If you have ever gone to the post office to pick up cardboard boxes of baby chicks, you have probably eaten a lot of fried chicken in your lifetime.
Before commercial chick hatcheries proliferated, chicken eggs had to be 'candled' for fertility, placed on screen wire in the incubator and kept warm with a coal-oil lamp. It was slow - but much more sure than a sitting hen.
In my day, we ordered chicks from an advertising circular sent from Elk City, Okla. A phone call from the Perryton, Texas, Post Office told us our chicks had arrived. We always ordered at least 10 boxes -and at 48 chicks to the box, they briefly turned the post office into a smelly, cheeping place.
Chick preparation at the ranch included cleaning out the brooder house and spreading wheat straw on the floor for bedding. To keep the chicks warm, we used a large tin hood, suspended about a foot off the floor and rigged with electric light bulbs. For their water, glass jars were filled, fitted with little watering troughs (which were screwed onto the tops) and then inverted so the chicks could drink. I never did understand why the water didn't run out on the floor.
Our feed troughs were flat-cardboard 'freebies' given out by feed companies. You had to fold the troughs together and punch out the oval holes for the chicks to eat through; the tops were held shut with paper clips. We kids used the punch-outs for play money until they were too worn or lost.
The chicks were lifted out of the boxes and placed on the brooder house floor, where they ran to the lighted hood. They stayed under the hood if the weather was cool but ventured out on the floor if it was warm. Our Collie dog at the time insisted on entering the brooder house each time we did, and she'd nose each chick that came near her. She would lie outside the door and whine each time a chick cheeped. She was a nervous wreck until the baby chicks outgrew their cheeping.
As the chicks grew, so did the size of the water and feed troughs. By the time they were about 4 inches tall, the chicks were turned outside, into a pen, and offered grain. By the time the wheat started turning yellow, they were ready to be 'put up.' A day was set, and all employees, children and a neighbor or two joined forces to kill, scald, pluck feathers, singe pin-feathers, cut up and place the chicken parts into freezer containers.
Our meat, including poultry, was kept in rented lockers at the Perryton locker plant, and each week when mother bought groceries, she stopped there to pick up a supply of meat - including, always, a number of cartons of chickens.
Each spring, we waited in great anticipation, with mouths watering, for that first big plate of crispy, golden brown fried chicken. By summer's end, though, after devouring most of the 500 chickens, we were all awaiting the first frost and hog-butchering time - so we could taste cracklings and fresh fried pork for a change. FC
- Delbert Trew is a freelance writer, retired rancher and supervisor of the Devil's Rope Museum in McLean, Texas. Contact him at Trew Ranch, Box A, Alanreed, TX 79002; (806) 779-3164 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org