll have that as well,’” Puckett said. “So I said, ‘Well, let’s go big or go home.’”
Topiary Joe — his real name is Joe Kyte, and he’s a former Acworth resident — said Fitzgerald’s chicken is the biggest topiary he’s ever built. And, he added, the overall structure is actually going to reach 64 feet, 10 inches tall.
At the time Puckett announced the project, Marietta spokeswoman Lindsey Wiles called for torches and pitchforks on social media.
“Currently organizing the revolt now, we will assemble at City Hall,” she posted – facetiously, one assumes.
Marietta Mayor Steve Tumlin, who makes a habit of handing out Big Chicken lapel pins, took the challenge to the Big Chicken title as a bit of “flattery.” On Tuesday, he maintained that mindset and said he’d make Puckett give him a Big Chicken pin from Fitzgerald. Tumlin said he was wearing his own pin “at half mast.”
“We’re mortified, but we’re gonna move on,” Tumlin said, jokingly. “No, we’re good friends with Fitzgerald — we threw ‘em a challenge, and they answered it. ... We had the distinction ... for 60 years, so we’re willing to share.”
Marietta’s Big Chicken was built in 1963 for a restaurant called Johnny Reb’s Chick-Chuck-‘N’-Shake, according to city guide Marietta.com. The structure quickly became a landmark and reference point for directions from locals.
A few years after construction of the Big Chicken, Johnny Reb’s was sold and turned into a KFC franchise, the website says. In 1993, after years of deterioration and recent storm damage, the landmark was in danger of being torn down. But public outcry was so great that KFC rebuilt and restored the structure instead.
Tumlin said he was “proud” of Fitzgerald and “amazed” at Puckett’s project, and he told the MDJ he’d love to have a stay at the “king-size hotel room” Puckett said will be available for rent inside the chicken.
At its inception, Fitzgerald’s Big Chicken project was expected to cost about $150,000, and other expected completion dates have already come and gone. The pandemic and some engineering challenges related to the plans for the chicken’s interior room delayed it.
As of May, the price tag had reached about $290,000, Puckett said. But, he said, the project timeline is back on track. After another eight to 10 weeks, hopefully all that’s left to do will be to wait for the plants and shrubs to grow in, he said.
The enormous avian may seem silly to outsiders, Puckett said, but it’s not even complete and it’s doing its job: get people talking about Fitzgerald, a city with a rich history and plenty to see.
The story behind the city, he said, is that in 1895, a Union soldier built the community “with the express intention of bringing Union and Confederate soldiers back together after the Civil War,” Puckett said. “That’s one of the most unique stories you’ll find of any city in the entire United States.
“We’ve got so much going on in Fitzgerald, but I need something to draw people here,” he said.
This chicken, he said, has appeared in the Wall Street Journal and publications all over the U.S., and people from far-away places have even called asking to pre-book a stay inside the structure.
“That’s all it’s for is to get folks to Fitzgerald, and then show them what else we have,” he said.
Puckett and Tumlin have bonded over their fowl fascination, frequently joking with each other about the Big Chicken debate when they cross paths at periodic conventions and governmental gatherings.
As Tumlin said, they both hope to “get a lot of mileage” out of the bout for the Big Chicken title. The 6-foot-4-inch Fitzgerald mayor noted with a laugh how Tumlin had teased him that, “no matter how big my chicken was, he’d always be taller than me.”
So even if Marietta’s Big Chicken will drop to second-biggest, Tumlin said, he’ll “wipe the tear away” knowing that at least Marietta’s still got the biggest Big Chicken mayor.
“Our Big Chicken’s gonna keep an eye on I-75 as we send ‘em south to theirs,” Tumlin said. “If Puckett can make (his chicken’s) eyes roll and the beak move, then I’ll give him even more credit.”