Getting accustomed to the darkness was the hardest part, that and tripping over unseen equipment, slipping in the mud holes, hitting my head on steel trusses by the wall, things like that.
Then amid the ever present smell of warm, wet feathers and waste, I would struggle to find and grab one leg of a flapping, scratching bird, add it to eight others and carry them to a waiting truck only to return and repeat the process until two thousand were corralled, crated and ready to be moved.
For a thirteen year-old living in Wild Rose, Wisconsin there were many opportunities for part-time or summer jobs. Most of course were related to farming and picking up things; pickles, potatoes, squash, melons and whatever else could be picked, carried or otherwise handled, or hoed.
It didn’t take long to learn that “making hay” was not along my career path.
Of all the possibilities however, catching chickens was probably the most unusual.
Today few people believe it was even done. My kids think it was just a figment of my overwrought imagination.
Calvin Woodward owned what later came to be known as Midwestern Egg Ranches, with farms in both Wild Rose and Shiocton, Wisconsin.
In the early years, young laying hens were raised at both locations and sold to egg producers throughout the state. Later the operation was expanded to include egg production in Shiocton with a packing and shipping plant in Wild Rose.
Week-old chicks were put in the three steel buildings some six hundred feet long. These were divided into six separate coops, each holding about three thousand birds.
They were fed and cared for, for another twenty weeks, at which time they were loaded into wooden crates and trucked to the egg producing farms. That’s where I came in.
Eight or ten high school kids were hired for the job of catching and loading the chickens.
It was determined that they (the chickens) were easier to catch in the dark when they wouldn’t be spooked so easily.
Now imagine ten kids stumbling through the darkness, amid feeders and wet chicken sh..avings trying to come up with nine flapping scratching, smelly birds. Then they were carried, feathers flying, to the waiting truck until four or five hours later, all would be caught and loaded.
There were always a few wet areas in the coops where the automatic watering troughs malfunctioned, creating more mud and wet stuff to slip, slide and fall into. Or be pushed. In the dark it was hard to know just who the culprit was.
Of the working conditions, Cal would often remind us “don’t drop your gum, but if you do, make sure to pick up the right piece.”
He was a fair boss and it seemed that he could build or repair anything from automatic feeding systems to a truck engine, with a pair of needle-nosed vise grips and a hammer. These tools were always within reach, either in a pocket or hanging like an extra limb from his bib overhauls.
There were many other duties included in the “poultry herder” job description.
The mortality rate for young chicks was extremely high and the deceased needed to be removed daily. Then there was the culling, debeaking, washing and cleaning the hundreds of water troughs and of course, plenty of shoveling.
Garth Towne was a local farmer who volunteered to come in and clean out the buildings after the chickens were gone. He would whistle while he worked with an oversized scoop shovel, not even breaking a sweat while I and cohort Larry Atkinson would struggle just to get half a shovel full into the truck.
He claimed that the smelly mixture of manure and wood shavings was guaranteed to “grow tall corn and big pickles.”
Fresh shavings were then trucked in, brooders cleaned and the building made ready for the next batch of chicks which as you might expect, arrived in cardboard crates and were unloaded by hand.
There is nothing left today that hints at the thousands of chickens, perhaps millions of eggs that were produced north of Wild Rose along Highway 22. The land, buildings and production facility was sold and became part of the Wild Rose Fish Hatchery expansion.
Working with both chickens and their eggs would sustain me for several years through high school, college, before and after the military and in between jobs.
Starting wage for a poultry herder in 1963 was, 85 cents an hour-and all the gum you could find.