By Charlotte Heikkinen
There wasn’t a moment to lose. Vernon and Herman Johnson knew what they had to do.
Two-hundred and fifty newly hatched baby leghorn chicks had been picked up at the Clinton hatchery that very cold and windy March morning in 1949, and now the electricity was off. There was no power or heat at the Johnson farm, or in the surrounding area for that matter.
Luckily the power lines had held during the evening milking, because it would have been quite a job to milk 43 Holsteins by hand. Milking had occasionally been completed when the power was out by hitching up the tractor exhaust to the milk pump, but this certainly was less than ideal, and the house and outbuildings didn’t receive any benefit from the arrangement.
Without a moment’s hesitation, the menfolk hurried to the dark, quiet brooder house situated out behind the granary. Dad and Grandpa searched the corrugated lined enclosure for any little chicks that had remained outside of the 5-foot metal brooder. After thoroughly surveying the outside perimeter, they lifted the still slightly warm cover, and the men proceeded to gently scoop up the bunching little fowl. They were unceremoniously placed in bushel baskets and were taken to the house. A few had already smothered, but 247 chicks did make it to the back porch.
The day-olds warmed up
Mom was ready for the youngsters. She had covered the floor of her immaculate small kitchen with the saved copies of the Beloit Daily News and the Clinton Topper. The Hardwick combination wood and gas stove would provide the heat necessary to keep the chicks warm throughout the night, and hopefully the kerosene lanterns and working flashlights would provide enough light to keep the peeps from bunching up on each other.
We kids stayed out of the way while the adults let the little yellow day-olds loose on the covered gray and black speckled linoleum floor.
I don’t know how late the grown-ups stayed up, but I do know that in the morning, Mom and Dad found a couple cooked, dead chicks under the metal stripping on the bottom of the stove, but 242 fuzzy chicks were found running all over while leaving traces of digestive excrement behind.
Soon thereafter, Dad and Grandpa invested in a tractor-powered generator that would provide enough electricity for the barn, and for the lights and some of the appliances in the house. Then when the power went out Dad would start up the International M and would drive it to the garage where he would run a belt from the tractor to the generator. Soon one would hear the milking pump go on in the barn. We knew that all was well and that the power was back on without a moment to lose.
Those leghorns would ‘fly the coop!’
Grandpa got his wish, and a new chicken house was erected on the farm in 1951. It had big picture windows, an indoor hydrant, a feed room, a large opening with an overhead door, and it could comfortably house 500 laying hens. It was a conversation piece in the neighborhood because many people would stop and ask if the building was a new house being set up on the farm. Grandpa continued to raise those flighty leghorns until his mid 80s. We always had to rap on the door before entering the hen house since Grandpa said, “The chickens will fly right out the other end of the building if they are startled.” We always rapped on the door before opening it, because we couldn’t quite figure out how the chickens would get through a solid wall, but we figured that they just might be able to do it.