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Chicken operation the source of foul memories

It's almost November, so I'll tell you a little about my father's chicken business in the 1940s. I know, it's supposed to be turkey for Thanksgiving, but in those days we sold a lot of chickens for the holidays.

I don't know just when my father and uncle, who made up the Moore & Townsend partnership, got serious about raising chickens in addition to shipping milk. It was probably 1940 when the first large chicken house was built at our place. This was a single-story frame structure maybe 20 or 25 feet wide and 60 or 70 feet long. During the war, a two-story building of the same size was constructed just west of the original, and the two chicken houses were connected by a granary.

Besides two large bins, one for wheat and one for oats, there was room in the granary for sacked feed storage, and a McCormick-Deering hammer mill of probably 10-inch capacity.

When the partnership was dissolved in 1945, Dad ended up with the chicken business, and he did very well for five or six years. I helped with every phase of raising those birds and developed a keen dislike for chickens and all they stood for.

During the early 1940s, our birds were white Leghorns because of that breed's high white egg production. In those days, the city market in Beaver Falls, Pa., bought most of our eggs, along with some chickens. Saturday was "go to town day," and we always took along a crate or two of eggs, and sometimes a crate of live chickens for delivery to the store.

The chicks (we never called them "peeps") were delivered by the mailman in large, cardboard boxes that I think each held 100 of the little, fluffy, cheeping birds. The boxes were divided into four compartments and had round holes punched in the sides so the chicks could get air. It seems as though we got two or three boxes at a time, but I don't remember how often they came.

Those eggs were the first things that soured me on chickens. Each day, one or two large wire baskets of eggs were gathered by Dad or Mom, or me after I got big enough. It wasn't a bad job when the eggs were found in a nest the hen had vacated, or could be shooed away from, but I remember with what reluctance I slid my hand under a hen that refused to leave the nest. These hens would usually peck my hand, or else they'd be covering a broken egg into which I'd stick my fingers.

Every evening, after supper, all those eggs had to be wiped clean of the manure, straw and dried egg yolk sticking to the shells. My sister and I usually had to do this chore and we weren't real happy about it.

After the eggs were clean, Dad would candle the eggs to identify any with blood spots or other defects inside. The candler, a tin can about the size of a coffee can, stood on its side and had a light bulb in one end. At the other end was a round hole, about an inch and a half in diameter and lined with a rubber gasket to protect the egg from breakage.

The egg was held against the hole and twirled to allow the light to shine through. A blood spot would show up as a black spot and the egg was discarded, although we used a lot of them. Mom would break the egg into a dish and remove the blood spot with a spoon. These eggs were safe to use, but couldn't be sold. Of course, if the egg had anything wrong other than a small blood spot, it was fed to the hogs.

The final step in the evening ritual was to grade the eggs as to size. Each egg was placed on a special weight scale, and assigned the appropriate grade of small, medium or large. After grading, the eggs were packed into wooden crates and stored in the cool cellar until Saturday, when they went to market.

After the second chicken house was built, we still kept Leghorns for white eggs, but heavier chickens (Rhode Island Reds, I think) were raised for meat. Every six weeks, we bought day-old chicks, 1,000 at a time, from a local hatchery.

By then, baby chicks were kept in battery brooders, galvanized tin contraptions that had five levels, each holding 100 chicks and heated by electricity. The chicks walked on wire mesh screens and their droppings were caught on tin trays (two for each level) that slid out for cleaning.

After the chicks got big enough that they no longer needed heat from a brooder, they were transferred to larger cages, similar to the battery brooders, but with only four levels and without electric heat. These brooders and cages were another reason I hated chickens. We used two battery brooders and three of the larger, unheated ones which, if my math is correct, contained a total of 22 tin trays that required cleaning each day. Guess whose job that was?

Every afternoon, I removed each tray full of chicken droppings, sat it on edge in a wheelbarrow and scraped it clean with a 3-inch wide hand scraper. When the barrow was full, it had to be pushed outside and its contents shoveled into the manure spreader. Naturally, I always ended up with a fair amount of the aromatic stuff on my hands and clothes, not something I enjoyed.

After the birds outgrew the battery cages, they were transferred to large, homemade wood and wire cages where they matured until big enough to sell. They were always on wire and were never allowed to run loose.

It took many years to get over my aversion to eating eggs and chicken, but I finally did. It's funny: We also raised hogs and cows, but I've never had any qualms about eating beef or pork, I wonder why?

I hope everyone enjoys their Thanksgiving turkey or chicken or whatever.

- Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by e-mail at letstalkrustyiron@yahoo.com