By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, April 25, 1936
“Every man,” said Jimmie Frise, “should have a profitable side line.”
“For instance,” I suggested.
“Rich men,” said Jim, “have their successful business. But on the side, they invest their profits in stocks and bonds. Pretty soon, they are making as much money with their investments as they are in their business. In fact, after a while, they become so interested in the market, they regard their regular business as a side line.”
“But what kind of a side line,” I asked, “could plain people like you and me have?”
“Well, for example,” said Jim, “you’re a writer. You could raise pedigreed dogs as a side line.”
“I raise hounds now, for my own pleasure,” I retorted, “and they cost me a small fortune.”
“Hounds, yes,” said Jim. “But I mean profitable dogs, like Pekingese or dachshunds.”
“How about you?” I submitted. “You’re an artist. What could you do for a side line? Why don’t you start up a little factory for making some artistic article of common use like lamp shades?”
“It takes capital to start a factory,” said Jim. “My idea of a side line is something that takes no effort and no expense.”
“All you need,” I countered, “is a little one-room shop and two smart girls, to start with. You are full of artistic ideas. Your true self can’t express itself in cartoons only. Here you are a master of line and color, a man endowed with artistic talent of the highest order. But just because you made your first hit with a cartoon, you’ve spent your life cartooning.”
“I’ve often thought of taking up serious painting,” admitted Jim. “Landscapes, and so forth.”
“No money in it,” I assured him. “But you take this lamp shade idea. A little one-room factory. Start with only two girls. You design the shades. One girl to cut them out. The other to color them. I bet you Jim Frise lamp shades would be in a class with Baxter prints in no time. No fashionable home, no collector, could afford not to have a few Frise lamp shades.”
“What kind of lamp shades have you in mind?” asked Jim, interested.
“That’s for you to decide,” I pointed out. “You’re the artist. Do you realize the ordinary home in this city has an average of thirty lamp shades in it? Bridge lamps and wall brackets, ceiling fixtures and table lamps. And how dreadfully the same are they all? Silk or glass or parchment. I tell you, Jim, there is a very real need for something new and beautiful in lamp shades.”
“Have you any ideas?” Jim asked.
“If I had,” I snorted, “would I be a newspaper writer? My dear boy, it is ideas that count. Anybody with reasonable skill or training can carry out other people’s ideas. It is ideas that make the fortunes.”
“It keeps me busy thinking up ideas for cartoons,” said Jim.
Thinking Up a Side Line
“Listen,” I cried, “a man who can think up a new idea for a cartoon week after week, year after year, for twenty years, ought to be smart enough to think up about six ideas for lamp shades. Think, Jimmie. A lamp shade. Artistically, it has every advantage on its side. It has light behind it. Being lighted, it instinctively attracts the eye. We spend big money on rugs, pictures, furniture, to make an artistic room. And then we break our necks trying to discover a lamp shade that will attract no attention at all. It’s wrong. Jim. The lamp shade ought to be as much an artistic feature of the room as the painting over the mantel, or the curtains and drapes.”
“You’re right,” agreed Jim. “But what kind of a lamp shade do you suggest?”
“I don’t suggest any,” I snorted indignantly. “If anybody could suggest lamp shades, they would have made the money long ago. The only opportunity there is in this idea of mine lies with your power, as a creative artist, to think up some new ideas in lamp shades.”
“It’s funny,” said Jim. “I can’t think of any.”
“Very well,” I said, “let’s drop it. I was only trying to help you find a side line. But obviously we are barking up the wrong tree.”
“My idea of a side line,” said Jim, “is one that would practically run itself. Like chicken farming.”
“Chicken farming!” I exclaimed.
“It’s a great life,” said Jim. “Buy a bunch of chickens. Feed them a couple of times a day. You don’t even have to go to feed them, the way you have to go and feed cows. You just open the back door, call ‘chiiiich-chik-chik-chik’ and they come running. All that remains to be done is walk out once a day, along about sundown, and gather the eggs.”
“Now there,” I admitted, “is a side line.”
“Can you imagine,” said Jim, raptly, “a life more delightful than owning a nice little chicken ranch somewhere about fifteen or twenty miles outside the city? Say, four or five acres of pleasant land, with pine trees on a hill.”
“And a brook,” I offered, “running through it, full of little trout about eight inches.”
“Far enough outside the city,” said Jim, “to be free of the curse of city life. Yet near enough to the city that you can run in whenever you like to see a movie or to shop.”
“Not really a chicken rancher,” I added, “but a country gentleman.”
“That’s it,” agreed Jim. “Country gentlemen. We could have a nice little house, and fill it up with our sporting equipment, the walls covered with guns and creels and snowshoes. I can see it.”
“But where could we get such a place?” I demanded suddenly. “If chicken ranching is so lovely, we wouldn’t be able to buy a ranch for love or money.”
“As a matter of fact,” said Jim, there are any number of little chicken ranches for sale. It’s strange, but true. Hundreds of people get the same idea we have here. But they don’t make a go of it.”
A Marvellous Idea
“Ah,” said I, “why?”
“Because it is so lazy a life,” said Jim. “It gets them. A young couple, for instance, will suddenly get the idea of going back to the land. They are tired of the city. Tired of making a living like slaves. So they throw up their job, borrow a few hundred from their parents, and go chicken ranching.”
“They’re too young,” I explained. “We’re old enough to know our own mind.”
“It isn’t that, it’s the laziness,” said Jim. “I know about this. I have had dozens of friends try it. It’s the dreadful laziness. You see, there is nothing to do all day long but lie around listening to the low, comfortable clucking of the hens. They don’t have roosters on the modern ranches. So there is no triumphant yell of roosters to give the scene a more lively air. Just the day-long, slow, quaaaa, qua, qua, qua, of hens, scratching in the dust.”
“How peaceful it would be,” I sighed.
“For a while, yes,” agreed Jim. “And with nothing to do all day long but come and throw feed from the back step, and once a day to walk around the hen houses and collect the eggs. It begins to wear on the ranchers. The wife begins to neglect her hair. She starts, after a few weeks, to wear nothing but a print wrapper all day. The husband decides to shave only twice a week, and for such jobs as he has to do, he pulls his rubber boots on over his pajamas. Then he comes back and goes to sleep. It is that awful, day-long sleepy squaw-squawking of the hens.”
“It’s not a bad life,” I offered,
“It gets them,” said Jim. “It gets them. They start quarrelling. The dreadful monotony works on them. They both long for a little action, a little excitement. After a couple of quarrels, the wife comes into town to stay with her parents a few days. She comes back to find her husband with a six-day stubble on his face and he forgot to wash. The dishes aren’t done, and there is a general air of the Deep South about the ranch. That finishes it. Another chicken ranch is for sale.”
“How could we run such a place, as a side line?” I inquired
“Don’t you see?” asked Jim. “Day about. Neither of us needs to be at the office all day every day. We take turn about spending one day at work and the next day at the ranch. Only a half hour outside the city. Our families would not object. Not at our age. We could explain that we need the change in order to rest our spirits after the strain of creative work.”
“A marvellous idea, Jim,” I confessed.
“Taking it day about,” said Jim, “it would never pall on us. Neither of us could get slovenly. On our alternate day of peace, we could think of scores of ideas for our regular work. It would be a hundred per cent.”
Looking Things Over
“How much do you suppose we could make?” I asked.
“I know one chicken farmer,” said Jim, “who has survived the ordeal, and he says he makes clear about fifty dollars a week.”
“Twenty-five bucks apiece,” I cried, “Jim, think of the fishing tackle and guns we could buy with that! Think of the trips we could take! Nipigon, and down to Pelee Island for pheasants, and a real moose hunt.”
“Who’d run the ranch on all these holidays?” pointed out Jim.
“Don’t let that discourage us,” I hastened. “Jim, you’re a man of brains. Let’s make inquiries without delay.”
So Jim telephoned out to his friend in the country who is making a success of his chickens, and he arranged to show us over the ranch next day, to give us an idea.
His place was on a highway, and I timed it. It was just 23 minutes from the city limits until we turned down a lane and saw before us a nice little painted frame house and about six long, low chicken houses.
The entire area was as bare as a schoolyard, and all fenced in with high chicken wire. And inside this barren and lifeless compound were about a million white chickens.
The air was a din of low sound. As we drove up, nary a chicken so much as looked at us. They were not the fat, comfortable hens I had in mind. They were slim and pigeon-like pullets, snowy white, with bright scarlet combs. And all busier than wheels in a wrist watch. Busy scratching running, hurrying. Busy clucking and skwarping and muttering in low chicken voices. Busy as the deuce at one spot on the bleak and barren soil, and then darting quickly a few feet, busier than ever at another equally barren patch of hard dry earth.
Out of the low red houses they fluttered. Into the low red houses they fluttered. There was a sense of ceaseless anxiety, hurry and excitement. An excitement surrounded with a low muttering sound, as if all the hens were swearing desperately, at the fruitless and hopeless round of their lives.
I sat in the car while Jim walked up to the house to get his friend. Ceaselessly the hens moved in a dense throng like a sea of white feathers. Ceaselessly they squawed and muttered and yelped suddenly with sharp sideways jumps. Their din was confusing at first. And then it became distressing. I stood up and waved my arms wildly to change the tempo. But except for an automatic flutter on the part of a few of the nearer chickens, it never made so much as a pause in their dreadful murmuring.
Chickens, I said to myself, attempting to reason myself into a better mental attitude towards them, chickens are man’s best friend. Not dogs, not horses, but chickens. Long ages before man dared to try and captivate a well and train it into a dog, he doubtless had wheedled these silly birds out of the jungle and into the front porch of the cave. Countless centuries before man ever had the courage to try to lasso a horse and convert it patiently into a harmless slave, man had so weaned chickens away from nature that a chicken would not dare return to the jungle.
And what a friend the chicken has proved? If the two billion people in the world all eat an egg a day. . . let’s see? . . . in a year, that will be what?
And the faster the hens laid eggs, the healthier men got, and the more people there were to eat eggs, and the more hens were needed to lay eggs. Maybe, I mused, the chicken, that willing provider of man’s most tasty and nourishing food, was the real source of man’s evolution from a furred animal to a relative of the gods. Chickens, I decided, and not lions or eagles, should be the emblem of all intelligent nations.
Back came Jim with his friend, a short leathery man in canvas overalls. He liked like a rooster. His bright, beady eyes and sharp nose gave me the idea that he was about to rise on his toes and crow at any minute.
“Well, boys,” he cackled sharply. “what is it you’d like to see?”
“I Feel a Little Dizzy”
“We were thinking of taking up chicken ranching as a side line,” Jim explained. “And we just wanted an idea of the layout.”
“Well, that’s all there is to it,” he cackled. Some chicken houses, nesting boxes, an enclosure, and there you are.”
“What’s the routine?” asked Jim.
“I get up about half an hour before daybreak,” said our friend. “Patrol the property to see no owls have been in. Then I carry water to them, about fourteen pails, and next I mix the feed and feed them. That takes me to about 8 a.m., and then I eat breakfast.”
“Breakfast,” said I.
“Then,” said the rancher, “I spend the morning cleaning the houses. That’s a good morning’s job. You have to keep these houses spotless, or you’re up to your neck in vermin and disease. Some afternoons I spend driving to town for feed and other days I deliver the eggs to market. The rest of the time, I am grading eggs, packing them or doing special trapping in the nests. Other days I have to do killing. Usually I’m through by 10 p.m., and then I’m glad to go to bed.
“I should say,” I agreed.
“But,” he said, “it’s one way of making a living. I clear $15 a week…”
“Fifty?” I interrupted.
“Fifteen,” said the rancher. “If I was clearing 50, I wouldn’t call the king my nephew.”
“I thought you said 50,” said Jim.
“Fifty, mercy,” said the rancher. “What do you think I am, an artist or a writer? Now let’s go and see the houses.”
We entered the wire enclosure and waded through a vast white pool of chickens which fluttered and made way and closed again around us. As we approached the first low red house, 40 chickens launched themselves madly from within, fluttering wildly and uttering lamentable cries, and my hat was knocked off by them. As we entered the warm shanty, other chickens that had not escaped charged insanely about, banging themselves against wire partitions and scrambling frantically in all directions.
“Pay no attention,” said our host.
But a white hen in one of the little lidded boxes all along the wall fixed me with a glittering eye, suddenly leaped from the nest, and, frantically fluttering, passed over me and dropped a hot egg square on the top of my head. Naturally, it broke.
“Nervous,” said the rancher, scooping palmful of the egg off my hair. “These high bred chickens are all nerves.”
The startled sounds of our entry had silenced as suddenly as they had begun, but the world was full of that low, querulous din again, the scraping, droning, muttering sound of a vast throng of passionless creatures devoid of hope or rest.
“Jim,” I said, “I feel a little dizzy. It must be the warmth in here. Go ahead. I’ll wait for you outside.”
So I escaped from the enclosure, hurried out the lane and sat afar on a snake fence and watched a groundhog on a knoll until Jim, in due time for Jim, came along with the car and we drove home.
“How about it?” asked Jim, slipping into high.
“It’s out,” I said, shifting my hat so it would not get stuck to my hair.
Editor’s Notes: More Chickens! Following last week’s posting of a later 1941 story, this week’s was earlier when they thought bigger. Maybe they learned that they should think smaller in 1941, which resulted in more success (if it were not for the neighbours)?
“I wouldn’t call the king my nephew” and “I wouldn’t call the queen my aunt” were phrases that meant “I am happy with my situation.” The idea is that even becoming royalty could not improve your position.