Every farm had chickens and a rooster or two so that they could have eggs for eating and fresh chicken for cooking. Lots of times the chickens were free range around the yard in the early days. Many times they were in fenced yards.
The farm usually had an enclosed hen house which consisted of a shed type building with roosts which were poles mounted across the house wall to wall a few feet above the ground or floor of the chicken house. Chickens sleep perched on roosts. There was a wall of hen nests in boxes to collect the eggs, although you had to check around daily in other places where chickens had access in case they laid an egg elsewhere.
A galvanized set on hen nests could be purchased and hung on the wall in the chicken house or one could be built from wood. A fenced chicken yard was next to the chicken house. At night the chickens had to be shut up securely in the house to keep them from predators such as hawks, dogs, possums, foxes and coyotes.
Fencing for chicken yards is called chicken wire and is a fine-meshed wire that only a snake or rat could possibly penetrate. Nowadays the trend to raising chickens is becoming more popular. Now it is very important to provide coverage on the sides and tops of the chicken yards due to the threat of many predators as discussed above.
Nests for laying eggs are box-like and can be lined in straw or hay. The floor of the house is often sand or in more modern chicken houses, cement that can be cleaned of chicken droppings, which can be used for fertilizer. Chickens like to “scratch” around in the sand and will eat anything that grows or sprouts in their yard. You had to watch carefully for chicken snakes and get rid of them because they would get into the nests and eat the eggs. You could tell how many eggs the snake had eaten by the lumps in the snake because they had swallowed the eggs whole.
The daily diet of hens and roosters is laying mash and cracked corn. You had chicken feed in troughs or store bought feeders that were galvanized with holes in the sides. Water had to be available to chickens at all times and dispenser jars are available for purchase and even automatic watering fountains are available now to water chickens. Laying hens must be given oyster shell or now a special “Flock Block” for them to peck on containing oyster shell and other nutrients to maintain the strength of the eggshell they produce.
The chickens will eat vegetable scraps, peelings and leftovers such as rice or grits. The more green vegetables or grass consumed, the more yellow the yolks of the eggs. Chickens can become cannibalistic and are closely watched for pecking each other and are separated or treated with a medicated spray until they heal.
Usually each spring the farmer would buy or order chicks and sometimes a rooster or two and start a new flock to have plenty of eggs and chickens for consumption year round. Grown hens will not lay an egg every day but will on most days.
You can raise hens without a rooster if you do not want to raise little chicks from the eggs. An artificial porcelain or wooden egg was often placed in the nest to encourage hens to lay. Chickens molt at intervals and loose feathers and these fluctuations do affect production. As the young hens, called pullets, begin to lay, their eggs will be smaller in size until the hens mature. Many farm eggs are brown but the color of an egg can vary from white or brown to bluish green, depending on the variety of the hens.
As the hens got older, they were killed and dressed for food. A younger chicken was used as a fryer. After the neck was “wrung,” the chicken was dipped in boiling water, the feathers picked off and then the chicken was gutted, rinsed and cut up to fry. My grandmother Exley would do this very fast, often getting a chicken on to fry before breakfast with the fresh chicken nearly thumping as it went into the pan.
Roosters have spurs and they can be mean or aggressive. My mother, Ellen Exley, was spurred by a rooster when she was about 3 years old and still has a scar on her lip today. One must always be careful in a pen or yard with a rooster.
Next week we will discuss types of chickens and raising “biddies”.
This was written by Susan Exley of Historic Effingham Society. If you have photos, comments or information to share, contact Susan Exley at 754-6681 or email her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.