The arrival of baby chickens was a sure and welcome sign of spring on the Scheckel farm out on Oak Grove Ridge outside of Seneca, Wisconsin, in the heart of Crawford County. In the 1940s and 1950s the baby chicks came by mail. Yes, the rural carrier mailman motored out of Lynxville and had five boxes of the little peepers stacked up in the trunk of his car.
Dad and Mom received a postcard giving the date the baby chicks were to arrive. The chicken brooder house was prepared days in advance. Walls were scrubbed, the floor scraped clean, and the whole interior disinfected with a smelly brown liquid applied with a wide paint brush and sprayer. That stuff was so toxic it was later banned. But it did kill nasty bugs!
The brooder, a contraption with a sheet metal hood, four-sided, apron down to five inches, was installed. The temperature could be read on a thermometer. It had to be about kept at about 95 degrees Fahrenheit. There was always worry about cold weather. Baby chickens need to be kept warm.
The big day arrived in late March or early April. The mailman pulled his Chevy Coupe into the driveway of the farmstead. A rope from the trunk latch hung down over the boxes and was tied to the bumper.
All of us Scheckel kids gathered around, getting as close as we dared. We could hear the chicks chirping and beeping away. We tried putting our finger into one of the air holes of a box. Mom scolded, “Back away kids.”
The boxes were about three feet on a side, and five inches high. The sides of the boxes had an ample number of half-inch round holes so that the little chicks could get fresh air. Each box was partitioned into four compartments with cardboard walls. About 25 White Leghorn chicks were in each little compartment. Body heat from the group kept the chicks warm while traveling. Five boxes of 100 chicks in each box. The boxes had a cardboard lid, much like a shoebox, also dotted with plenty of air holes.
One by one the boxes were lifted out of the trunk, with admonishes to keep the boxes level. Two or three boxes were stacked on our Red Ryder wagon. We argued over who got to pull the wagon tongue. Phillip usually did; he is bigger, he was older, and he got first dibs.
Bob and I held the boxes in place atop the wagon as we slowly made the journey to the chicken brooder house. We paused by the door. Mom opened the door, removes the top box, places it inside the coop, close to one of the brooder heat lamps.
We reached in the box and cradled a baby chick in both hands. We dipped the chick’s beak into the drinking fountain water. Baby chicks had to be taught how to drink water. Then we would place them ever so gently under the heat lamp, amid admonitions to “be careful not to squeeze them.”
The chicks were small and cuddly. We are curious about their tiny yellow feathers, small black eyes, and beaks that opened and closed. We helped set up glass bubblers for water and small metal trays for chicken feed. Baby chicks needed warmth, water, food, and a quiet brooder house. Sudden, loud, sharp noises would frighten the wee fowl and they could bunch up in the corner and smother.
Chickens were Mom’s undertaking. Dad would tend to the cows, horses, pigs, and sheep, but Mom raised the chickens. She would go out to check the temperature of the brooder almost every hour. Chicks soon develop their own heat, so the thermostat had to be turned down or backed off periodically.
As spring moved into summer, the chicks grew, and the feathers changed from yellow to white. With the warmer weather the young chicks are outside the coop to scrounge among the grass and clover, truly free-range chickens. We eagerly awaited the first egg from the young pullet as she got into the egg -production mode at about 20 weeks.
Larry Scheckel is the author of Seneca Seasons: A Farm Boy Remembers.