Thistles Cut, Ironing Done


When autumn winds blow and the leaves fall, I remember.

In the springtime in the 1930's my mother ordered baby chicks from a hatchery. (We no longer set hens on a nest of eggs to incubate baby chicks.) One hundred tiny chicks came by express in a special box with small partitions inside and air holes in the lid. They were scheduled to arrive in April but sometimes April weather in Wisconsin was cold and chilly. It might even be snowing. The young chicks could not be put outside in such weather, so they were kept in the box in our big enclosed back porch until the weather was warmer.

The brooder house set in the orchard. Before the chicks could be put in it the house had to be scrubbed and disinfected to get rid of possible diseases left over from the last year. The kerosene heater was made ready and set in the middle of the house. When my mother decided how many chicks to order she had to take into account the possibility of losing several or perhaps even many. Having to stay in the box too long wasn't particularly good for them. Then, after they were in the brooder house the heater might get too warm. Or extra cold weather might make them crowd around the heater in a tight group and some would die from being trampled by the others. Or disease might strike. It was hard to determine what to do for a sick baby chick.

When the chicks grew they were allowed to go in and out of the brooder house as they chose into a fenced enclosure. By the time they were all feathered out the weather was warm and the brooder wasn't needed. They started roosting in the apple trees around the brooder house. They spent the nights in the low growing trees out of reach of skunks or weasels. That was fine until cold weather came.

The chickens could not continue to enjoy all that freedom when freezing weather came, but chickens do not like to change their roosting place. We knew we had to get them into shelter when cold weather came. When the weatherman predicted a drop in temperature, we said, "Tonight we have to catch the chickens and put them in the hen house." The young chickens had stayed in the of the brooder house. There was no way we could herd a flock of chickens in the direction we wanted them to go. They could defeat our purpose easily by flying into the trees. We waited till they had gone to their perches in the apple trees.

So now, when the night is dark and the chilly wind blows hard and I feel the sharp air on my cheeks. I remember all of us bundled up against the cold, walking quietly into the orchard in the dim glow from the yard-light high on the corner of the house. We could see the chickens in the gloom sitting on the low branches. My father and brother stealthily grasped a chicken's legs and handed it to my mother or me. While still holding their legs we were able to tuck two or three birds under our arms to keep them from squawking and disturbing the other chickens. We hurried across the wide back yard to the hen house and quietly let them loose inside.

Most years we had to do this job at least two nights. As we began to catch chickens some of them flew to higher branches out of reach of even my father on a ladder. Going out in the cold the second night seemed harder and less like an adventure and more like a job that had to be done whether we liked it or not. But, when we walked back into our house it seemed an especially warm, secure place. Another piece of work that contributed to our livelihood was finished.

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Copyright 1991, 2004 by Zona S. Justiss. All rights reserved. Unless otherwise noted, text and photos on this page are property of the author and may not be reproduced, posted, distributed, or used for any commercial purpose without prior permission.