(Do you remember mail and chickens being delivered by train? This is a cute story that will bring back memories. Enjoy the song at the end.)
AIN’T NO SPRING CHICKENS
Arthur “Art” E. Green
Barred Rocks, Rhode Island Reds, White Leghorns, Bantams and those pretty black-and-white-speckled Dominiques (pronounced by us Dominikers). All these names from long ago conjure up thoughts of spring for me. Spring was time for my parents to decide which chicks we would order for the year. It was somewhat like looking at the seed catalogue.
Sweeten the deal
Each breed of chicken had different characteristics which would make the grown bird unique and useful such as “good layer,” “strong and robust,” “good tender meat,” etc. Big decisions—after all this would be our walking meat and egg market for the year—even our alarm clock. This was in a time when you could sweeten the deal on selling your house if you threw in a good bantam rooster who was a dependable crower at daylight (he would also crow at midnight whatever good that was). We had a blend of all of the above as well as some other breeds over the years.
Box had air holes
After the decision was made and the order placed, the fuzzy yellow peeping baby chicks came by Western of Alabama Railroad to the Tyler train depot enclosed in a yellow cardboard box with circular holes for ventilation all along the sides.
The box was constructed with a number of interior compartments for the babies within. Our order was usually for 100, and the company always included a few extras in case some didn’t make it. Mr. Quarles, the station and postmaster, would send word to us by the rural free delivery postman that our chicks had arrived.
Big Black Steam Engine roared by
If luck was good when we went to pick up the shipment, I would get to see the big black steam train come roaring by. If there was no freight for Tyler (there was seldom any freight for Tyler), it would just thunder on by in a cloud of steam, smoke, sparks and dust with the steam whistle screaming for the road crossing.
The train would pick up the outgoing mail without stopping by means of a hook on the mail car which retrieved the grey canvas outbound Tyler mail pouch from a tall iron post beside the track.
Hook on train grabbing mail
Mail delivered by train
The post had an extension arm where the pouch had been hung by the postmaster to await the scheduled train.
Meanwhile the mail clerk on board would toss the incoming Tyler pouch out the car door where it landed with a dusty tumble in the red dirt road in front of the Tyler depot. Sure hope there were no breakables! At the depot there were always communications “up and down the line” by telegraph key which was also mysterious and fascinating for a kid to watch.
Mail Clerk tossing bundle
Light bulb kept chicks warm
Dad built a brooder coop for the babies which had an electric light bulb to keep them warm. It was a swell brooder coop and looked store bought. It had an enclosed wooden room about eight inches high which contained the warming light bulb and was complete with a little glass window so that you could check on the chicks from time to time.
A sliding door opened to an outside wire enclosure so they could come out to eat and drink when the weather warmed. The entire thing was about eight feet long and stood about three feet high on wooden legs. The chicks would stay in the brooder coop until they were big enough to scratch with the big chickens in the yard.
Typical chicken coop (Library of Congress)
Once my dog, Pete, peed on the coop while there was a short in the wire for the light bulb and got the shock of his life, but then that’s a whole other story.
Sometimes had to fool a hen into laying
We also had a chicken house with a roost and wooden nest boxes filled with straw for the layers. Each nesting box had a wooden ladder up to it for the hens easy access. You had to sometimes fool a hen into laying by placing a glass egg or a smooth stone of the right size in her nest. I guess this was suppose to promote her mother instinct and cause her to lay more.
Chickens are kind of dumb. When I was young, it was my job to gather the eggs. Don’t let anybody tell you that chickens are not protective. They will menacingly fluff up their feathers and peck you if you try to take their eggs. Strong eye contact and a air of authority helps. You should see a six year old making strong eye contact and acting bold before a mean old “settin” hen. It adds new meaning to calling a coward a “chicken.”
Garage became commercial chicken house
Once my sister, Helen, and her husband, Henry, lived with us for a time. Henry talked Daddy into letting him convert our garage into a big commercial chicken house with a kerosene heater, etc. Henry planned to capture the Dallas County chicken market.
He bought 1000 bitties which as usual came by train. My nephew, Charlie, and I were to feed and water the chicks after school every day. Big problems! The chickens caught some sort of disease, and all Charlie and I ever did was bury chickens each day after school. We buried 997 of those chickens. Henry raised only three out of the thousand, and they were tough and not good to eat.
There was one short term bonus that came out of Henry’s chicken business. He had purchased a fancy chick heater for the garage/chicken house. This was a big galvanized metal affair which had a central kerosene heater like a drum with eight metal pipes sticking out along the sides in a vertical “U” shape. Then the whole thing was covered with a tepee kind of tin roof which extended almost to the floor and finally a flue pipe was sticking out the top.
It looked like something from Mars
When the chickens all died, Daddy took the tepee roof off and moved it into his and Mom’s bedroom for a heater. The thing looked like something from Mars standing there with those eight arms all glowing red with heat. It also made kind of scary sucking noises. It was something you could have charged admission to see. It really produced the heat but used so much fuel that we couldn’t afford to use it much. Kerosene was expensive—probably 20 cents a gallon then. Luckily it burned itself out soon and developed big holes in those awful looking arms so it was discarded.
Fresh chicken was fast food
I guess this was at the end of an era for America. Without refrigeration there was no way to store meat except to smoke cure or salt it. Fresh chicken from the yard was a regular meal. It was what you would call fast food today.
I once heard that fast food was chasing a chicken for dinner in the yard. All you had to do was catch one, ring its neck, dip it in boiling water to loosen the feathers, pick it, clean it, and fry away. I sure think “Hart’s Fried Chicken” is a great improvement.
I’ll bet the Hart’s folks don’t even look at the chicken catalogue in the spring.
Bestselling novel RIBBON OF LOVE: 2nd edition – A Novel of Colonial America (Tapestry of Love Book 1) is the story of a first family in colonial America who eventually migrated to Alabama. –