Chicken Memories from an Old Broiler Queen
By Deborah Littlefield Bird
I’ll be sixty-nine years old this summer, and this milestone has me feeling nostalgic as I look back at the life that brought me this far. It’s been a good life all and all. Most of it quite ordinary, though lately I’ve realized that there was a part of my childhood that was unique to a few country people from the area where I was raised. I grew up in Belfast, Maine, across the road from my grandparent’s farm where my grandfather raised thousands of broiler chickens for Penobscot and Maplewood Poultry Companies from the early 1950’s into the 1970’s.
Though the road I lived on was named Pitcher Road, it was locally known as Littlefield Road, because everyone living on that road was my Littlefield relative. Growing up in this large extended family of aunts, uncles, cousins, parents and grandparents I had a loving support system of people who played together and worked together. As a child there was always plenty of time for play, but on certain occasions everyone pitched together for work, even the children. One of those occasions was when we prepared for the new chickens’ arrival to Grandpa’s three-story chicken house.
I grew up hearing and believing that Belfast was the “Chicken Capital of the World.” Every July the town sponsored the Maine Broiler Festival where thousands of visitors arrived for the gigantic parade through town, barbecued chicken in City Park overlooking Penobscot Bay, pie eating contests, games, dances, and the crowning of the Maine Broiler Queen. Living in the country we didn’t get to town too often, but this festival was the celebration of the year for chicken farmers, so even the Littlefields piled into the old pickups and headed to town for the entire day and late into the evening. What a time we had; but for me, the crowning of the broiler queen was the most exciting event. We kids would choose the beauty who we thought would win and root for her. Of course, all of us little girls aspired to be up on that stage someday, too. Broiler Day was definitely a highlight of our summers, but there was much work behind the culmination of that celebration.
Raising chickens was generally dusty, dirty, and very stinky hard work. Over seven thousand chickens lived together on each floor of the chicken house. The grain room was attached to the Quonset style barn and held 100-pound burlap bags piled on top of each other filled with a chick mash for the young and poultry feed for the older chickens. Bags of cracked corn and crushed stone lined the wall for the older chickens. Cracked corn was spread by hand to fatten up the broilers before being taken back to the factory. Crushed stone was also spread by the handfuls to help the chicken’s digestion process. The stone in the bird’s crop helped to grind up the food before digesting it to the stomach below. Below the grain room was the coal room that stored the fuel for the numerous stoves spread throughout each floor of the barn.
Grandpa and Uncle Gene fed, watered, and cared for this huge flock daily. They didn’t have automated feeders and waterers in those days. All the work was done by hand, carrying buckets of grain from the grain room to each feeder, up and down the stairs, in and out numerous times. Glass waterers were re-filled each day, and stoves were filled with coal twice a day to keep the young chicks warm and cozy. This work continued for seven to nine weeks for the pullets and up to 14 weeks for the roasters. After a few weeks, a crew of men from the chicken factory would come, herd the flock into a smaller fenced off section of each floor, and de-beak them by burning the tip of the top beak back. As a child I thought the purpose of that process was to keep them from pecking me, but I suppose it was actually done to keep them from pecking each other. Chickens feel no loyalty toward each other and will very quickly turn on a weaker brother or sister and peck them to death. At seven to nine weeks, the factory crew would return and again fence off the chickens to gather up the pullets to take to the factory. A long flatbed truck stacked several layers high with wooden crates would pull into the yard and up to the end of the chicken house. After loading all the pullets, the truck with each crate stuffed to the gills with chickens would slowly pull out of the yard. We’d stand in the driveway watching the feathers fly and listening to the squawking until it was out of sight down the road. A few weeks later the whole process would be repeated with the roasters. Then it was time for the kids to get involved!
Raising chickens was mostly Grandpa and Uncle Gene’s work, but there were times they needed the whole neighborhood of relatives to help. After the chicken house was cleared out of its inhabitants, a crew of male friends and relatives descended on the barn. Starting with the top floor they would shovel the packed chicken droppings mixed with old nasty sawdust into wheelbarrows and dump the waste downs three-foot square holes that were aligned with the same size holes on the second floor into dump trucks parked on the bottom floor under the holes above. When the third floor was cleaned down to the cement, the crew would move to the second floor and clean it. The bottom floor was easier to clean, because tractors with buckets could drive in to gather up the waste. The full dump trucks would haul away the waste and spread it onto a farm field far from the house. Mammie, my dear grandmother, had a nose like a hound dog and wouldn’t stand for the smelly refuge to be spread within a couple of miles of the house. The chicken house was smelly enough on ordinary days, but stirring up that mess spread that ammonia chicken smell far distances.
Washing the dishes was considered woman’s work in my family, and that rule spread to the chicken barn as well. While the male relatives were cleaning the barn, we girls set up two large metal tubs in the grain room to wash the waterers. The two-piece glass waterers had caked on crud from living with the chickens for weeks, and getting them clean for the next round of baby chicks was not an easy task. We set up two large metal tubs in the grain room, one for soapy water and one for rinsing, changing the nasty water every half hour. We’d take turns washing, rinsing, and stacking the clean waterers on longboards stacked four deep and four wide. The washing would take about three days to complete, but the camaraderie of story-telling, gossiping, and jokes would make the time fly by. When I was quite young Mammie, Aunt Wilda, and Aunt Bev were the chief bottle washers, but as the next generation of girls grew old enough, we took over the responsibility. My cousins Brenda, Rhonda, and Linda and I have great memories of working on the waterers for several years. Rhonda reminded me lately of the time Mammie picked up a dirty waterer and found a nest of baby mice inside. Not fazed, she quickly disposed of the vermin and continued with the task at hand. When finished with the washing and cleaning up the grain room, Grandpa would give each of us girls a silver dollar for our efforts. I always saved that silver dollar to spend at the Union Fair every August.
Next came the sawdust truck. It had a long shute attached to the back of the truck that could fit into the barn windows, and sawdust was blown into huge piles on both ends of each floor. I loved the day that the sawdust truck came, because we kids would get to play in the huge sawdust mounds, sliding down the sides and playing king of the mountain. After sufficient playtime, it was time to spread the sawdust about six inches deep over the floors. Using wheelbarrows and shovels we kids worked together with the men to finish this chore. In the wintertime, Grandpa would keep the coal stoves lit for us, and the warm and sweet smelling barn was a cozy place to be.
The next step to ready the barn for the new chicks was to place rolled corrugated cardboard rings around each coal stove. We’d tuck the bottom of the rings into the sawdust and edge it with our feet so it would be stable. Then we’d lay newspapers inside of these rings, so that the baby chicks wouldn’t eat the sawdust. We kids had contests to see how fast we could lay papers, but Grandpa’s inspection always made us be careful to lay them correctly with no sawdust showing. Next we filled the waterers and feeders and placed five of them in each circle. Now the chicken house was ready, and excitement mounted for us kids.
My favorite chicken memories were when the day old babies arrived. My cousins and I would wait on the big rock on the front lawn guessing which upcoming vehicle sound would be the chicken truck, anxiety growing with each passing vehicle. When it did arrive, we kids would run to meet the small crew bringing this precious cargo. The covered trailer held stacks on stacks of cardboard boxes with circular breathing holes showing little beaks and fluffy heads peering out. Instead of the squawking of the grown chickens going to the factory, the greeting of soft peepers coming to us from the factory was music to our ears. Each of us would wait in line to carry a box of baby chicks into the barn and stack them in the grain room for the two upper floors and the coal room for the bottom floor. After the truck was emptied and on its way, we would take each box to a warm coal-fired stove circled with cardboard rings and papered so neatly. Then we would reach our hands into one of the four compartments in the box and lift out the soft little balls of fur, so warm and sweet. The memory of that act is still so vivid in my mind. Over and over we would reach in and gently empty out box after box of the babies into their new home. For me, the climax of the week of work we had done in preparation for their arrival was the moments we handled those little ones. I would go to visit those chicks each day for a week or so until they started growing big feathers. At that point they weren’t cute and sweet anymore, and my attention would turn to some other adventure on the farm. Then the work in the chicken house turned back to Grandpa and Uncle Gene once more until we all would be needed again in 14 to 15 weeks.
Each year the poultry company would give bonus checks to farm raisers who raised the healthiest chickens with the fewest death rates. Grandpa always received a bonus check, and a few times was named “Grower of the Year” by the poultry company. During those years he would be invited to a celebration and banquet hosted by Penobscot or Maplewood Company. Mammie was always too shy to attend these functions with Grandpa, so Aunt Bev went with him a few times.
As I grew into a teenager and was busy with school and summer jobs, the chicken work was turned over to younger siblings and cousins. However, we all still celebrated the chicken industry every July at the Broiler Festival. My little girl’s dream of being on that queen’s stage came true for me in 1967 when I was crowned Maine Broiler Queen. My chicken raising family picked me as the beauty of their choice, and the cycle was completed. The Portland Press Herald featured a picture of me with my crown and trophy and titled it, “The Pick of the Chicks”.
During the next ten years, my grandfather retired from raising chickens, and the chicken industry in Belfast was dying. Today the factories are gone and only a few old chicken houses remain in the mid-coastal area of Maine, and these few remaining barns now are renovated into storage facilities or for other uses. Yes, looking back over these past 69 years at my ordinary life, I realize that my chicken raising experiences weren’t all that ordinary. Those days are gone forever except in the memories of the aging populace from “the Chicken Capital of the World.”
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