Taking a Break with Chickens
Reading Time: 6 minutes
By Dorothy Rieke Chickens! I never really thought about chickens. Oh, yes, Mother set hens and raised dozens of chickens each year. However, my lack of knowledge about chickens did not prevent me from “wolfing down” multiple pieces of Mother’s crispy fried chicken and smacking my lips.
It really all began when my best friend introduced me to the word “allowance.” Allowance was a new concept to me. Once I understood that allowance meant that my dad would give me money each week, I embraced that word with great enthusiasm.
I could not wait to try out this new word on my dad, so that afternoon during a water break, I inquired, “Daddy, will you give me an allowance?”
Dad looked at me in surprise. Then, he pronounced, “No, Dorothy, you have to earn your money.”
At this time, in America, the Great Depression was in “full swing,” bringing many changes to our lives. Everyone, including farm people, felt the pinch of unpaid bills, evictions from their homes and farms, and difficulties in providing necessities for their families. As I look back, I am sure that Dad, like our neighboring farmers, was utilizing every bit of his time and effort trying to provide for our family.
Money was in short supply. Because farmers earned 10 cents for a bushel of corn and sold hogs for two dollars each, there was no cash available. Bills were paid with produce. For example, 100 pounds of potatoes paid a repair bill. Truthfully, there was no money for an allowance, even one of 25 cents a week.
I replied, “But I would buy my own candy and,” desperately I added, “birthday and Christmas gifts for others.” (Christmas gifts for others often included 10-cent handkerchiefs or 59-cent boxes of chocolate cherries.)
Dad countered, “Why don’t you raise some chickens? That would give you some money.”
Chickens! I did not want to raise chickens! Close to tears, I felt disappointed. Why couldn’t I have an allowance?
However, as time passed, I realized raising chickens might be an easy way of getting my hands on some money. How hard could raising chickens be?
My first thoughts were that I was afraid of those old hens because some of them pecked me as I tried to gather eggs. They scared me with their “hands-off” attitude. They must have been “setting” hens. How could a mere girl, know their intentions? I could not help it if I interrupted their schedule.
I finally relented. I told Dad and Mom I would raise chickens. After school was closed in May, Mother selected some setting hens. We housed them in the cob house, now nearly empty of cobs. Dad furnished the feed.
Mother helped me with my chicken-raising project. Soon we had four broody hens chosen to be mothers to my chickens. Broodiness is the instinct to sit on eggs until they hatch. They also were inclined to peck if I tried to remove their eggs.
How excited I was! I cared for the hens seeing that they had daily water and feed. I turned the eggs as Mother instructed. Cleaning up after the hens was not pleasant, but inspired by money, I persisted in keeping the cob house clean with a shovel and fresh straw.
I would soon need feeders and water containers for the baby chickens. Here was another job of cleaning some of Mother’s feeders and water containers.
I was excited when the first little chickens broke out of the eggs. That process seemed remarkable! It was indeed a miracle, I thought. Those little chickens were so cute. Why couldn’t they stay that way? Then began my exhaustive care of those little chickens and their mothers.
Only about 25 chickens were born, but I felt I was “in the business.” I practically lived with those four hens and their chicks.
Little chickens were at risk from several sources. Hungry rats, desperate for food, were known for eating holes in buildings to get at chickens; snakes, liking eggs, extended their appetites to small chickens. During heavy rains, chicks could drown with a careless mother hen. Disease was also a factor to heed.
I cleaned out small coops that would be homes for the hen and chickens. What a nasty job that was! I then decided along the way that raising chickens was not going to be “easy money!”
Finally, the hens were returned to the hen house. Then, the real work began as I took their places watching those chickens. All day I was a “chick sitter.” It seemed to me that dangers came from above in the form of hawks and below in the form of snakes, rats, coyotes, and raccoons.
Those chickens were frustrating, at times. For example, they had no sense at all when it came to danger. In fact, they seemed eager to endanger their lives by squeezing under fences, challenging cats, and standing out in the rain.
As they grew older, they insisted on perching in trees at night. Dad told me this was a bad idea as they left the trees early mornings when the foxes and coyotes were searching for meals.
Some evenings, my sister and I spent time making weird sounds and yelling making the young chickens flee from their high perches into the chicken house. Honestly, I began to wonder how smart chickens were!
Chickens often ignored signs of storms. Evidently, pecking at the ground gave them no idea of what was happening in the skies. Before storms, I ran outside chasing my chickens to safety.
Disease also entered the picture during a rainy time. My chickens caught coccidiosis. I lost some to that horrible disease. I still had some I would sell.
That fall, I had twenty chickens to sell. I asked Jake, the general store owner, about the market prices of fryers every day, waiting for the highest price per pound. Sixteen cents a pound was a good price for a chicken at that time. I would soon have money for Christmas presents. If the prices were high, I carried a gunny sack of chickens to the store to be weighed. Then, I collected the money for them.
I never did connect with my chickens as I did with my cats and dog. I guess I was too “money-hungry” to be sentimental about selling them. I wanted the money to buy things.
That first year was followed by other years of raising chickens. I soon regarded myself as an expert at raising chickens. Actually, I put away all the money I could. Some of that money helped pay my college expenses in the coming years.
Then, too, buying presents for others gave me such a wonderful feeling. The little blue and white painted porcelain Dutch couple, carrying pails, I gave my sister for Christmas one year, remained in her kitchen for years. The chickens allowed me to buy things for those I loved. That was a great benefit.
As I reviewed my first experience of raising chickens, I felt depressed. However, once the money began coming in, I felt proud of myself and planned the next year’s chicken-raising activities.
Chickens were just one of the farm assets of the days of the Great Depression. Hogs, too, were known as “mortgage lifters.” They could be readied for market long before other animals. Most of us on farms profited greatly from butchered hogs. The variety of meat, lard, and even cracklings were all important to menus at that time. Neighbors always shared our butchered meat. One lady always took the tongue and heart. Others were given steaks and chops.
Dad often raised a hog for me. Then, he gave me the money to put away for my college fund.
Cows provided milk, cream, and butter, all important sources of calcium. Nearly every week, Mother turned the crank on her glass churn watching the cream slowly separate into particles of butter. That soft fresh butter spread on fresh, homemade bread was “food of the gods,” always pleasing with its superb taste. Chicken was also a food source as well as a source of income. We often ate eggs three times a day, always savoring them as Mother had different ways of cooking them.
We ate chicken prepared in many different ways. That first fried chicken of the season was “superior food” for us. Its brown crusty, flavorful, and moist meat made chicken a favorite with every family member.
Like eggs, chicken could be prepared in different ways. We had stewed roosters, baked hen, scalloped chicken, chicken salad, chicken pot pie and pressed chicken. Pressed chicken was a great favorite as it could be eaten cold or warm.
Chickens! I continue to recall my work with chickens. Even after I was married, I raised chickens. I killed, dressed, and froze chickens for winter meals, I sold chickens to townspeople.
Poultry is a source of high-quality protein that can be enjoyed hot or cold in a variety of dishes, casseroles, soups, stews, salads, and more. The fat in chickens is mainly in the skin. So, if the skin is removed, most of the fat is gone.
The manure can be used after being part of compost. It becomes a money-saving practice because fertilizer for gardens remains expensive. It is an invaluable soil builder for gardens.
Chickens represent a backyard organic exterminating service. They eat insects that are destined to devour garden produce. They also like to eat weeds.
Even better is involving family members in chicken raising. Much can be learned through their association with chickens and such an activity brings family members closer together. As a youth, I learned patience, responsibility, perseverance, honesty, and reliability, and the value of money.
Raising chickens is much like raising tomatoes in a garden. It is a practice, not just to earn money, but it is something people love to do. Why not enjoy the advantages, the charms, and the skillsets of raising chickens?
Originally published in the June/July 2020 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.