Really Henpecked: Living with 10,000 Chickens

By Dr. Michael Obsatz, January 2021


Henry lived on a chicken farm in New Jersey.  In 1951, he was 10 years old.  He worked on the farm with his father, mother, sister, and grandmother.  They had 10,000 white leghorn chickens. 

The farm was 10 acres big, with 3 large chicken coops with 10 rooms each, and a 5 acre range with 20 smaller shelters for the chickens to sleep in.  They were free range chickens.  That means they got to go outdoors for 5 months of the year.  Henry learned about vaccinations for chickens, and various diseases.  He learned about the weather.  Six or more hurricanes hit the farm during the summer months.  The storms blew the shelters around.  It was scary some of the time.

These particular chickens were called “leghorns” because they had little horn-shaped spurs at the lower part of their legs.  No cages.  No roosters.  Just chickens.  The coops had roosts for chickens to sleep on, and large metal nests on the walls, filled with straw where the chickens laid their eggs. Sometimes chickens sat on their eggs, and when Henry tried to pick them up, the pecked at his hand.  He sometimes wore cotton gloves.

These chickens cackled loudly from 5 a.m. until dark.  They produced manure which smelled really stinky.  Henry got used to the noise and the smell.  He took lots of showers after coming back into the house from the coops.

Henry’s job was to collect the eggs 3 times a day with his father, wash the eggs in a machine, grade and sort them, and pack them away to be to shipped to market.  His mother, grandmother and sister helped with this.  Henry worked every day after school, and all day long on the weekends.  He had been helping on the farm since he was 6 years old.

Henry’s mom cooked eggs a lot, especially when there was little money for groceries.  She made all kinds of eggs — scrambled, hard-boiled, and omelets.  There were Denver omelets, Spanish omelets, pea omelets, cheese omelets, and more.  Henry was tired of eating eggs.  The family never ate chicken.  That was too close to home.

There was a small airport nearby, and Henry watched as small, piper cub planes flew overhead.  When Henry fed the chickens grain outdoors on the range, he would pour out the pail of grain, making words on the dirt.  The chickens would line up following the letters of the words.  He imagined that the pilots would see the grain-words.  Sometimes the words were simple like “me.”  Other times, he wrote silly words like “poop.”
 
Since they lived near Asbury Park, a summer resort on the Atlantic ocean, lots of traffic drove by the farm.  The family sold eggs to customers in their basement.  Henry greeted customers and packed up the eggs they bought.  He met people from all over the world.

On the warm days, the family went to Asbury Park on the evenings when the work was done. They sat on benches and strolled on the boardwalk.  They smelled the salty sea air, and heard the cries of seagulls and pigeons.  There was miniature golf, kiddy rides, and all kinds of food stands.  There was a big carousel and a ferris wheel.  Henry didn’t like the big rides, and mostly ate some snacks, and watched the people strolling by.  They were from everywhere, and some wore fancy clothes.  Some spoke languages Henry didn’t understand.

He really enjoyed the pigeons and seagulls.  They were so graceful as they soared overhead.  So much more elegant than chickens, he thought.  And they didn’t cackle or smell stinky either.  People left crumbs for the birds, and they hung around begging for more.

Henry had two different pet dogs over the years on the farm.  They were wonderful, but they would run out onto the highway.  They both were hit by cars speeding by.  So, Henry’s father said they weren’t going to have any more dogs.

Henry had a great idea.  We would find a pet chicken.  He did just that and named her Henrietta.  He called her Etta for short.  She lived in the coops, and he always recognized her. His father painted a red design on her back with nail polish.  She recognized him, too.  Henry called her name, and she ran over to him from across the room.  He picked her up and petted her.

When she got old, she lost all of her feathers and molted like the other chickens. The other chickens were all sold to the butcher, but Henrietta was rescued by Henry.  She did not have to go.  After a while, her feathers returned and she looked vibrant again.  She lived for over five years, and died of old age. That is a long time for a chicken.  Henry was very sad when Henrietta finally died.  He cried very hard for several days. That was the only pet chicken Henry ever had.

Henry helped on the farm until he left for college in Boston in 1959. He studied hard at college, and at graduate school in Chicago.  He became a college professor and moved to St Paul, Minnesota in 1967.

There were lots of farms in Minnesota, but as time went on, there were fewer and fewer family chicken farms in America.  They were automated, and many had cages and no free ranges.
 
Henry learned to work hard on the farm.  The farm work was not much fun, and did keep him from being with friends.  But, there was family togetherness, and learning to help each other out.  Henry learned a lot of lessons from the 10,000 chickens over the years.  Most of all, he learned that chickens have their own wisdom and intelligence.  They didn’t have to pretend to be what they were not.  They cackled and smelled like chickens.  And that was good enough.

© 2020 Dr. Michael Obsatz, all rights reserved
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