A Georgetown brewery has made the Chicken Man a household name with its beer label inspired by the local resident who commonly rode around town with a chicken on the back of his bike. But don’t call it a chicken. The beer's late namesake would have bellowed back, “It's a hen!” if anyone got it wrong.
The Chicken Man - whose actual name was George Chaplin, sometimes called Chicken George - was very much real, with a photo of him on a wall in the Furnace Room proving this to anyone who thought he was an urban legend.
"The Chicken Man was a popular figure in Georgetown and the brewery was inundated on opening with stories about meetings and sightings of him,” said Furnace Room co-owner Mike Dykstra.
Much the same way as depicted on the beer can, he rode his bike in town with a hen named Chuck Chuck.
Few truly knew George as he wasn’t exactly a sharer, but those closest to him know his story. It all began in a small town just east of Peterborough called Trent River.
He was born on June 14, 1942 to Cliff and Helen Chaplin. The sleepy little hamlet of about 150 people was his playground. He had three siblings, a sister named Kathy and two brothers named Charlie and James. George was the oldest of the kids, but even back then it's said that he kept to himself. Their relationship wasn’t particularly close.
“I knew he was my brother - at least, that's what I was told. But I knew it wasn't what I would assume is a normal [relationship] the way brothers would [have],” said James Chaplin.
James and George grew up in separate homes - George with their parents, James with their grandparents.
As a result, James has few memories of his brother, but said on occasion he would find out George was “off with some guy in a truck taking pigs to the slaughterhouse or whatever. He rode around with truck drivers and that's how he kind of got around a little bit. He was different.”
“He had no encouragement from our parents, so he didn't get much of an education.”
Even at a young age, George had an enormous gift with animals, to the point where James believes that “he would have made a good veterinarian.”
Chicken George began to take shape in this era. The family had dogs, but he also learned the language of raccoons and other wildlife.
“I think he would have even taken in a skunk,” said James.
He was a bit of a drifter before he ended up in Halton Hills, travelling as far as Brooks, Alberta, likely hitching rides with truckers. James doesn’t know how, why or when his brother ended up in Halton Hills.
Margaret Tolton thinks it may have been some time in the late '60s. She's the wife of the late Fred Tolton, owner of Fred’s Towing.
Tolton remembers that George used to work for a recycling company in Brampton, but that company left the municipality and for one reason or another, he chose to move to Halton Hills.
“He met up with my husband because we had the (salvage) yard in Limehouse,” Tolton said. “So he went from there to having [my husband] put in a little house trailer for him. He lived on the [salvage yard] property for years."
Aside from being a minor local celebrity in Georgetown, he lived a relatively quiet and uneventful life. One of the highlights of his day was to watch the train go by on the tracks in between the conservation area and the yard. He spent a lot of time in Snelgrove, which is a former hamlet that straddles the border between Brampton and Caledon on Hwy. 10 and Mayfield Road. He documented his life on a camera he owned.
He worked as a night watchman at the yard - a title he gave himself as Tolton said he largely just “puttered about.”
It's not known what kind of government program he was on, but he was receiving some sort of social support. It's believed that he found his bicycle somewhere in the Toltons’ salvage yard. He would also receive food donations from locals as he became more known. He meandered around town on his bike to run his errands, Chuck Chuck in tow. The Chicken Man was hence born.
He continued his old habit of collecting animals, developing a veritable entourage at the salvage yard of raccoons, cats and a crow.
“He was just overrun. We had to get the animal control in. He was very upset that day,” Tolton said.
The family took care of him the best they could, driving him around and feeding him as needed. On many-a-Friday, he would come over for dinner at the Tolton house. While George was considered a family friend, Chuck Chuck was not allowed in the house.
Chaplin lived on the salvage yard property for decades, but the good times did not last. The yard was right in the middle of a residential area and just mere metres away from Limehouse Public School. Local residents weren't happy it was there and worked to have the site cleaned up. Eventually, the Town of Halton Hills bought the land in 2008 and cleanup began. George had to go.
Luckily for him, he met John Brotzel, owner of J.B. Trucks and Stuff from London. Brotzel probably remembers him the most fondly.
“He was sort of a clown wherever he went,” Brotzel said affectionately.
If there is one thing that everyone who knew him can agree on, it's that George Chaplin was an intensely funny man with a sharp, extremely quick wit.
Brotzel remembers his first meeting with George vividly and decided right there that he liked him.
“I forget why I went down [to Limehouse] – something about making arrangements to pick up the one machine we'd bought. That's when George came to the door of the trailer and he kind of looked out through a crack, and then I went to shake his hand [when he came out],” Brotzel said.
He remembers George gently saying, “You might not want to shake that hand, you don’t know where it has been.”
That memory still cracks Brotzel up because George reminded him of Marty Feldman from Young Frankenstein.
George would spend his last years in London, mostly living in the apartment above J.B. Trucks and Stuff with his animals. He would do odd jobs around the business as a second pair of hands of sorts. Whenever Brotzel bought a new car for his shop, George often drove it there - all this in exchange for room and board.
His time there wasn't long though as he was diagnosed with leukemia and his health deteriorated quickly. Brotzel did the best he could to help him, even moving him to a home close to Victoria Hospital in London. George, however, still would insist on working and not resting.
“He always wanted to show you how strong he was. I’d say, ‘George, take it easy.’ He would carry a battery all by himself,” Brotzel said.
On his final day, Brotzel remembers him being “funny right till the end.” George died later that same night in Victoria Hospital on Apr. 13, 2014.
They may not have been close, but James Chaplin would drive miles to help his brother throughout his life. This was no exception. He made all the funeral arrangements, and laid his ashes to rest in Centre Cemetery (8356 ON-30 Trent Hills, Northumberland County) near their hometown of Trent River.
Those of us still here are left to honour George Chaplin in our own ways. The Furnace Room Brewery will soon be doing just that by redesigning their beer can to reflect his likeness more accurately - a final legacy for the Chicken Man.