By Bob Wood.
Title image: Boys with prize rooster. Mennonite Heritage Center Collection.
In the old days the morning light of farms, villages, and towns was filled with the sound of roosters crowing, for almost every place had some chickens. Chickens of yesteryear were perhaps not the calm fat hens of today, but tended rather to be thin, tough, rangy, and somewhat wild.
Chickens, Hinkeln in the dialect, were found not only on farms but also many village and town backyards. These fowl were a hodgepodge of breeds of whatever stock was imported. Dung-hill fowl as they were known in Colonial Pennsylvania were the most humble of livestock requiring virtually no care or housing. Free ranging in the extreme, chickens then had the barnyard, orchard, and all the areas around the house and nearby fields to search for succulent greens, grubs, bugs and scattered seeds.
Not in the garden!
The kitchen garden, however, was strictly off limits. Usually surrounded by a picket fence (in later years a fence of “chicken-wire”) the garden was sacrosanct. If a chicken flew over the fence in search of delicacies, she might get the feathers of one wing clipped so she couldn’t fly, and if she continued to find her way into the garden she might be the main course for Sunday dinner.
An article in the New Holland Clarion February 13, 1897, tells of one housewife’s different strategy: “Chickens, then as now were inveterate scratchers. The garden patch was their delight. To get the garden enclosed with a fence was more labor than the laboring man could apply. Well, our mother rose equal to the task by enclosing the old hens’ feet in socks fastened tight around their legs….”
In the old days chickens were fed, if at all, only in the depths of winter. When snow covered the ground a few handfuls of corn, buckwheat, oats, or perhaps a few ears of corn or potato peelings might be thrown to them, but no doubt on many farms the chickens got mighty thin by spring.
Nesting and brooding
In the early years chickens produced few or no eggs during the winter months. With the coming of spring, green grass, and insects for protein, they would start to lay eggs for three or four months and then stop. A good layer then might produce upwards of one hundred eggs a year. They didn’t scatter them at random but made nests in secluded spots where they returned each day or so to lay additional eggs.
Nests could be hidden in any secluded spot inside or out. They might be in the wagon shed, under the corn crib, in the straw or hay mow, outside along fence rows or in weedy brush. It was the responsibility of the smaller children to take the egg basket scout out the nests and gather the eggs. Most of the eggs produced were used in the farm kitchen for cooking and baking.
In the spring if there were a rooster or two in the barnyard to fertilize eggs, some of the hens produced a distinctive “clook” (rhymes with “look”) sound, and this “clook-clook-clooking” showed they had become broody and nature was calling them to establish a nest and hatch chicks. The hen usually nested directly on the ground, under buildings, or in some other secluded spot. Being on the ground the eggs received the necessary humidity, and the hen turned them with her bill several times a day. Unless the eggs are regularly turned the developing chicks will perish. The hen remained on her nest more or less continuously, leaving only for water and a bit of food. Egg shells are porous and the oxygen necessary for the chick’s development permeates them and the membrane beneath. About twenty days after the hen begins to sit, the chicks, bieblin in the dialect, hatched and accompanied the hen in her forays.
The mother hen was as protective of her chicks as a…well…mother hen. She would guard them from the barn cats during the day and rats at night. Outdoors she kept a careful eye to the sky producing an eerie, soft, siren like cry if a hawk or other large bird soared overhead. With this cry she would hunker down and spread her wings, and the chicks would scurry under this protective umbrella.
Chicks grow rapidly. They fledged in a few weeks and could begin laying eggs by the fall. Extra eggs could be bartered at the store or taken to market by the local huckster. Any little money that came in from eggs usually went to the distaff side of the family.
Of course, one-half of the chicks were roosters. These were kept as a quick and ready source of Sunday dinner if guests or, say, the minister visited. The housewife could kill and clean a rooster in a few minutes.
Raising poultry on the farm
It was toward the end of the nineteenth century that barnyard chickens gave way to poultry husbandry with the introduction of chicken houses of various designs and selective breeding and feeding of the flock culminating in the twentieth century poultry and egg industry.
Compared to the caged layers in today’s “factory farms,” most chickens of yesteryear lived in idyllic conditions. On our farm, which was I suppose rather typical, preparation for chicks began in late winter with the thorough cleaning of brooder houses. Small, round, coal burning stoves were set up, each with a broad sheet metal skirt called a “hoover” extending outwards around the upper part of the stove. This provided a warm and sheltered refuge that mimicked the protection of a mother hen’s wings.
Peanut hulls were spread a few inches thick on the floor around the stove and covered with newspaper on which the disinfected chick feeders and waterers were placed.
On a specific day in March, Pop would drive to the George M. Anthony Hatchery in Strausstown where the chicks that he had ordered were by then hatched, sexed (males discarded), and boxed, 100 to a box. He would get perhaps ten boxes with two boxes of chicks put around each stove.
From their first day chicks were fed finely ground cracked corn soaked in buttermilk, chick grit, and “starter” mash. After about six weeks they went outside for the summer, and by September they had started to lay eggs and were then housed for a year or sometimes two before they were sold for meat.
Pop had set up a small coal stove in the cave (our name for the root cellar). In that dark, warm climate, racks held burlap bags of oats in various stages of germination until after about a week the sprouts were several inches long. Twice a day he would mix a bag of sprouted oats with the layers’ mash (a dry, feed formula) along with buttermilk. The chickens also had constant access to containers of ground oyster shells for calcium needed to produce egg shells and granite grit. Having no teeth, chickens and most other birds hold small pebbles in their crop, a sort of muscular pre-stomach, where their food is ground by the action of the stones.
The object of all this was, of course, eggs. With modern breeding and feeding, the chickens usually laid an egg a day. A hen’s oviduct holds at any time several eggs in various stages of development, a sort of assembly line. Sometimes an exceptionally large egg would be laid that had a double yoke. Sometimes, too, the opposite was found, an exceptionally small egg with no yoke at all. In the old days this was called an umglicks oy, an unlucky egg. Superstition held that you should never bring an unlucky egg into the house. Sometimes an egg that had no shell at all was found in the nest, just the membrane holding the contents together.
Even if there were a whole bank of nests available, hens tended to crowd into just a few, sometimes three or four into a nest at the same time with the predictable result of many broken eggs. A common practice, which we employed, was to place one porcelain or white glass egg in each nest to make all the nests seem equally attractive and encourage hens to use the otherwise unoccupied ones.
Back when farmers did their own butchering and made their own soap, eggs had additional uses. To make a pickling brine for smoking meats enough salt had to be dissolved in water to float an egg. “Es muss en oy drawe [It must float an egg]” they used to say. Likewise, lye made from leaching water through wood ashes had to float an egg before it was ready to make soap.
Although not related to chickens, the following poultry anecdote is too good to pass up and I mention it here as an interesting tidbit. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, all roads by law had to be lined with fences since droving was a common way of transporting livestock. The following observation is from the writing of Julius F. Sachse and illustrates chickens’ and other fowls’ powerful roosting instinct. It describes a sight he witnessed along the Lancaster Pike: “One of the curious sights common in the fall of the year were flocks or armies of fowls, generally turkeys but now and then geese, being driven toward the city. They were divided into lots of 50-75 with a ‘shooer’ in charge of each lot. He had a long pole with a piece of red flannel fastened to the end. The best time on the road was not much over a mile an hour.
“As soon as it commenced to get dark the fun began. The birds were determined to go to roost and notwithstanding all the efforts of the drovers they generally did. The stampede usually took place in passing an orchard or grove of trees. In much less time than it takes to tell it the trees were black with birds and the day’s journey was ended for the turkeys. Not so for the drovers who had to watch the birds all night to prevent theft.”
Informant Alan Keyser adds the following note: “Bob Bucher was the only drover I spoke with who had experience droving turkeys. He said to get them to move forward one of the crew went ahead and dropped kernels of shelled corn on the road. This brought the lead turkey following the corn and being flock animals the rest followed not knowing that their leader was eating better than the rest. They were still doing this into the 1920s, and by then there was an occasional automobile on the road. Separating the turkeys to allow the car to pass was enough of a problem, but getting them back and moving in the right direction again was another problem. At night they kept watch with a shot gun to keep would be turkey thieves at bay.”
Goschenhoppen Historian Bob Wood has researched, written and spoken extensively about PA Dutch folk culture topics and can be found at the Antes House during the Goschenhoppen Folk Festival.