My dad was always wanting to raise something; sheep, dogs, worms, and chickens. Since we had the room and the buildings, raising chickens for our two families sounded like a good idea. We fixed up the little shed behind our house, putting in a heat lamp and spreading plenty of wood shavings on the floor, filled the waterers and set up the feeders. We were ready for our order of chicks to show up at the post office. When the big day arrived, my daughters were oohing and aahing over the fuzzy little yellow peepers, cupping them gingerly in their hands as they set them on the ground in the little shed. We shut the door to the shed and turned on the heat lamp to keep them nice and warm, but the girls had to keep peeking in to see how they were doing.
The routine was quickly established, each girl having a chore to do, filling the waterers or putting fresh feed in the feeders. A sick chick became a family emergency until the girls accepted the fact that not all of the cute birds would survive to be part of a Sunday Dinner. We didn’t explain it that way until later,by the way.
The chicks quickly grew into chickens, and spent their days scratching in our yards wandering between our house and my folk’s. At night we would herd them back into their pen, and they settled in for the night. This routine went on for much of the summer, until it was time to butcher. I wasn’t sure how the girls would react to the butchering of chickens that they had taken care of, but after the first few wieldings of the axe, the flopping and scaulding and plucking, they got in line and took their turn in the process. It was a good year to raise chickens. The next year went a bit differently.
Dad decided to buy a mixed box of chicks, all different sizes and colors because they were “cheaper”. The girls had the shed and pen all ready, and spent a lot of time checking out the “rainbow chickens” that were delivered to the post office. Things went smoothly for a few weeks, but then the chicks seemed to turn wild, could not be caught, and were hard to pen at night. We finally gave up on penning and just kept water and food in their pen. Although they were wild, they never wandered out of our yards.
When it came time to butcher, we waited until dark the night before and sneaked out to the trees, capturing sleeping chickens and locking them in their shed. There were several we couldn’t reach, so decided to try and capture them in the morning. Butchering day had one of the girls guarding the door of the shed, opening it just far enough to nab another chicken, while the rest of us took care of the messy work. We tried to catch those rogue chickens we had missed the night before, finally having to play Daniel Boone and shoot them out of the trees. A unilateral decision was made (by me) that no more mixed boxes of chicks from then on.
Word of our venture spread through both sides of our family and the next year we had 150 chicks with five families involved. Dad’s brother liked big plump chickens so he would put out extra feed for the chickens every day. I have to admit they were getting big and plump. The folly of that line of thinking was apparent with the first bird we butchered. The plump part was a thick layer of fat on the breast and back of the bird. It was like the promise of finding “gold in them thar hills”, only to find a pile of chicken fat. The chickens were inedible. A little extra bit of something might make things better, like an occasional extra bit of chicken feed, but that sure doesn’t mean a whole lot of something, like chicken feed, was going to make the chicken great. Just fat.
Gary Heintz owns an insurance agency in Pierre and writes a column for the Capital Journal. He is also co-producer of the Dakota Western Heritage Festival, held each September in Ft. Pierre.