Between the ages of 5 and 12, I lived with my parents on Wilton Street in Greenville SC. My Mom and Dad made their living by running a small business, a retail coal yard. They sold coal to customers to burn in their homes for heat. My Dad learned this business because his father had started a coal business in Greenville.
I don’t recall being poor, but then, we weren’t rich. My mom decided to make a little extra pocket money by raising chickens and selling eggs to our neighbors. My Dad knew how to do this because he was raised on a farm in Folk Shoals SC, and he know how to do all those farm things like raising and picking cotton, taking care of horses and mules, plowing, milking cows, and raising and butchering hogs. Of course, they also had chickens, which they raised to produce eggs, and also to provide the occasional southern fried chicken dinners.
So, on Wilton Street, one day my Dad brought home a load of lumber in a coal truck, and he built a chicken coop behind the house and behind the garage. It wasn’t big… perhaps 20 feet by 30 feet. It consisted of a “coop”… a type of small shed where the chickens could roost and keep warm. In the coop, there were perhaps 30 or so “roosts”, a sort of a box or nest, where each chicken could sit at night, or whenever they wanted to lay an egg. The roosts were arranged in layers, with about 4 layers from top to bottom. Each roost had straw that I replaced every two weeks or so.
In addition, the coop had a “run”, where the chickens could come outside and walk around and where they got their feed and water. There was also a box where Mom would bring out table scraps for the chickens. They loved wilted lettuce. The whole thing was enclosed by thin wire called chicken wire, so the chickens could not get loose.
So, we got our first flock of chickens, and I recall my Dad bringing them home. They were hens that were almost, but not quite grown. We had about 20 or so. Dad released then into the coop. Of course, at first, I was quite fascinated by all this… I was about 6 years old.
Well, it wasn’t long before my Dad said to me, “Your job is taking care of the chickens!” I replied, “I don’t know how!”
He said, “I will teach you, but before long, you have to learn to do it by yourself..” Somewhat doubtful, I said, “OK.”
So I started to learn. First, he showed me how to put water into the watering trough. He told me how important it was that they should never run out of water, and said they would die within a day or two if they did not have water. (Later, one chicken did die because of lack of water, which made me sad, so I learned the hard way.)
Then, he showed me how to put the feed in the feeding troughs. There were two kinds: The first was the “laying mash” that was supposed to both feed them and to stimulate them to lay eggs. Looking back now, I wonder if this type of feed has some kind or hormone to speed up the natural egg laying process. And then there was the corn feed, which mainly was hardened kernels of corn that had been removed from the cob. I liked this the best, because I would take a bag, and then strew the corn on the ground, and the chickens would freak out going after the corn. They loved it.
Then, he taught me how to collect the eggs. About 90% of the eggs were laid in the small roosts. I collected them with a straw basket. Occasionally, however, I would find one on the ground. He showed me how to feel around in the straw to find the egg. Most of the time, I could see the egg, but sometimes it was hidden in the straw, and I had to feel around to find the egg. When the hens were laying good, I would find eggs in more than half of the roosts. My Dad said a good hen would lay an egg every day.
So I started this chore. My job was to tend to the chickens each day immediately after I came home from school. I couldn’t go play, and even my homework waited until the chicken tending was done.
It wasn’t hard to learn, and by the end of two weeks or so, I knew what had to be done and how to do it. At first, my Dad would take me out and we would check on the chickens every night when he came home from work. He would tell me if there was not enough water or mash, and ask me if I had given them the corn feed. He would also check each of the roosts, and he would sometimes find an egg I had missed.
I would deliver the eggs to the kitchen, where my Mom would clean them and arrange them into paper bags of a dozen each. By the way, almost all of these were the brown eggs, which we think of today as “organic”. These eggs came from the Rhode Island Reds, which my Dad said were the best layers. But we also had a few Leghorns, which were white chickens, and laid white eggs. My mom would separate the brown from the white eggs, and, I think in those days, she charged an extra 5cents per dozen for the white eggs. She would then call on the neighbors 2 or 3 times a week, and deliver orders, and take orders for the next delivery. She kept the money from this for herself, and she called it her “egg money.” She would use this to buy things for herself (and children), and occasionally gave me a dime for “helping out with the chickens.”
Sometimes I would go out with her visits to the neighbors, and carry extra bags of eggs in my red “flyer” wagon. I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back, I realize my Mom was very popular in the neighborhood. She knew everyone, and everyone knew and liked her.
After the first few weeks, my Dad stopped checking the chickens each night, but he would look in on them every 4 or 5 days, and every weekend. So, I knew what had to be done, and how to do it, but actually getting it done was a different thing. Every once in a while, I would go out and play with a friend, and forget to do the chores. My Dad would come home, and take me out to the coop, give me a scolding, and watch me as I then did the chores. Of course, he was very disappointed, and he would frown and say something like…”Now Toby… this is your job, and you need to take care of it.” Every once in a while, he would find the water trough empty, and this would really disturb him. He would say, “Toby… do you want these poor chickens to die?” Actually, this would really affect me, because by then, I knew each chicken individually, and to me, they were my friends. I could pick them up and pet them.
About once or twice a year, my Dad would bring new chickens in. Sometimes, I would go with him to buy the new chickens. He ordered them ahead of time from a hatchery, and we would drive out to pick them up. Once we got started, he bought baby chicks, or “peepers” as they were called. They were these cute yellow chicks that you could hold in your hand. I always liked this, and would occasionally play with the peepers because they were soft and cuddly. We kept them in a special box that had a light bulb to keep them warm, and my Dad would check on them once or twice a day until they grew to be about half size. Eventually, they would grow up to be hens, and I would get to know each of them individually.
Well, most… but not all… grew up to be hens. Occasionally we would get a rooster. Much later, when I was over 30 years old, I learned that there is a special job called a “chicken sexer”. This person takes each peeper, turns it upside down, and looks at its genitals, and then places the chick in either the “male” or “female” box. But, this is an inexact skill. Chicken sexers often make mistakes. Thus, occasionally, one of our peepers would turn out to be a rooster.
My Dad did not like it when we got a rooster. I asked him why, and he said, “Why because they don’t lay any eggs!” In addition, since I knew each of the chickens individually, I could see that the roosters were “barnyard bullies”. Also, they often woke us up too early with their crowing.
But roosters didn’t last long… they were the first ones in the frying pan for Sunday dinner.
So I took care of the chickens for as long as we lived on Wilton Street, which I think was about 6 or 7 years. It just became something that I did… it was a part of my life. They were my friends. I would hold and pet them as if they were a puppy. I remember when we would sit on the back steps and eat watermelon, and then I would take the watermelon rinds down to the chicken coop and throw them in. The chickens loved the watermelon, and would pick the red part totally clean until no red was showing.
Most of the time, things went smoothly. But there were glitches. For example, once or twice a year, I would forget and leave the door to the coop open, and the chickens would escape. Uh-Oh… my Dad would come home and he would be furious. He would say, “Did you forget again? What happens if they go somewhere else?” (which, of course… they never did). He would ask me why I had not caught them and put them back in the coop, and I would answer… “I can’t catch them!”
So, we would go out together and my Dad would show me how to catch and shoo the chickens back into the coop. Now, why it is that a grown man could catch a chicken but a ten year old boy could not? Later in life, I guessed that he was more knowledgeable about this because, like me, he had let the chickens escape when he was a boy.
My Dad was really good with animals. He could make my dog Tippy do all sorts of tricks, and I couldn’t get Tippy to do anything. I once had a pet squirrel that I kept in a cage. His name was Pete. One day I was playing with him and he got away and ran up a tree. I called and called, but he just sat up in the tree and looked at me. Later, my Dad came home and it was almost dark, and I was crying to him that Pete had ran away. So, my Dad and I went out back, and my Dad called “Pete!” only twice, and Pete came flying out of the tree and landed on my Dad’s shoulder. He was really great with animals. I think this was because he grew up on a farm. He used to say that the hogs were more intelligent than the dogs, and the horses were the dumbest animals.
And then there were the rats. Yes, RATS! I would occasionally see one and they were BIG! The rats would prey on the chickens, and especially the peepers. My Dad would count the peepers every morning and every night. When we started to lose one peeper per day, he went out and got some rat poison, and that seemed to take care of the problem. Also, he did like to keep one rooster around, because he said the roosters were not afraid of the rats.
Then, there was the issue of how things ended for the chickens. If new chicks came in each year, then old chickens went out!
My Dad seemed to have a sense of which chickens were the good egg layers and which were not. Also, he said that hens did not lay eggs as well when they got old. Thus, it was important to know each hen individually and how old they were.
Eventually, every hen came to an end, which was always sad for me. In addition to providing eggs, the hens provided fried chicken and roast chicken. This would typically come on a Sunday, and my Dad would go out Sunday morning to get a chicken for dinner. Since I knew the chickens individually, this was very distressing to me, and I refused to participate. My Dad seemed to understand this, and never made me participate in this part of raising chickens.
So, how does one kill a chicken? One thinks about the hatchet, and I did see chickens get their head chopped off… it was very bloody! Now remember, I knew each of these chickens individually! But there is another way… we had an African American maid who would take the chicken by the head, and then do a quick twist to break the chicken’s neck. They called this “wringing the neck” of the chicken. The chicken would then flop around for a minute or two as it was dying. Then, the chicken would be soaked in very hot water and the feathers plucked. Later, my mom and the maid would cut the chicken up in the kitchen.
One year my Dad bought a couple of ducks which we also kept in the chicken coop. I liked the ducks, because they were different, and I liked the funny way they waddled around the coop, and the way they quacked. I gave each of them a name. They did not lay any eggs, so I asked him why we were keeping the ducks. My Dad said “So we can have them for Easter Dinner.” Easter came, and he went out back Easter morning to get one of the ducks. He took the hatchet. I wouldn’t have anything to do with this, so I stayed inside – I was in my room sniffing and trying not to cry. But I could hear the duck, with pitiful, slow “quaaack…quaaack… quaaack…” – and then – “quaaaakkkkk!”. We did have the duck for dinner, but I refused to eat any of it! Everyone at the table was quietly chucking because I wouldn’t eat any duck, but they did not make fun of me.
We moved away from Wilton Street to Battle Creek Michigan when I was 12 years old. My Dad sold all of the chickens. I almost cried when I saw them going out the driveway. But then, I thought it was time to move beyond chickens, so I never kept chickens for the rest of my life. Once, in Austin TX, my son Jonathan showed me a pen of chickens, and I remembered the time of my life when I took care of chickens, and I could tell which were the Rhode Island Reds, and which were the Leghorns.
As I think about it now, at the time, I was a bit cynical then and I thought my Dad was making me take care of the chickens because he was too lazy and wanted me to do his work. But later, I realized that he came from a farm life, and everyone… I mean everyone… on the farm did some type of work. He was treating me like he had been treated. Also, later, I concluded that my Dad was anything but lazy. In fact, he was a very hard worker and very industrious. He continued this for most of the rest of his life.
I don’t know if my Dad was deliberative in his thoughts, but there certainly are life lessons to be learned from taking care of chickens. First, you have to be disciplined about doing small things that are seemingly insignificant at the time, but, over time, are really important. Next, I learned that it was important to care when something (later, someone) was dependent on me. My Dad was right… if I didn’t do my job, the chickens would die. And, as I came to have a sort of love for my chickens, I realized that you have to behave in a responsible way if others depend on you. Of course, this train of thought was too deep for me at the time, but later…now… I realize that taking care of chickens is good training for taking care of yourself and others who depend on you.
Every once in a while, I do think of the chickens and how I miss them. However, now we have dogs, and, dogs are better!