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Original twitter: Elgin’s Ed Schmidt, 96, to be featured in ‘The Pigeoneers’

Pigeoneer Ed Schmidt Elgin. | Mike Danahey/Sun-Times Medi

Pigeoneer Ed Schmidt of Elgin. | Mike Danahey/Sun-Times Media

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Updated: March 5, 2014 6:05AM

ELGIN — Way before there were drones for the military and Twitter for sending messages, there were guys like Ed Schmidt.

Schmidt, 96, a lifelong Elginite, has been raising and training homing pigeons since he was 6 years old and growing up in Woodstock.

The hobby led to joining the Elgin Homing Pigeon Club and racing the birds as a teen, working with the animals in the Army Signal Corps while stationed in Hawaii during World War II, and to work as a civilian as an auctioneer and pigeon appraiser.

And this year, Schmidt is to be featured in a documentary about the role that he and others like him had in the military.

“I am currently in post-production for both of the films (‘The Pigeoneers II’ and ‘The Pigeoneers III’) and am anticipating to release the films in 2014,” New York filmmaker Alessandro Croseri stated in an email. “When the films are released on DVD, they will be available for purchase on my website store (”

Croseri said he met Schmidt through Ed Gergits, who also will be featured in “Pigeoneers III”. The filming took place in Chicago in the fall of 2007. “The Pigeoneers” projects are a tribute to the war efforts of the soldiers and the birds they trained.

Early interest

Schmidt said he came to his youthful interest in pigeons through a neighbor, one fittingly named Homer Mann.

“It’s all his fault,” Schmidt joked.

With homing pigeons, the birds are gradually trained to return home from farther and farther away. Schmidt said pigeons can make 100 miles in two to three hours, weather permitting.

As a youth, he and friend Ralph Walker set records for pigeons covering 1,000 miles in two days and three hours, and 1,200 miles in two days and seven hours, he said.

For the 1939-1940 Golden Gate International Exhibition, Schmidt said, he sent five birds to San Francisco. One made it back to Illinois — in 15 days.

After being among the first 3,500 draftees for World War II, Schmidt said his background led to him being assigned to the Fighting 279th Pigeoneers, which would train birds that would be used in the Pacific theater.

The pigeons were prized for their reliability and for being able to get messages quickly to nearby troops, and over valleys and mountains that the radio technology of the day couldn’t penetrate. According to Schmidt, the birds were 99 percent accurate with their deliveries.

They were enough of a threat that enemy gunners would target them — adding to the birds’ list of threats that still today include birds of prey, wires and hunters.

To train the birds for battlefield purposes, they were kept in what were called lofts — ooops for 35 birds arranged in the back of a pickup truck. The loft setups were such that either the same unit was used in the field or one identical to it was, as the birds homed in on these based in part on how they looked.

Schmidt worked to train some of the birds to fly at night and others to have two homes. The latter was done by conditioning them with one site holding their water and the other their food.

As for how the birds are able to navigate back from an unfamiliar location to their homes or makeshift homes, Schmidt noted that research — particularly that done by Cornell University scientists — now is pointing toward sound frequencies as the possible key.

It’s a fascination with how this process works that has kept Schmidt interested in pigeons to this day.

Bird checks

Returning home from the war with aspirations to be a veterinarian, Schmidt worked for a time at the Bowes Station feed store and resumed membership in the Elgin Homing Pigeon Club.

Schmidt said he also wound up working for five years in a lucrative job for hatcheries, doing blood tests and identifying the sex of chicks — before the poultry industry moved to the South.

“I was accurate 97 percent of the time. We would get paid a penny a chick, and I could inspect seven to 12 in a minute,” he said.

In 1946, through pigeon club friends, he was asked to oversee an auction of pigeons, along with pigeon- and household-related items. Self-taught in the field, auctioneering and appraising are things Schmidt still pursues, traveling across the Midwest and South to do it.

“I have a big mouth, I guess,” Schmidt quipped as to why he has found success with a business he calls Ability.

Schmidt also wound up working for the Milk Specialties Co. in East Dundee, then as a sales manager for an English feed brokerage.

For a time, he was president of the Chicago Feed Club. It’s an honor — along with being past president and hall of fame member of the American Pigeon Racing Union — of which he remains proud.

With jobs that involved a lot of traveling, Schmidt said his wife, Norma, was of utmost help.

“She took care of the birds when I was gone — and of our Brittany Spaniels.” Schmidt said.

That could mean watching between 80 and 100 older birds, and between 50 and 60 young ones at any one time.

Norma passed away four years ago. In that same time frame, Schmidt also got rid of or donated pigeon-related items, a good amount of memorabilia, and farmed out what birds he had to friends in Florida and Tennessee. Still, he remains active in the hobby.

“They’re nice people. It’s a family deal,” he said of those involved in pigeoning.

As for his long life, Schmidt attributes it genetics and never taking up smoking. While he’s been known to knock back a cocktail or two, Schmidt surmised the real key has been remaining active.

He has a girlfriend, now, too. She‘s woman in her 50s he met at another restaurant — a point that sometimes leads to kidding by waitresses at Paul’s Family Restaurant in Elgin where he’s a five-day-a-week regular with a group of buddies, and who know Schmidt, his jokes and his stories.

“I’ve been very fortunate,” Schmidt said.

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