TAMPA — The real estate listing for the Ybor City home at 1908 E. Fifth Ave. mentions the 969-square-foot home as having one bedroom, two bathrooms, a “spacious cooking island,” “soaring 11-foot ceilings” and “plumbing and electrical upgrades.”
The most notable feature is omitted: Its backyard has a chicken cemetery.
It’s small, with just a handful of burials and two headstones. But the cemetery played an important role in the movement that made chickens as synonymous with Ybor as cigars, Cuban sandwiches and cafe con leche.
“I hope whoever buys my house keeps the cemetery,” said Tommy Stephens, 79, who has owned the home since 1987 and established the cemetery a decade later.
The house is under contract, but nothing is certain, Stephens said. One stipulation he would like met is that the headstones remain. If a new owner decides against maintaining the bird burial ground, Stephens has Ybor friends who might place the headstones on their property so that the legacy lives on symbolically.
“They were buried in old feedbags, so I doubt there is much left to them,” said Stephens, who then added with a laugh: “But maybe they could dig up the sandals I buried with Chicken Nugget because he liked to mate with them.”
Some in Ybor are mourning what they call the end of an era with Stephens leaving.
“He brought a lot of flavor and neighborly interaction,” said Chris Wojtowicz, his neighbor of nearly a decade. “He is just a wonderful character.”
Added Manny Alvarez, who was Stephens’ neighbor for three decades before selling his own Ybor home last year, “He’s an absolute Ybor icon. When you think of Ybor chickens and roosters, you think of Tommy.”
Chickens have been a part of Ybor since its founding years in the late 1800s. Back then, residents kept them for practical reasons.
When Stephens purchased his home, feral chickens roamed the property like it was a hangout. Rather than chasing them off, he put out cups of cracked corn and watched the birds from his back patio.
“I became known as the rooster guy,” Stephens said.
Friends gifted him house decor like a rooster weather vane and chicken doorbell.
Then, in 1995, a friend gave a rooster to Stephens, who named him James Rooster. After that, Ybor’s chicken population “exploded,” Stephens said, due to the rooster’s love for hens.
Two years later, a stray dog killed the rooster. Stephens buried his favorite bird with a headstone and added the middle initial E. for Eternal.
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“Horniest cock in Ybor,” reads the epitaph in faded letters on James E. Rooster’s headstone.
Stephens told Alvarez the rooster was going to have “one hell of a funeral.” And that’s how a tradition was born.
Stephens planned a proper sendoff for a rooster that embraced Ybor’s revelry — a Fat Tuesday procession down Seventh Avenue.
According to news archives, more than 100 people attended, many wearing tongue-in-cheek rooster-inspired attire with R-rated puns.
Honoring the bird became an annual event known as both The James E. Rooster Funeral and Procession and The Doodle Doo Parade. Over the years, other favorite chickens were memorialized. A hen named Gypsy and roosters Scooter and Bob were honored at the parade and buried in the cemetery.
By 2007, with more than 500 attending the event that included a live jazz band, it became too big and expensive for Stephens to handle. He canceled it the following year, but supported his feathered friends in another way.
Some in Ybor were frustrated with the chickens intruding into homes and businesses and defecating where they pleased, so they hired a trapper to rid the district of what they declared to be foul fowls.
Stephens organized protests to save the chickens. His wife, Pam Stephens, lobbied the city. They succeeded when then-Mayor Pam Iorio declared that Ybor’s chickens were protected under a 1989 ordinance forbidding any wild birds in the city from being trapped.
And, like that, Stephens said, the chickens were no longer just chickens. “They were Ybor’s chickens.”
But the ordinance could not protect the chickens from a familiar foe.
In 2009, a dog got Chicken Nugget. He was the final member of the Ybor flock buried in the cemetery and received the second headstone, which declares “Killed by dog,” because he was Stephens’ drinking buddy.
“He liked beer,” Stephens said. “We buried him with a beer bottle filled with corn.”
The Ybor Merchant’s Association revived the parade from 2012 through 2018, but it has not been held since.
Stephens retired as a construction superintendent five years ago and decided to sell his Ybor property because he spends more time on a family farm in Calhoun County.
Does he have chickens on the farm?
“Hell, no,” Stephens said. “They’re the most destructive bastards in the world.”