Any person with sense enough to come in out of the rain could run a chicken farm. That’s what they thought
By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, April 19, 1941
“You and I lead a risky existence,” declared Jimmie Frise.
“Our dangerous days are over, Jim,” I said comfortably.
“I don’t mean risky in the sense of bullets and bombs and stuff,” said Jim. “But suppose this war goes on until nobody wants to look at cartoons any more.”
“You could always eke out an existence drawing war maps,” I submitted. “There is always room for artists there. War maps change every few days.”
“What about you?” inquired Jim. “Suppose this war goes on and on until you haven’t the heart to write any more nonsense.”
“I could peddle articles about how terrible the next war is going to be,” I stated. “Lots of men made a living predicting this war. Don’t you remember? They wrote sensational articles all about how the skies would be filled with bombers and whole cities blown to atoms. And how armies would fight only in tanks. And ships would be sunk from the air.”
“Now that I remember,” cried Jim, “they did a pretty good job of forecasting just what this war would be like.”
“Yep,” I said, “and they made enough to live on and see their predictions come true. It must be queer to be a London or a Berlin journalist and sit in your deep dugout, thumbing over your scrap book and studying all the big feature articles you wrote in 1930, with terrific illustrations of bombers blasting cities and tanks roaring over prostrate civilians…”
“We got so sick of those predictions,” interrupted Jim. “that we went into reverse. Instead of preparing us for the disaster, those articles just drove us to bury our heads in the sand. Maybe the government won’t let you peddle articles like that after this war. Maybe that will be defined as a form of indirect treason.”
“I’ll find something to write,” I assured him.
“Sometimes,” sighed Jimmie, “I get so weary of trying to find anything amusing in this sad world.”
“Laugh, clown, laugh,” I asserted. “It’s the old, old story. Jim. We who were framed by providence to be fools and clowns have to keep on, come hell or high water. The show must go on.”
Going Chicken Ranching
“I wish we had some side line,” muttered Jim.
“Such as?” I demanded.
“We have reached the age,” proposed Jim, “when we should look ahead to retiring. Naturally, we have been much too foolish to save any money. You can’t be a professional fool and a private wise guy at the same time.”
“Chicken ranching,” I submitted.
“That’s not so foolish,” ejaculated Jimmie, sitting up sharply. “I’ve often thought of it. But it is so common a way of escaping from the world, so many people have retired to chicken farming, that I was afraid you’d laugh at me if I suggested it.”
“If others have found an escape from the woes of this world by going chicken ranching,” I offered, “it probably indicates there is merits in the idea.”
“I know people,” said Jim. “who have decided to retire; who quit work and sold their homes in the city and went out and bought little places in the market garden belt; and who inside of two years were back in the city, cleaned to the bone and living on their relations.”
“They probably didn’t understand chickens,” I informed him. “But I should think anybody with enough sense to come in out of the rain could make a go of chickens. Why, out in the towns and villages, nearly everybody has a hen house at the foot of their back yard.”
“Chicken ranching is different,” said Jim. “Keeping a few chickens is one thing. Making a business of them is another.”
“Listen,” I said. “You were born and raised on the farm. You were 18 before you decided to come to the city and be a cartoonist. Surely there is enough of the farmer left in you to make a go of a chicken ranch.”
“I suppose if we went into chicken raising,” said Jim, “you’d leave all the hard work to me on those grounds?”
“I’d be the salesman, Jim,” I explained. “You be the production manager. I’ve got some swell ideas already. For instance: You know those white signs they have along the highways – ‘Cattle Crossing, 300 feet ahead’.”
“Yes,” said Jim, alertly.
“Well, sir, three hundred feet on either side of our little chicken ranch,” I said triumphantly, “I would have signs exactly the same only reading – ‘Chicken Crossing, 300 feet ahead.”
“Oh, boy,” said Jim.
“Can’t you just see them?” I cried. “And can you imagine the effect on the traffic going by? Why, hundreds of cars would stop, just for a laugh. And they’d come into our little place and buy our eggs and poultry. I could set up a little sort of glass shop in the front yard, with refrigerators and things, modern and white…”
Secret of Success
“I believe you’ve got something there,” exclaimed Jim. “Chicken Crossing, 300 feet ahead. Boy, that would stop them. The secret of success in any business is a new idea.”
“You said it, Jim.” I said enthusiastically. “Why maybe we’ve been wasting our lives in this newspaper business. I bet if we’d started in some business like chicken ranching 30 years ago, we’d be rich old geezers right now.”
Jim sat thinking in eager silence, his eyes dancing with the mental pictures he was seeing.
“Listen,” he said excitedly. “You know that little kennel run you have at the foot of your garden?”
“Yes,” I said, doubtfully.
“You don’t use it for anything but storing the lawnmower and the garden furniture,” said Jim. “It was built by some former tenant who kept pets of some kind…”
“Rabbits or pheasants,” I admitted.
“Why can’t we do a little preliminary experimenting,” demanded Jim. “I’d go in with you to get a few chickens. There is no use putting this idea off, the way we do all our other inspirations. Let’s start chicken raising right now. In a small way…”
“Not in the city, Jim,” I protested. “It’s against the law, for one thing.”
“Is it?” questioned Jim shrewdly. “Let’s find out.”
And while I sat filled with misgivings, Jimmie telephoned the city hall, and got the sanitation section in the department of public health and had a long chat with the gentleman there.
“See?” cried Jim, hanging up. “It is not illegal. There are no restrictions whatever against keeping chickens in the city.”
“It doesn’t sound possible, Jim,” I protested. “They’ve by-lawed everything else in the world.”
“The man said, definitely.” declared Jimmie, “that there were no restrictions. It was wholly a question of the neighbors. If the neighbors objected, then we could be summoned through the department of health.”
“It doesn’t sound natural, Jim,” I cautioned. “It doesn’t sound like Toronto.”
A Perfect Example
“The man said,” assured Jim, “that the grounds on which neighbors usually complained was that the chickens were unsanitary, or they were kept too near other people’s premises, or they created a nuisance by escaping into other people’s gardens. Or the rooster crowed too early in the morning … any of these reasons could be advanced by the neighbors and you could be forced to quit keeping chickens.”
“What is too early for a rooster to crow?” I inquired narrowly.
“The gentleman said,” advised Jim, “that in the court, it was usually the opinion of the bench that a rooster should not be permitted to crow before seven a.m. After that, it is all right.”
“What a perfect example,” I pronounced, “of pure democracy. There is no law regarding chickens. But if the neighbors object, you’re out. I didn’t think there was such a case of pure democracy left anywhere on earth. And we find it right here in Toronto.”
“It shows you the value,” declared Jim, “of keeping in with your neighbors. If you are the type that is eternally quarreling with you next door neighbors, objecting to their children, to their dogs, to their shaking mops out windows and so forth, then it is hopeless to try to keep chickens. But if you love your neighbors and they love you, then you have earned not the right but the privilege of keeping chickens. One sour neighbor, and you’re out!”
“Jim” I confessed, “not as an experiment in chickens, but as an experiment in citizenship, I am almost persuaded to agree to your proposition. How many chickens would we buy?”
“Six,” said Jim, after a moment’s calculation. “Five hens and a rooster. I’ll buy three, you buy three.”
“I’ll buy the rooster,” I said.
“And we’ll divide the cost of buying chicken feed,” said Jim, “and we’ll divide the eggs. Oh, boy, oh, boy, do I ever love a pure fresh egg, still warm from the nest, poached and sitting on top of a slice of lovely golden toast…”
“Shirred eggs for me,” I cut in. “Take a little dish and butter it. Break two lovely fresh eggs and put in a hot oven. Bake them until they are just set. Don’t let them bake too long…”
So we went down to the Market that very afternoon, and amidst a glorious music of roosters crowing and hens cackling and squawking that resounded in the big empty market like a symphony rehearsal in an empty auditorium, we walked up and down aisles of cages full of poultry and sought the advice of the white coated lads in charge.
But in the company of the chickens, Jimmie’s latent memories of the farm began to waken, and he began to show an increasing knowledge of the chicken world. The big fluffy Plymouth Rocks intrigued me: but Jim said eggs were our chief interest and he plumped for the White Leghorn. The young fellow who had us in tow praised the Rhode Island Red. He said he had a strain of them that were simply prodigious at eggs. They couldn’t be pried off the nest. He suspected most of them of laying two eggs a day.
Buying White Leghorns
So we ended up by buying a White Leghorn rooster and a combination of White Leghorns and Rhode Island Reds. The idea being that we could experiment with them and so decide what to raise when the great day came for us to go ranching. The young fellow put them in sacks and we took them home in Jim’s car.
In no time at all, we had the pet house at the foot of my garden in shape for the chickens. All we had to do was move out the swing and the lawnmower and some canvas chairs, patch a couple of holes in the wire netting where some previous tenant had kept some sort of pets; and there we were. A large gathering of children of the neighborhood and both our families were present at the launching of the chickens from the sacks.
They took at once to their new quarters. Each ran about four steps out of the sack before starting to peck. And the big rooster got up on the door edge and let go such a trumpet that windows for half a block in both directions were opened and heads came popping out.
“We’ll have to keep that rooster locked up until seven a.m.,” said Jimmie.
“By the way,” I inquired, “how will we arrange about whose turn it will be to come and let them out each morning? You take one week and I’ll take the next?”
We went up to the Junction and found the last flour and feed store in the district. We bought a 20-pound bag of feed and a water trough and half a dozen china eggs to put in the nests. And before dark, we had the whole enterprise ship shape. Jim built three box nests and I nailed up two perches inside the little house. From a new house we saw under construction on our way to the flour and feed, we got a big carton full of sawdust and shavings. We went to bed that night in the knowledge of something well done and a new era dawning in our lives.
I was waked by sounds in my garden. And there was Jimmie in his old clothes at the chicken house, throwing feed. I dressed hastily and joined him. He lives only five doors south but he had promised to set his alarm clock for seven. It was only ten to seven.
However, I didn’t raise any quarrel. I examined the nests. There were only the china eggs. I renewed the water in the can.
“Mmmff,” said Jim, warmly. “It already smells chickeny.”
We watched them for about an hour and then had to go and get ready for the office. We left the office early and spent the evening around the birds, making friends with them and indicating in our dumb way that they were welcome in all respects and that we would not be distressed if they laid an egg.
Up At Six-Thirty
The next morning, I set my clock for 6.30 a.m. and caught Jimmie just as he came down the side drive. We entered together. I opened the door. Jim grabbed the feed bag and started throwing the feed. I went to the nests; and in the third one found an egg!
It was still warm. And Jimmie and I, after the excitement had died down and the rooster had been chased into silence from his perch on the door, handed it to each other several times while we praised its beauty of form, its transparency, its delicate shell … Then we tossed and Jim won it for breakfast. However, I claimed the right to borrow it long enough to take it inside and wake each member of my family and show it to them.
We latched the door and left repeated instructions to our family as to anybody disturbing the fowls during our absence, and we got back home around 5 p.m.
There were no more eggs. This distressed me, because I was figuring on a shirred egg for supper. But we broomed out the house and renewed the water and Jim made some changes in the sawdust and shavings in the nests. And it was about seven p.m., after a hasty supper, that Jimmie and I were sitting inside the chicken run watching the birds slowly going to bed when the party of neighbors came in the drive. They were a deputation. There were seven gentlemen and one lady. Some of them came from as far as ten doors north.
“Aha,” I said, when I saw their formal expressions, “democracy, huh?”
The spokesman was a man I have often lent my lawnmower to. I have even loaned him a lawn mower that I had borrowed. His children play with mine without ever a rift.
He explained that a wholly spontaneous delegation had been formed, by telephone. There were in the neighborhood several sick people. There was one new-born baby, whose parents got little sleep anyway. That the rooster crowed all day long. But even without the rooster, the hens made a slow, drawling, complaining sound that was most irritating.
“The weather has been very still,” I pleaded. “On ordinary days, you would not notice …”
But he said he had requested to be permitted to be the spokesman as he was an old friend of mine and he wanted to keep the delegation on the pleasantest footing possible.
“We’ve only had one egg,” I pleaded.
However, as the other members of the delegation began to swell up and get red, especially the one lady, we agreed to do something about the matter. The spokesman herded the delegation out before it burst.
So we sat down and watched the last of the fowls retire into the house. It was the rooster. With soft, masculine chuckles and mutters, he reassured his five ladies that all was well and he was coming in from his sentry duty.
I felt something tiny crawling on the back of my neck. I pursued it. It eluded me. I felt something on my wrist. I felt two things on the back of my neck, in the short hair.
“Jim,” I said, bending over, “can you see anything on the back of my neck there?”
“You should keep out of the chicken house,” said Jim. “We’ll have to get some fine sand so they can dust themselves.”
“Is it …?” I inquired.
“Yep,” said Jim.
And the following morning, there being still no more eggs in the nests, I held the bag and Jimmie cornered the birds and we took them down to the market and sold them back to the man for $1 less than we paid.
Which is cheap experience.
Fake eggs are placed in nests to encourage chickens to lay in a particular spot. This is were the term “nest egg” comes from, as it was felt that it would encourage more eggs, and therefore bigger profits.
Greg was probably referring to mites or lice being on him, which can come from chicken farming.