Revisiting Pittsburgh’s Pigeondom

John Yodanis Papers, 1919 – 1987, MSS 293, Detre Library & Archives, Heinz History Center


Revisiting Pittsburgh’s Pigeondom

Author: Melissa Yang

PhD student in English (Composition) and Consuming Nature workshop participant

The American Racing Pigeon Union (ARPU)’s Souvenir Book of the 1937 Greater Pittsburgh Convention opens on a charming exchange of two epistolary poems between Edgar A. Guest and Peter P. Barry. Guest’s four stanzas of aa/bb rhymes, addressed “To the Owner of a Homing Pigeon,” detail the antics of a pigeon who “stopped to spend the day with us.” Barry responds to thank Guest, and requests he “Do again that sportsman’s deed,/Give him water and a bit of feed,” if the pigeon again chooses to rest upon his roof on his route home.

There is abundant poetry—intentional and unintentional, whimsical and solemn—in the five boxes of materials compiled over sixty years by Pittsburgh pigeon racer John Yodanis (1910 – 1988). Housed in the Heinz History Center’s archives, these boxes are packed full of documents, from pigeon breeding guides to lineage charts, racing diplomas to gift-like bundles tied up in paper and string, which unwrap to reveal piles of pigeon-centric newspapers, catalogues, convention yearbooks, and more.

Pigeons have long been featured in and have fostered an enormous range of human communications. Pigeon post, after all, was the fastest method of message-transmission from ancient times until Samuel Morse developed his code in the 1830s and 40s. Perusing more recent papers, it is nevertheless striking how valuable these birds were to their caretakers, and how stark the contrast is between the dedicated treatment of these pedigreed pigeons and the feral “rats with wings” marginalized in city streets today. Still, racing birds were bred to serve a purpose and, unlike most pets, had to earn their keep.

This common attitude is reflected across Yodanis’s materials, including the four-volume Four Seasons Real Course About Pigeons. Penned by M. Joseph Heuskin for novices in the 1920s, this relic meticulously describes the proper composure, composition, and disposition of an ideal bird. He notes, “A pigeon of value has often a bigger eye than a common pigeon,” and “watches you wherever you go, for it is very inquisitive.” Breeders are advised to kill birds not up to snuff because “Marvelous pigeons are scarce,” and only achieved by “cultivating your colony” carefully. The anthropomorphism of the watchful, bright birds juxtaposed with casual culling directives render this guide darkly memorable, and the sport susceptible to criticism from animal welfare activists. (Pigeon racing ethics are controversial enough to warrant their own entry.)

The modern sport of pigeon racing first emerged in Belgium in the 1850s, as carrier pigeons were being phased out by newer messaging technologies. Aficionados were motivated by a passion for pigeons, as well as prize money. The sport spread across Europe, and when Europeans migrated to the United States, they brought their birds with them. This is how Pittsburgh, PA—whose abundant job openings in factories and steel mills attracted European immigrants—became an epicenter for American pigeon racing in the following century.

“Pittsburgh Promotes Pigeondom’s Progress” appears as a bold announcement in the opening pages of Yodanis’s 1948 commemorative book for the 38th annual ARPU convention (and the 4th annual “Ladies Auxiliary” meeting). Several pages of a welcome essay boast, of all the sports in Pittsburgh, “One of the finest sports of all, the realm of Pigeondom, is enthusiastically proclaimed by a great number here.” The Pittsburgh Center of the ARPU was the largest in America at the time, with thousands of members within a 50-mile radius of the city.

John Yodanis was inducted into Pittsburgh’s pigeondom by his father and brother at age 14 in 1924. One of the collection’s final news clippings, from 1984, features the 74-year-old retired steamfitter reflecting on growing up when “every other yard had a pigeon loft and the association of racing pigeon clubs known as the Pittsburgh Center had more than 2,400 members.” Near the end of Yodanis’s life, he estimated only “175 racing pigeon owners remain in the Pittsburgh area.” Today, numbers continue to dwindle.

The Tarentum Homing Club is one of the few active pigeon racing groups remaining around Pittsburgh, where a few devotees—mostly male retirees—continue to race their birds on weekends. When I interviewed member David Corry, he attributed the decline of pigeon racing in part to a lack of interest in the time commitment required of animal husbandry among young people today. Curiously, a concern for adolescent apathy can already be discerned in Yodanis’s earlier documents, some of which even cite “prevention of juvenile delinquency” as rationale to encourage children to pursue pigeon racing. Corry, who laughingly recalled how he was almost arrested for climbing grain elevators to catch pigeons in his youth, followed up to say, “You do not have to be nuts to get involved in pigeon racing but to some degree it helps.”Pittsburgh’s pigeondom may be endangered, but there is a liveliness, passion, humor, and resonant lyricism in even the most matter-of-fact of the extant discourses and documents. John Yodanis’s collection offers a fascinating glimpse into this niche area of local history well worth remembering and revisiting.

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