This time of the year, mid-March, I harken back to my days on the family farm out on Oak Grove Ridge, near Seneca, in the heart of Crawford County, Wisconsin. We had milking cows, hogs, sheep, and horses. We pastured and fattened 30 two-year old calves. They fed off the grass and drank from Kettle Creek. We put out a salt block. They were shipped off to market in October.
Chickens were a big source of income for the 11-member Scheckel family. Five hundred White Leghorn laying hens and 200 Cornish Rock roosters roamed the farmstead every summer and fall. Dad and Mom received a postcard in the mail that gave the date the baby chicks were to arrive. There was always the worry over cold weather. Baby chickens need to be kept warm.
The chicken coop or brooding house had been prepared days in advance. Walls were cleaned, the floor scraped clean, and disinfected with a smelly brown liquid applied with a wide paint brush and sprayer. That stuff was so bad it was later banned.
The brooder was installed. A contraption with a sheet metal hood, four-sided, apron down to about 4 to 5 inches. A thermometer kept track of the temperature ideally held at about 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Chicks soon develop their own heat, so the thermostat was turned down or backed off periodically. 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.
The big day arrived in late March. The baby chicks came by way of the rural carrier mailman. He had four or five boxes of the little peepers stacked up the trunk of his car. He pulled his Chevy Coupe into the driveway of the farmstead, instead of the usual stop at the mailbox on the gravel road.
A rope from the trunk latch hung down over the boxes and was tied to the bumper. All of us kids gathered around, getting as close as we dare. We can hear the chicks chirping and peeping away. We tried putting our finger into one of the air holes of a box. Mom scolded, “back away kids.”
One by one the boxes were lifted out of the trunk, kept very level by the handler. Three or four boxes are stacked on our toy wagon. My brothers, Phillip and Bob, fought over who got to pull the wagon tongue. Phillip usually did, he is bigger, he is older, and he gets first dibs.
Bob and I held the boxes in place atop the kid’s wagon as we slowly make the journey to the chicken coop. We paused by the door. Mom opened the door, removed the top box, places it inside the coop, and close to one of the brooder heat lamps.
The boxes were about 2 feet on a side, and 5 inches high. The side 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 4 compartments using cardboard walls. About 10 White Leghorn chicks were in each little compartment. This arrangement of cubicles prevented the chicks from crowding together and smothering each other.
We reached in the box and cradled a baby chick in both hands. Then 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 baby chicks arriving on the farm was one of the sure signs of Spring.