Chickens Paid the Price

Chickens Paid the Price

Reading Time: 5 minutes

By Dorothy Rieke – Grandpa John and Grandma Amelia would never admit it, but they bought the wrong farm at the wrong time. They purchased 87 acres of land before 1920. Unluckily, they were still making payments during the days of the Great Depression of the ‘30s. 

The land was fertile, but that farm was “cut-up” with a wooded creek that reduced the land suitable for farming to a little over 65 acres.  

During their time, 87 acres should have supported their family of five: Grandpa, Grandma, and two daughters, and one son. However, with little rain, dust storms, grasshoppers, and hot days, Grandpa struggled to raise enough crops to support his family and pay off his debt. Hanging wet sheets in place of window curtains during dust storms, fighting grasshoppers with large brooms, and praying for rain were common occurrences.  

One day the tall, dark-haired banker who had loaned Grandpa and Grandma money for buying their farm arrived at their rural home for a visit. He talked about the weather, asked them about their crops’ conditions, and then went on to make an unbelievable suggestion. 

Standing in front of the seated couple with his dark eyes blazing, he exclaimed, “You folks will never get this farm paid for. You might as well give up and move off. I’ll tell you what I’ll do to help. I’ll give you $50 if you move off this land by the end of the month lock, stock, and barrel. That’s my best offer!” 

Grandpa and Grandma could not have been more surprised. Hadn’t they made their payments on time? Even though those payments had been hard to come by, they were paying. 

The now unwelcome visitor soon sensed the couple’s fear and anger. “Well, I’ll let you think about my proposal, but don’t wait too long! I may change my mind, and then, where would you be?” 

My grandparents were stunned. Give up the land? Grandpa was undoubtedly thinking, “I’ve planted fruit trees and a nice garden. Buildings have been painted. A new well has been dug. All that labor for $50; that doesn’t seem right.” 

Weeks and months of worry passed. Then, the couple heard about the “New Deal” loan program for farmers who had purchased land. They could apply for a 20-year or a 40-year loan at low interest rates. Immediately, they applied for the 40-year loan and were accepted. They paid off the original loan and began making payments to the government.  

Grandpas increased his hog herd; Grandma increased her flocks of chickens.  

To discover the best breed of chickens for eating and egg-laying, Grandma tried Rhode Island Reds, Barred Plymouth Rocks, and Buff Orpington chickens. It was thought that lighter-weight chickens are better egg layers than heavy breeds, good meat producers. 

Grandma sold fertile and other eggs, she sold chickens alive or dressed, and she sold her angel food cakes, made with many egg whites. All these activities helped raise money to pay for the land.  

Eggs and chickens were valuable to farmers at that time: people often served eggs three times a day and prepared chicken in many ways for noon and evening meals. Fried chicken, a favorite for most families, was breaded and fried in lard. With its crispy coating and rich flavor, it could not be beat! Baked chicken was served on holidays or special Sundays when company came.  

Pressed chicken soon became a favorite meat dish: the cooked chicken was removed from the bones and cut into small pieces. After adding broth and herbs, they placed a heavy plate on top to press the pieces together. It could be served cold or warm, cut in slices, and church potlucks featured five or six dishes of pressed chicken.    

Each week, eggs were taken to the general store’s produce section to be candled and sold. Groceries, such as sugar, coffee, salt, and other items not produced on the farm, were purchased with the egg money. 

Grandma and Grandpa’s wedding photo.

The Chicken Thief 

Many bad things could occur to a flock of chickens. Disease often hovered over the flock. Animals such as foxes and coyotes were constant threats in early morning hours.  

Perhaps, one of the worst all-time threats was chicken thieves. Oh, yes, chicken thieves were present in almost all communities. There were always people during the Great Depression who could not find work or who did not want to work. A few of these people supplemented their food supply with plump, well-fed farm chickens. 

One night, Grandpa and Grandma were asleep in their upstairs bedroom. The north window, facing the chicken house, was open because the summer evening was hot and sultry.  

All of a sudden, Grandpa was awakened by hens calling for help.  

His first thought was that a fox had entered the henhouse. Truthfully, that building needed work, but there was little money for repairs once they paid the principal and interest payments.  

Grandpa jumped out of bed, pulled on his bib overalls, and put on his high-topped shoes. He rushed down the steep, narrow stairs to the dining room. Once downstairs, he ran to the dining-room door. Behind that door were his guns. He grabbed his shotgun loaded with birdshot.  

He rushed out the back door heading for the yard gate. He then opened the gate and began racing for the chicken house.  

He slammed into another human being! What? He staggered to a stop wondering what had occurred. 

The chicken thief, who had been in the chicken house catching hens and stuffing them in a sack, dropped his gunny sack and began running pell-mell toward the big gate between the driveway and the barnyard.  

Grandpa, now understanding what was happening, began racing toward the gate. Then, in the stillness of the night, Grandpa heard a plop. The man, crawling over the fence, must have caught his pants or foot on barbed wire stretched across the gate and fallen to the ground.  

Then Grandpa heard pounding footsteps on the driveway. He flung open the gate and began chasing after the fleeing thief.    

The thief raced out onto Highway 75, moving north at a swift pace. Grandpa was right after him but soon fell behind, out of breath. 

At that point, Grandpa must have thought in despair, “That thief is getting away!” Anger guided Grandpa’s next move. With deliberation, he raised his gun, aimed low, and fired.  

There was a strangled yelp. Grandpa heard a car start but could not see the car or the occupant. Soon, the car’s sound was lost in the night.  

The next morning, I’m sure the topic of conversation at the breakfast table was Grandpa’s encounter with the chicken thief. By the way, Grandpa found the sack of hens that next morning. He carried the sack and dumped the surprised hens in the hen house.  

Grandpa and Grandma celebrate their anniversary. 

Let me warn you. Do not do anything like this today. I am sure it would earn you a prison sentence. However, in those days, people had to face their own problems. 

If the economy would have been better, would these people have turned to thievery? My grandpa would have willingly given chickens to any man whose family was hungry.  

The days of the Great Depression were difficult, frustrating, and filled with hardship. Grandpa and Grandma finished paying for their land while in their seventies. They worked all their lives for that 87 acres. They faced each problem as it came and took time to help others. That was probably the answer to survival during that difficult time — people cared about others and shared with them.  

Originally published in the April/May 2021 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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