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Petaluma’s ‘Cutest Chicks,’ all grown up


It’s the Egg Capital’s answer to Toddlers and Tiaras. But instead of ruffles and bows, the tiny contestants are swathed in feathers and fake chicken feet in hopes of being crowned “The Cutest Little Chick in Town.”

The contest has been a time-honored attraction of Petaluma’s Butter and Egg Days for 32 years. Anywhere from 45 to 75 tots 5 years and under submit to all kinds of adorable indignities and are posed in everything from giant eggs to hay-filled wire baskets. They’re too young to care about all the adults clucking over them as they are presented to a panel of three judges on a stage set atop a flatbed truck before the big parade at noon.

While the contest is not quite a Hollywood contract or admission to the Ivy League, it can be a point of pride for the families of the winners. In fact, there is one family that locked up the contest for four years.

Gavin Johnson won the title in 2004 when he was only 9 months old.

Despite being hot and sweaty and probably miserable, he was a trouper. One year later Gavin had a baby brother, Hayden, only two months old. The pair cruised to victory together, dressed as chicken greasers and riding in a double stroller tricked out as Milner’s yellow ‘32 Ford Deuce Coupe from “American Graffiti.” Gavin sported a cool leather jacket and clutched a toy electric guitar, which he proudly showed off to the judges.

One year later the brothers’ cousin Hazel Hirschmugl, who was only a year old, was picked as the Cutest Little Chick of 2006 driving a “covered wagon.” Four years later Hazel and her baby brother Henri won over the judges as chicks dressed to the nines aboard a wagon that bore a striking resemblance to Petaluma’s historic Steamer Gold steamboat — complete with steam.

“It’s a neat experience for the family, because we will always hold that special three-years-in-a-row title. I thought that was pretty cool. And of course the entire family is very proud,” said Candice Collier, the mom who launched her family phenomenon 12 years ago.

But Collier has not thrown in the towel just yet. She intends to go for a fifth title for her family mantel. The mother of four boys never entered her middle son Lucas, 7, but last year she entered her youngest, Zachary. While he didn’t win, Collier intends to enter the 2-year-old again this year.

“We don’t even know anyone who sponsors this cute contest every year, but I started to wonder if anyone realized that our family had won the past three years in a row,” she said. “It was definitely a weird but awesome coincidence.”

Contest judges look for originality, detail and completeness of the costume and adherence to the theme of poultry or eggs, said Cassie Marks, who oversees the contest for Petaluma Farms, which has been the sponsor for 32 years.

The competition can be stiff, with families trying to outdo each other with both costumes and props. Marks said some people sign up as early as December. And this year, one mom signed up her baby before it was even born.

The first winner

That wasn’t the case back in 1989 when Collene Camill became the first Cutest Chick. Her mom Joyce recalls there were only about 10 contestants.

“I just thought it would be fun. A friend of mine and I decided to bring our children down and see the parade,” she recalled. “I didn’t even know it was a contest until the night before. So I was a little overwhelmed,” said Joyce Camill, a registered dietitian.

She sewed some feathers on little yellow tights, a yellow shirt and hat. It was cute enough to win the first blue “Cutest Little Chick” sash for Collene and $50 for her college fund.

“It was all downhill from there,” Collene said, laughing.

That’s not really true. Growing up on three acres in west Petaluma, she learned to care for the family chickens and donkey. She was a Girl Scout, a member of the varsity swim team, a lifeguard at The Petaluma Swim Center, and graduated in the top 10 percent of her class at Petaluma High School.

That early $50 contribution to her college fund went to UC San Diego. She went on to get a graduate degree and now, at 28, is working as a physician’s assistant in Visalia.

Collier said the ante has gone up even since she entered her oldest, Gavin, now 12, back in 2004.

“We just had to wrack our own brains to try to think of stuff back then. It’s really fun though, and I love seeing all the contestants,” she said.

Family affair

The contest is a family affair with grandma Connie Johnson, 66, a Petaluman since the age of 8, sewing a number of the winning costumes.

Connie’s former sister-in-law Jenny Hirschmugl carried the family flag for two years, assisted by her husband Jonny Hirschmugl, a well-known Petaluma artist.

The young family is firmly rooted in Petaluma agriculture. They live on 10 acres and are planning to start a pumpkin patch and grow potatoes.

Jenny Hirschmugel said her mother-in-law, Connie Hirschmugel of Novato, immortalized on canvas Hazel’s turn as the Cutest Little Chick.

The 3-by-4 foot painting of Hazel in her chick costume, posing with her dad, hung in a consignment shop appropriately named “The Chic’s Nest” for several years in downtown Petaluma.

“It was a fun conversation piece to have in the shop,” Jenny said, “And I was proud to have the cutest little chick in Petaluma as my little helper.”

The painting is currently entered in a contest making The Council on Aging’s 50th anniversary and is on display in the agency’s offices on Kawana Springs Drive in Santa Rosa.

There is still time to get in on the chicks competition. The last day to enter is Wednesday, April 20. The grand prize is four tickets to Discovery Kingdom and $50 cash. The competition takes place in front of Copperfield’s Books on Kentucky Street at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, April 23. For more information or to register, call 763-0921.

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 521-5204. On Twitter @megmcconahey.