Springtime Brings Memories of Grandma's Baby Chicks
By Don Kruse, Newsletter Editor
Every day an historical event is apt to take place in the eyes of a child, and that was ever so true when I look back to the days when dad would take me up to my grandparents' small farm in rural Gasconade County.
Grandma was the first point of contact when we arrived, since she was always around the house while grandpa and the other boys were doing chores around the farm. In the spring, no one was busier than grandma, who was tending to a new arrival of baby chicks she had ordered through the catalog.
Stepping out of the car you had to watch where you walked, because there were always chickens in the yard roaming about. But the baby chicks, they received special treatment in a more controlled area and weren't ready to be turned loose to free range.
You couldn't help but be in awe when grandma showed you how the little peeps arrived at the post office, either to be picked up or delivered by the postman. She still had the heavy cardboard box with circular holes cut on the side for ventilation, and even kept some of the chicks struggling to make it in the box next to a wood stove. It was her job to nurture them along. She was in charge of the brooder house and hen house. If you arrived at the farm at the right time, you might get to see grandma spreading chicken feed (grain) in the yard. She would create a big pocket in her apron that was full of corn and toss the grain about.
Not far from the house was the brooder coop that had been built for the young chicks. It was heated with light bulbs to keep them warm, for when the chicks arrived in the spring it could still be cold. There was a little ramp that led from the coop out into a wire enclosure so they could come out to eat and drink when the weather warmed.
Grandma would keep them in the brooder house until they were big enough to scratch with the big chickens in the yard. A young child could easily be frightened by an aggressive rooster that would run at you, scaring you more than a big, barking farm dog.
Chickens, as you might know, were present on every small farm many decades ago. You could bet that they would often pick out a nice, 3-pound fryer from the flock for Sunday dinner, or a bigger one to roast.
"Spring chickens," those were the two words that I remember and stick in my mind, because that's when they were the most abundant. Farmers tried to have them ready for the table by the Fourth of July, but on my grandparents' farm it was many weeks before when they were consumed for a big dinner.
Of course, the baby chicks grew into more than a staple of food for the dinner table. Like many farm wives, my grandma raised chickens as a sideline business. She sold the surplus eggs in town and that became a small source of independent income -- her so-called egg money.
She also sold "dressed" fryers to families in town who ordered them. I remember seeing her on the streets of Hermann carrying those ready-to-be-cooked chickens. Health inspectors would certainly frown at that now.
To me, every time I think of grandma and her chickens I also think about her old ways that we try to emulate each Christmas season. She would decorate her tree, a cedar that was chopped down at the farm, with pencils and nickel packs of Wrigley's chewing gum. It was so very simple, but we looked forward to our dad taking us up to the farm for those two items. Some years grandma went overboard and had a pair of socks under the tree for us. She would tie the pencils and gum to the Christmas tree with string.
My grandparents' lives were interesting, and those memories I have of grandma and her spring chickens are just a tiny bit of how they lived. I still have lots of blanks in my mind that are not as clear as the days when we gathered eggs in the hen house, and threw corn kernels in the yards for the chickens to scratch.
What I should have done was record (in a journal, a diary or notebook) those times when grandma was telling me about the way of life she lived. I already know it was beautiful, but it would have been satisfying now to know that I had written down those memories for future generations.