I have interspersed an Heirloom Poultry Breeds pictorial with today’s post. – EG
Raising Chickens on the Scheckel Farm
by Larry Scheckel of Tomah, WI
Matthew 23:37 “How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.”
Oh, did we raise chickens! It was a major source of income for the Scheckel family on the Oak Grove Ridge farm in the heart of Crawford County in southwestern Wisconsin in the 1940s and 1950s.
Mom and Dad bought chicks wherever the price was right, which means the lowest price. They would drive to Olewien or Cedar Rapids in Iowa or Prairie du Chien, in Wisconsin. The female laying White Leghorn chicks were received in April.
The Cornish Rock roosters were purchased in May. They were for slaughter and sold to stores in Prairie du Chien and Viroqua. Often, the baby chicks came by mail. Yes, the rural carrier mailman motored out of Lynxville and would have 4 or 5 boxes of the little peepers stacked up in the trunk of his car.
Dad and Mom received a postcard in the mail that gave the date the baby chicks were to arrive. There was always the worry over cold weather. Baby chickens need to be kept warm.
The big day arrived in late March or early April. The mailman pulled his Chevy Coupe into the driveway of the farmstead, instead of the usual mailbox stop. A rope from the trunk latch hung down over the boxes and was tied to the bumper.
All of us kids gathered around, getting as close as we dare. We could hear the chicks chirping and beeping away. We tried putting our finger into one of the air holes of a box. Mom scolds “back away kids”.
One by one the boxes were lifted out of the trunk, kept very level by the handler. Three or four boxes were stacked on our toy wagon. We fought over who got to pull the wagon tongue. Phillip usually did, he is bigger, he is older, and he gets first dibs.
Bob and I held the boxes in place atop the kids wagon as we slowly made the journey to the chicken coop. We paused by the door. Mom opened the door, removed the top box, placed it inside the coop, and close to one of the brooder heat lamps.
The boxes were about 2 feet on a side, and 5 inches high. The side of the boxes had an ample number of half-inch round holes so that the little chicks could get fresh air. Each box was partitioned into 4 compartments using cardboard walls. About 15 White Leghorn chicks were in each little compartment. This arrangement of cubicles prevented the chicks from crowding together and smothering each other.
We reached in the box and cradled a baby chick in both hands. Then we would dip the chick’s beak into the drinking fountain water. Baby chicks had to be taught how to drink water. Then we would place them ever so gently under the heat lamp, amid admonitions to “be careful not to squeeze them.”
We found them so small and cuddly. We were curious about their tiny yellow feathers, small black eyes, and beaks that opened and closed.
Chickens were Mom’s job. That was her undertaking. Dad would tend to the cows, horses, pigs, and sheep, but Mom raised the chickens.
The chicken coop or brooding house was prepared days in advance. Walls were cleaned, floor scraped clean, and disinfected with a smelly brown liquid applied with a wide paint brush and sprayer. That stuff was so bad it was later banned. But it did kill lice!
The brooder was installed. A contraption with a sheet metal hood, four sided, apron down to about 4 to 5 inches. A thermometer kept track of the temperature. Temp had to be about 95 degrees Fahrenheit.
Mom had to go out to check the temperature of the brooder almost every hour. Chicks soon develop their own heat, so the thermostat had to be turned down or backed off periodically.
We helped set up glass bubblers for water and small metal trays for chicken feed. Baby chicks needed warmth, water, food, and a quiet brooder house. Sudden, loud, sharp noises would frighten the wee fowl and they could bunch up in the corner and smother.
The Cornish Rock baby chicks arrived at the Scheckel farm in May. These roosters were raised for their meat in the local stores of Crawford County. Not all roosters are created equal. Once every few years there comes along a regal bird, so much bigger and haughtier than any other rooster on the farm. I was 12 years old, and one such specimen developed that year out of our 300 rooster flock.
This rooster strutted around the buildings, wearing a big bright red comb with a drooping wattle. The wattle is that fleshy piece of hanging down skin under the beak and combs. I later learned that the wattle helps cool the rooster by redirecting blood flow to the skin.
We kept our eye on this rooster. He was high entertainment for 3 boys and 3 younger sisters on that farm. We didn’t give him a name, just called him “Rooster,” and Rooster ruled. Other roosters moved out of his way. Hens cowered when Rooster appeared. My dog Browser wouldn’t go near Rooster. Rooster was invincible. Or so he thought.
It was a Saturday in August and the whole family was gathered around the morning breakfast table. The usual routine was get out of bed, do chores, milk cows, and come in for breakfast, and subsequently, the farm day work began. Mom announced that we needed a hen or rooster for Sunday dinner.
I don’t recall who said it first. But Rooster’s name came up. Yes, we all agreed. It was time for Rooster to become a meal. Rooster was big enough to feed 6 kids and 2 parents. Imagine the size of his wishbone. That would be a real prize! We gulped down our last bit of Oat Meal, bacon, and bread.
There was a problem. Before Rooster became a meal, he had to be caught. That would not be easy. Rooster was fast. Rooster was cunning. We had our work cut out for us. Bob went to the garage to fetch the chicken catcher – tool with a wooden handle and hook on the opposite end.
We spread out and walked around the barnyard, chicken coop, hog house, and corn crib. We were quiet and stealthy. Bob hid the chicken-catching-tool behind his back, lest Rooster was smart enough to figure out what was going on.
Phillip spotted Rooster between the chicken coop and the corn crib. He was majestically scratching the ground. Phillip put out the call, “I’ve found him.” There was a space about 10 feet wide between the corn crib and hog house with a fence on one side and chicken coop on the opposite side.
We talked strategy. Bob said, “Phillip, you stay here on this side, and Lawrence and I will go around the chicken house and come in on the other side, and then we’ve got Rooster trapped between us.”
That sounded like a good plan. Phillip was bigger than Bob and I, much more agile, faster, and athletic than both of us put together. Surely this plan was foolproof. Our two teams closed in. Rooster stopped scratching and raised his head. He sensed danger. The two teams approached slowly, quietly, and keeping Rooster between us.
Each team was about 5 feet from its quarry. But wily Rooster would have none of this. He jumps up, squawking loudly, wings flapping, and goes right between Bob and me.
Phillip yelled, “you let him get away.” Of course, we knew that. Oh, the shame of it all! We had a plan, a good plan, but Rooster overwhelmed Bob and I and made an escape. Now the chase was on. All three of us boys, Phillip, Bob, and Lawrence, now joined by our sisters, Catherine, Rita, and Diane.
Diane, we figured, was of no help at all. She was only 3 years old. She would only be in the way. But that did leave a posse of 5. Certainly 5 Scheckels could outthink, outsmart, outrun, and capture Rooster. All we wanted is for Rooster and be the centerpiece for our Sunday dinner!
We thought we had Rooster cornered several times. Each time Rooster rose up, flapped his wings wildly, and escaped. We lost sight of Rooster several times. But with 5 pairs of eyes he was quickly spotted.
Plan two or perhaps three or four. Phillip and Catherine will chase Rooster around the chicken coop. Bob, Rita, and I will stay put, hidden around the corner. When we hear Rooster approaching, we’ll jump out in Rooster’s path, and one of us will grab him.
Aw, it worked to perfection. Bob caught the wing of Rooster who put up a desperate struggle. But the rest of us closed in and finally got hold of his two feet, at which time the bird was doomed. Even on death’s doorstep Rooster put up a fight. Bending his head around and up so as to bite his captor. It was to no avail, Rooster met his end. I do believe he raised his head just in time to see the axe blade coming down. That Sunday meal was one of the best ever for the Scheckel family.