Thursday, July 9, 2009

Chicken Houses I Have Known

Anna and Melvin's chicken house was to have been the cupola for their round barn, but it proved too big so it made the perfect place for chickens.

I've always been partial to chicken houses long before I had any chickens–or a hen house–of my own. For several years I've collected chicken-related things in anticipation of the day that I had chickens to raise. Not just practical chicken house things like feeders and waterers but "eggs for sale" roadside signs, Staffordshire hens-on-nest, even a fabric folk art chicken, at right, made locally by a woman in Liberty, Kentucky. We use it in the kitchen for stuffing plastic bags up its well, you know.

LEFT: A nineteenth-century chicken painting on the wall behind the rubber "Chicky" (that you get when you roll double twos in Bunco) for an October night of Bunco that I hosted at our Kentucky home last year. ABOVE: A row of Staffordshire hen-on-nests in our Welsh dresser.

We get all of our chicken feed and supplies at Goldenrod Feeds in nearby Casey County–in fact, my husband is heading there as we speak to get some feed and return some chicken crates.

It is heartening to know that chickens are now thriving in all parts of the country–even in urban areas–as more people are raising them for eggs and meat. There is even a national radio program now called Backyard Poultry with the Chicken Whisperer–who knew?

Our Cornish X chickens, at about seven weeks old, fattening up nicely. They were bred to eat, drink, sleep, sit and poop (a lot). The ultimate chicken "couch potatoes," their growth rate is astounding.

Yesterday we drove back from Crab Orchard with our 24 (several died in their first weeks) 8-week old Cornish X birds, all dressed and half-frozen and ready for our own freezer. I found a butcher up there, J & V Slaughterhouse on route 39 a few miles north of town, run by Joe Yoder, a burly and friendly Amish man originally from Delaware. The drive, an hour each way, is lovely but long. When my Mennonite friend Irene heard we were "going all the way to Crab Orchard," she insisted on butchering our chickens for us (and two other women I know, not Mennonites, just had a "plucking party" and put up about 200 chickens in several hours–so that put me to shame, too!) I've "done" chickens only once–when I was 11 and helped my mother and her siblings put up about fifty chickens for the freezer after my grandfather had died. I thanked Irene but had already made arrangements this time around.

An old Kentucky chicken coop on a former home place in Pulaski County.

Besides, in the heat of July I did not want to risk contamination or mess. We had 12 chickens kept whole for roasting (at $2 a chicken) and 12 in parts (at $3 each). So for $60 plus gas and the four hours transportation time/gas (including delivery and pick up the next day)–as well as the price of the chicks and their feed for two months–I thought it was well worth it. However, next time we will have a "chicken frolic" in a cooler month–like November–and raise some meat birds for our friends who will help us. It does make sense to do them ourselves and save time and gas, and to just learn how, but not a job I will welcome doing (maybe I'll take noon dinner duty for the assembled instead!).

The brick poultry house near the magnificent round barn at the Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

On my recent trip to New Hampshire I saw my friend Judy's chicken house in action for the first time. Her daughter, Courtney, designed it and was just building it last summer when we were packing up to move. I love its gables and whimsical quality. Courtney even wood-burned designs around the decorative windows, which include a Renaissance or Moorish-inspired double-arched window in the peak of one of the gables.

Meanwhile, Judy's other daughter, Lindsay, a landscape gardener, has taught classes on how to butcher chickens. [NOTE: Judy's in-wall pantry and Hoosier-turned-display hutch for her collection of LuRay Pastels are both featured in my book, The Pantry–Its History and Modern Uses.]

The horse barn-turned chicken coop-turned office at the Gray Goose Farm in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, once occupied by four generations of my family for almost sixty years (1946-2005).

RIP: This barn, converted for chickens, in southern New Hampshire is now among the barns of the past.

When in New Hampshire I also learned of the sad but inevitable demise of one of my favorite barns over on Route 10 just south of Keene. Thankfully I'd gone around and taken many photographs a few years ago of old barns in the region. This center-aisle barn American-style barn from the mid-19th century was converted at some point into a chicken barn. Note the dormers and many windows on the south side. Someone told me it had been demolished and the house set fire for practice by a local fire department. I was just as glad not to have driven past it while up there.

Our chicken house in late June. I was surprised to find several established clutches of day lilies that survived the winter-time construction over Miss Lillian's former perennial bed. They emerged in front of the entrance step as they had for years before, just as groupings of peonies came up on the south side.

Of course, I'm pleased with our own chicken house–a duplex we had built this winter to my design. With it's 100 square feet on each side for hens and meat birds, who have to live separately, and two adjacent fenced-in yards, it has worked quite well. Our hens have yet to lay–probably in September as they are not quite four months old–but they've settled in nicely, despite a few losses (to natural causes and the dogs). We even have a rooster and I welcome his crowing at all hours. PHOTO: Our chicken house, in late May, with peonies blooming all around.

We've realized we can not free-range the chickens with the dogs around so a compromise has been reached: the dogs can free-range until late afternoon, then they will be cooped on the back porch while the chickens free-range until dusk. This will likely change during the winter months when there is nothing to graze on. [And sadly, our little Patch has been missing since July 3–I fear another predator or a neighbor but am still hoping he will return.] PHOTO: Stew, our "surprise" Barred Rock rooster from Murray McMurray Hatchery, struts his stuff on their first day of free-ranging, which we will try again in the future with some modifications and provisions, mostly dog-related.

I am fast learning that life on a farm, and with chickens, is not without its challenges, compromise and the occasional mishap. It's really all about cooperation and community, just like it is, ideally, with the human race. And a reread of The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald, author of the "Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle" series of children's books, is long overdue. Now, it's also high time I stop blogging and go make dinner. Yes, that's right, we're having chicken! PHOTO: Judy holds some of her jumbo-sized eggs.


Jennifer said...

I love the chicken coops! We have chickens ourselves and have enjoyed seeing what all everyone else is raising and how they house them. Our beagles torture the poor birds, so we understand the challenges of dogs and chickens. It must be great to have fresh birds in your freezer. So far ours have only been for egg consumption, but that might change on down the raod. =)

I just discovered your blog and have enjoyed pouring over its contents.

Have a wonderful weekend,
Jennifer @ Fiddle Dee Dee

Crystal Mudgett-Epley said...

Thanks for the shout out! My rock star status has tripled today. BTW your lilies and peonies are beautiful!

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