In the long ago days of my growing up on Muddy Creek, one of the things we had little concern about was crime. True, the Anti-Horse Thief Association was still in existence and the Community Watch had become a bit overzealous at times, but few doors had locks, and if you needed a bale of straw or a cup of sugar, you just dropped over to the neighbor’s. Should he be away, you just helped yourself and knew you were welcome.
Next to the illegal production of alcoholic spirits, chicken thievery was the big crime. With the passing of the Volstead Act, the common practice of marketing corn as a liquid thirst quencher was called ‘bootlegging’, and was frowned upon by the authorities. (Actually, the practice was somewhat condoned, for it kept some families ‘off the County’, and contributed little to the overall feeling of endangerment.) Stealing chickens, however, was another matter. The sheriff was kept busy checking out the poultry buyers and the court docket might well have two or more chicken thief cases at any given time. The penalty was harsh: six months at the state farm at Vandalia for the first offense.
The best defense against losing a flock of old hens (they were the most valuable, for they brought the best prices at Tobe Petty’s) was a good watchdog. The Widow Smithton found this out when her Old Bruno caught someone in her hen house, and ripped out the seat of a blue serge suit, which happily contained a fat wallet full of double eagles.
However, serious intruders sometimes got smart and carried with them a good supply of horsemeat. Few indeed were the dogs that were able to resist the lure of fresh meat, and would contentedly chew on a tossed bone while gunny sacks of old hens were being stowed away in the back of a buckboard. So, in those days before security lights, motion detectors and proximity switches, some families harbored the ideal watchdog, one that was never quieted by being bribed with a feast of fresh meat. In fact, it didn’t even bark, it hissed. A goose on the farm was almost a must. Strawberry growers knew the value of geese, for they not only thrived on any and all insects that might attack their crop, but they kept the rows clean by pulling and feeding on stray grass, getting fat in the process.
A male goose, or drake, will stake out a section of the yard or garden and claim it as his own. Anybody, and I mean anybody, who ventures within its environs are subject to immediate assault. If you have ever had a 40-pound drake come on the attack, his neck extended and hissing like a steam locomotive, you know you need to head for the hills.
It is not uncommon for a male goose to take on a prowling fox or weasel, and it is never the loser. The drake will take the offensive with the wings outspread and that four-inch bill instinctively aimed for leg muscles, where it can leave a very nasty bruise. Those flailing wings pack the power of a 10-pound sledge in the hands of an oilfield roustabout. When the hen house is near a wood, the goose will keep it virtually free of predators. Their cry or honk is just that: an ear-splitting blast that rivals the air horn of a diesel truck, and should a stranger violate the drake’s domain, that honk sounds, and like the famous bunny, will keep going and going and going.
Strange as it may seem, this overpowering creature has a weak spot, an Achilles heel, so to speak. He is easy to kill. If one is brave enough, a single twist of the long neck, and the intruder has a dead duck, excuse me, goose, on his hands.
There was one built-in bonus. Should you no longer need his services as a watchdog, the drake makes a very welcome addition to the Christmas dinner: Kind of like having your goose and eating it, too.
The late Perry Piper was a newspaper columnist in Indiana and Illinois for more than 12 years. His columns, reprinted here from his memoirs, appear in Farm Collector with the permission of his family.
‘[A drake’s] flailing wings pack the power of a 10-pound sledge in the hands of an oilfield roustabout.’