I recently read a wonderfully nostalgic piece in a farm journal about the baby chicks and clucking hens in the life of one Alvin Paulson, a retired farmer living in Clear Lake.
Paulson really nailed it in his essay about his father picking up baby chicks at the post office, taking them home, herding the little puff balls around before depositing them in the brooder house, where they would grow to hen-hood and become a big pain in the butt, except for the inevitable Sunday chicken dinner.
He told of his father's coal-fired heater that had to be just so, lest the chicks crowd into it or stayed away from it and froze their furry little behinds.
He told of the cunning watering spots that looked like upside down Mason jars, which worked great until the chicks got so big they knocked them over.
I'd forgotten those upside-down Mason jars, but I well remember the chicks. When I was a kid, my father farmed near Blair, once thought to be the Egg Capitol of Wisconsin.
We didn't go to the post office for our chicks. We went to Slette's Hatchery right in our town.
We knew the chicks were ready for purchase when we saw a bunch of Japanese guys walking on the streets of Blair. What were those Japanese guys doing running free when there was a war going on?
You know the answer.
They were sexing chicks for Oswald Slette.
Apparently Oswald could hatch chicks but he wasn't able to tell a girl chick from a boy chick. Japanese know how to do that.
They squeeze their little butts and Presto! Some go into one box and others go to the other.
Alvin Paulson mentions his dad always liked it when the Japanese made mistakes because that meant a fat rooster for Sunday dinner.
We were less fussy.
We kids especially liked it when some speed demon from Eau Claire or La Crosse ran over any chicken (we preferred Rock Island Reds to Leghorns) on Hwy. 93, which ran past our house.
That meant my mother would race out onto the road, butcher the chicken and serve it for supper that night.
The chickens that survived the onslaught of the souped up '36 Fords were a big part of our family's income.
After the miserable task of picking eggs and dodging the vicious beaks of the old clucking hens who figured it was their job to sit on eggs until they hatched, we brought the eggs to the egg room, where we washed off the feces and placed them in huge crates.
On Saturday night, we hauled them to town, where Art Beatty ran one egg station and my cousin's husband ran the other.
Alvin Paulson said that his folks bartered the eggs for salt and black thread and other necessities of farm life at the general store. He recalls that once in a while there were enough eggs to buy a wash dress for his mother.
A wash dress...How long has it been since I heard that term?
We had so many eggs we took the cash and, when times were good, that meant a Marigold ice cream cone at Thurston's restaurant or maybe a double feature at the State Theatre across from Beatty's egg station.
Other folks, I'm sure, had other agendas.
My friend Fern Martinson, dean of women at Augsburg College said of North Dakota, her natal place that "there wouldn't be a Lutheran church spire out there on the prairie if we had left it to the men. Our mothers' 'egg money' paid for those spires."
Alvin Paulson ended his wonderful essay by admitting that "I never cared much for chickens." God bless, you Alvin Paulson.
I thought I was done with the miserable critters when we left the farm, but that was not to be.
Twenty years later the Beautiful Wife and I bought a hobby farm. B.W. thought we needed to have animals on the farm. Cows were out of the question because who would milk them when we were back in Minneapolis teaching nine months of the year?
My father came up with an idea for which I have never forgiven him.
He had heard that a friend, who had a big layer barn, was selling off thousands of "blowouts," Leghorns who were past their prime.
So we asked Mr. Sonsalla if he would part with them. He said that Campbell Soup company pays him a quarter apiece.
So we bought two dozen for six bucks and brought them home to our long-vacated brooder house.
They were hopeless. Their beaks had been clipped to keep them from pecking each other to death. They had been caged so long they couldn't stand up or fly.
So we fed them egg mash at $10 a hundred. They began to lay and of course hide their eggs. They began to fly and fly up into our pine trees and drop do-do all over our lawn.
On the way to the mill for more egg mash, I traded a dozen eggs for a bottle of Leinie's (30 cents) at the Walgert Hotel and thought I had a good deal.
When we moved back to Minneapolis for the winter, we brought our chickens to the Amish, who decapitated and defeathered them and cleaned them up for B.W. to can them.
Oh, did I mention this? I detest the taste of chicken.