Brooder box

Raising chickens is an important part of rural life. This is Matt Winters’ dad, Elmer, perched atop a chickenwire-enclosed brooder box in about 1915 in Bellingham, Washington. Such boxes keep chicks safe from harm, if not from bouncing boys.

Just as having a friend with a fishing boat is infinitely preferable to owning one yourself, having grandparents with a farm comes with ingrained fun but few of the nagging worries, expense and chores.

I could — and should — write a book about all the adventures and learning I gained on Grandpa and Grandma Bell’s 40 acres on Baldwin Creek in west-central Wyoming. It was pivotal in the lives of 13 grandchildren, including we older first 10 grandsons in a row.

Like Christopher Robin’s Hundred Acre Wood in the Winnie-the-Pooh books, every foot of those 40 acres is the setting for some crisp memory. (Actually, it became about 38 acres after a highway to Yellowstone trimmed off its northern fringe, but 40 acres sounds better…)

Mainly through Grandpa, we each came to know the strengths and flaws of every bit of it, as only farm families do. There was the creek with its elusive little trout peeking from swirling pools, hook-capturing roots poking from eroded banks, and shady footbridges made from planks hammered to the tops of fallen trees. There was a two-acre patch of swamp he could never quite dry out, and a rise in the hay pasture that was nearly impervious to irrigation. There was a crumpled eight-acre hill on the other side of the creek that went entirely untamed, a wild place for the rattlesnakes and mule deer.

But it’s one of Grandma’s domains I remember today, thanks to Raena Herzog’s well-informed article on raising chicks.

Grandma knew chickens like a cowboy knows cattle. She developed a relationship with each annual flock. She had her favorites and troublemakers, star egg producers and perennial escapees — hens that would sneak off and start vulnerable feral nests out in the brush below the plum thicket. She was the flock’s protector against raiding skunks, weasels and other chicken and egg-stealing varmints. Comprehensive news updates about the chickens were a feature of any visit with her.

It being a farm, Grandma also was their goddess — the source of life, nourishment and death. Over the years there may have been a special hen or two that she couldn’t bring herself to hasten to their fate. But chickens are chickens, and most went into the stew pot once their laying days were over. For a small boy, it is a startling lesson in mortality to watch a decapitated fowl go sprinting across the farmyard. But it didn’t keep me from enjoying Sunday dinner.

The chicken calendar started with selection of chicks or fertilized eggs, usually generic white Leghorns, though once in a while something a little more exotic like Rhode Island Reds, which made Grandma feel like she was doing something radical and exciting. Hatchlings were nursed in the brooder room at one end of the chicken house under a heat lamp, an excitable mass of little peeps. But just as cute lambs quickly turn the corner into becoming dull sheep, in a matter of a few weeks the chicks morphed into gawky pullets, and then into full-fledged chickens in the main coop with its straw-lined nest boxes and rich organic smells.

Grandma’s hens had a substantial enclosed space protected from marauding hawks and owls by chickenwire. In the daytime, they sometimes were allowed out on the upper end of the pasture to roam around in quests for earthworms, grasshoppers and other prey. The wilder the food, the more delicious the eggs. Danger was an intrinsic part of these forays, and Grandma rounded them up before dusk, scattering cracked corn and other enticements to come home to safety. The hens settled on the highest roosts made from skinny lodgepole pines, contentedly murmuring in the chill of the night.

In makes me sad to think of chickens raised in today’s industrial settings with so little opportunity to experience life before they are put on conveyor belts to be made into KFC and grocery store nuggets. Even in his lifetime, Grandpa shook his head in tired resignation at consumers who imagine chicken springs into existence in the form of parts on plastic-wrapped styrofoam platters. There are real living creatures behind our meals. They even come with personalities, like Grandma’s affectionate hens. It isn’t much to grant them a taste of life, before we taste them.

Grandma’s chicken farming gradually wound down — too much nuisance, she said, but we all knew her tender heart had something to do with it. The brooder room became a cluttered King Tut’s storeroom packed with the outgrown bicycles of older cousins, old sandstone grinding wheels and other cast-off artifacts of country life.

Grandma’s chickens still cluck in my heart. I’ve taken over the role of chicken fry cook and soup maker for my branch of our far-flung flock of a family. I think of Grandma and her chickens on those rare occasions when I manage to get things just right.

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