Friday, September 6, 2013

Pop's Chicken Ranch

By Ken Neal
            My father liked to raise things. He was thrilled to see a plant peeping through the soil. He had plants everywhere and often removed a shrub only to replace it with another variety that had caught his attention.
            Most of all, he liked to see plants and animals grow.
            We nearly always had a “crop” of chickens.
            I noticed an article in the Tulsa paper recently wherein a reporter breathlessly told of a couple in Tulsa who were raising chickens in their backyard.
            I realize that is a novelty these days and the reporter went on to explain that many people are raising chickens for eggs and meat. People are under the delusion that “free range” eggs are better than those laid by caged hens.
            Rebellion against additives of all kinds probably is the motivating factor, although I hope there are people out there like Pop who just like to see things like chickens grow and thrive.
            Even when we lived in a two-room shack in Sand Springs during World War II, pop managed a lean-to chicken pen. It was temporary, because the chicks he would raise would be grown and slaughtered at nine weeks.
            I even remember having a hen or two that roamed free. One old gal made her nest under a neighbor’s house and we had great fun watching her hatch her brood. She enough, at the right time she presented herself and about a dozen fuzzy chicks.
            I can’t say dad raised chickens every year. Sometimes our living quarters just wouldn’t allow it, but when pop bought a house in Sand Springs, he quickly built a fence, added a free standing garage and a small chicken coop next to the garage. As he would say, he was in business!
            He liked exotics. I remember him raising Rhode Island Reds, Plymouth Rocks, Leghorns, even a pure black chicken once. One year he raised guinea chicks; another pheasants.
            The guineas were tasty, but they had dark meat.
            One year, when our pheasants were just big enough to fly a bit, we came home to see several of them on the ridge of the house.
            We set out to corral them and after a lot of huffing and puffing, had all but one in captivity. Some of the bigger specimens could fly just enough to stay ahead of us.
            We found ourselves chasing that last guy down Roosevelt Street in Sand Springs. When we got close, he would fly about 10 yards. This was repeated for about three city blocks. Pop said, “Do you care if this sonofabitch gets away?”

            I didn’t, of course.
            “Then let’s let him go.”
            In later years, while I was away at college, Pop was again raising pheasants. I got a letter from mom, to tell me, among other news that “your dad killed 20 peasants yesterday.”  The boys in the dorm were impressed!
            In fact, I’ll bet that my uncle Charley did the killing.
            Dad was so soft hearted that he couldn’t bear to kill the chickens he had raised. When I was home, it was my job to wring their necks.
            When it came time, mom would have tubs of hot water ready and Dad would hand the chickens to me. Soon we had chickens flopping all over the back yard.
            Once we lost one. He was nowhere to be found in the yard. Finally someone looked in the ever-present shallow pan of motor oil. That pan was often full because pop was a demon on keeping the oil changed in our cars. Sure enough, that chicken had flopped into the oil pan. At least he escaped the frying pan.
            Often pop would have a crop of tame rabbits. He would keep a couple of does along with a buck and of course nature made sure there were plenty of little ones.
            Uncle Charley would sometimes take care of the killing because dad had made pets of all of them and couldn’t bear to hurt the young rabbits.
He always said their mother was watching him.
The last summer he was alive, I decided to raise some “fryers,” for old times’ sake. I remembered how he enjoyed seeing the chicks grow, how exciting it was when it came time to slaughter the chickens, how mom got into the act with the hot water and plucking.
I went to the feed store at Sapulpa to order my chicks.
My memory was that out of a 100 chicks, we would be lucky to raise 75 to nine weeks. Loss to disease was high.
Chickens are susceptible to alimentary ailments, particularly when young. We would always pull a sick chick out of the flock right away because such was highly contagious.
I told the feed store man that I was undecided between Rhode Island Reds and Plymouth Rocks.
He laughed.
“Fellow, I haven’t seen either of those in years. I just have chickens.”
I bought a 100 of them. I had stopped at a furniture store and got the biggest cardboard box they had, one that had housed a refrigerator.
The feed store guy recommended Turkey mash for my flock and I headed home with my chicks, my feed and my box. It was in early April, still cold and so I put my chicks in the garage, complete with electric light bulbs for heat.
I noticed my chicks were unlike any I remembered. They were only a few days old and some already were starting to feather.
They had big feet, bigger than a chick ought to have.
Those chicks grew so fast you could almost see it.
At about two weeks I realized the box was not near big enough and so got another one. I had a dog pen that was not being used and when the chicks were about three weeks along, I could not longer house them in the garage. At this point, I had not lost a chick. I later learned that the Poultry industry had been busy since I last raised a chick. My chicks were a special hybrid, bred to grow big and fast.
The feed contained medicine to combat the alimentary infections. I was told years later that a mild form of arsenic goes into the feed to combat the harmful bacteria in a chick’s gullet.
Once we moved the chickens outside, we lost a few, not to disease or the elements but to an accident. My daughter Julie decided to clean the pen and dropped the sheet of plywood that was a lean-to shelter on the chickens, sending about 10 unfortunate fellows to a premature end.
At six weeks, I determined we could not keep enough feed in the small pen to keep the chickens from going hungry.
I made a deal with a lady in Broken Arrow to slaughter, clean and freeze my chicks, so I enlisted an unsuspecting friend to help me haul them to Broken Arrow. I had a camper shell on the truck. On the way home we stopped at a car wash.
Only people who have been around chickens can visualize how that camper looked. I smelled wet chickens and their accouterments for weeks.
Sure enough, we killed and plucked four fryers one Sunday for pop. We had forgotten how smelly the job of scalding, plucking and singing chickens was.
But we sat down to a big chicken dinner, which I estimate cost me $500. But dad was pleased. We all remembered raising chickens. We all were happy.
Pop died that fall. But not before he helped raise off one last flock of chickens.

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