Raising Chickens in the Old South
By Elton Camp
Behind the dwelling stood the chicken house. A plank building with a shed-type roof, it had a series of box-like hen nests lined with straw attached inside along the left wall. The nests weren’t for roosting, but for egg laying. When a hen produced an egg, she generally announced the feat by leaving the nest and cackling loudly for several minutes.
Eggs were normally gathered only once a day. Miranda, or one of her daughters, checked each nest in the late afternoon. A given nest might contain a few eggs, or perhaps only one. If newly laid, the egg felt warm. The egg-gatherer transferred the smallish brown-shelled eggs to her apron which she folded and held carefully so as not to let any slip to the ground. Eggs were an important staple of a rural diet.
Most of the interior was occupied by rows of rough poles or boards mounted horizontally. These served as roosts. A thick layer of multicolored droppings littered the dirt floor. An ammonia-like stench pervaded. To clean out the chicken coop was one of the most odious farm chores. It was usually assigned to the youngest boy able to accomplish the smelly task.
Lacking receptors for night vision, chickens sought the roost as soon as evening light began to fade. Since they were blind in the dark, the precaution provided a measure of protection against predators. This feature of their behavior was the origin of the expression “Goin’ t’ bed wif’ th’ chick’ns” to describe humans who retire early.
“Don’t ferget t’ go out thar ’n shet up th’ chicken coop afore plumb black dark,” Milas said to no one in particular. They’ll b’ goin’ t’ roost direckly.”
A plank door and crude shutters over windows protected the fowls. Each could be secured in place by a “Georgia button.” That device consisted of a piece of wood with a nail through its center. When rotated behind a fastener, it provided security against animal intruders. For a neighbor to steal chickens was almost unknown on the mountain.
“Only niggers’d do thet,” Milas averred when the possibility was suggested.
He made the remark even though he’d only seen Negroes from a distance in the courthouse yard in Guntersville. He’d heard rumors of their criminal tendencies. Such reports were, to him, sufficient basis on which to form a judgment about the entire race.
In fact, no blacks lived on Sand Mountain. Not a person would risk ostracism by selling or renting them land on the more arable plateau. They were equally unacceptable as sharecroppers. A handful lived in poverty at Guntersville in the valley. They were restricted to a small area on what was derisively called “Colored Hill.” The people occupied the lowest rung in the social ladder. Descendants of pre-Civil War slaves, they had to accept whatever menial labor they could find. A few felt forced by conditions not of their creation and beyond their control to resort to robbery or other crimes to feed their families. Most lived quiet, honest lives of quiet desperation and eked out a living as best they could.
A secure henhouse was an essential protection for the chickens against varmints. A fox or weasel that found an unprotected flock might destroy them all in a single raid. That was a crippling loss for a farm family.
Chicks weren’t purchased, but hatched by hens at home. The farm family set aside eggs for the purpose. With the short life span of a chicken, there must be a continuous flow of replacements. A dozen eggs were normally placed under a setting hen. On occasion, thirteen chicks appeared. Double-yolk eggs were the explanation. More frequently, one or more of the eggs failed to develop a chick or the fledgling died soon after hatching.
The mother hen paid careful attention to her chicks. At two-second intervals, she clucked to keep her brood under control. A different cluck, combined with lifted wings, brought them rushing underneath for protection. Anyone who approached her chicks could expect to be flogged and pecked. A mother hen was a formidable force.
Setting hens not given eggs to hatch sometimes rebelled. An occasional hen would “steal a nest” by laying eggs in some secret place outside the coop. Her treacherous action became known only when she emerged from hiding with a group of cheeping chicks following her.
Sometimes a hen that hadn’t hatched a brood began to emit clucks as if she had chicks to supervise. Even more important, she stopped laying eggs. Since she must be fed, but produced nothing, she was either “broke” from setting or killed. Breaking a setting hen could be difficult.
“Go fetch me a dry shuck from th’ crib,” Miranda told Leamon. “Then ketch me thet thar settin’ hen.”
The woman tied the shuck to the long tail feathers of the squawking bird and tossed her to the ground. As she fled in indignation, the shuck dragged along the ground. It created a rustle that caused the hen to flee in panic at a noise whose source she couldn’t identify. When tired, she stopped. Her next move caused the frightening sound to commence. Caught in a cycle, the hen ran until she lay on the ground and panted in exhaustion. Her eyes seemed to turn white every few seconds as she flicked her protective third eyelid.
Miranda seldom expressed mirth. Somehow, the hen’s dilemma struck her as funny. She laughed anew each time the hen struggled to her feet and restarted the alarming rustle of the shuck. When the cruel, but necessary purging ended, Miranda untied the shuck, but still chuckled quietly. Such moments of fun were, for her, rare indeed.