Thursday, September 8, 2011

letters of a woman homesteader (a sort of book review)

Last month, in anticipation of my upcoming birthday (now just 20 days away for anyone who cares) I splurged on a Kindle for myself. I had found myself in conversation with a friend about our respective histories as readers and overcome with sadness contemplating how my own reading has tapered off to such a drizzle from the torrent it once was. It's been a confluence of factors: motherhood, the forced reading march through law school, entire days now spent glued to a computer screen. My best (and almost only) pleasure reading in recent years has taken place in the hammock overlooking Green Lake, on vacation. 

I'd been coveting a Kindle ever since we bought one for Hank's mom last Christmas and I thought maybe, just maybe, having an entire library on a wafer-thin device would restore my reading to at least a respectable stream once again. So I took the plunge.

Of course, having bought the thing, I needed something to read. An aside: I find it very frustrating to have hundreds of books sitting on my shelves, bought and paid for, many from Amazon, but no way to transfer them to my Kindle. One of the brilliant aspects of iTunes, in my opinion, is the manner in which a CD can be imported into iTunes and then, voila! it can be transferred to my iPod. If Amazon was clever, I think they'd come up with a system whereby one could (at a minimum) download for free to Kindle an e-copy of any book that user had purchased from Amazon. Tell me why that wouldn't work.

Anyway, I began shopping for books to download and quickly realized that I could very easily rack up a bill equal to the cost of the device in a matter of moments. And so I turned to the free downloads. Many books in the public domain have been made available free for Kindle. I bypassed the piles of Jane Austen I'd already read and downloaded Dickens' Bleak House, recommended to me by a colleague at the ICSOM conference in the context of discussions about bankruptcy; Uncle Tom's Cabin, which I've never read; and the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, also new to me. And I spotted a book called Letters of a Woman Homesteader, which looked like it was right up my alley. Boy was I right.

These letters were written by Elinore Pruitt Rupert Stewart to a former employer between 1909 and 1913 from her homestead in Burnt Fork, Wyoming. It's not entirely clear what happened to her first husband, but after a stint working as a domestic in Denver, she and her small daughter Jerrine headed out to Burnt Fork, where she was to work for Mr. Clyde Stewart and intended to stake her own claim to a homestead there. The writing is sophisticated, colorful and energetic--and her dry wit is a delight. Here is her description of the drive and her situation upon arriving in Burnt Fork in April of 1909:
Meantime my new employer, Mr. Stewart, sat upon a stack of baggage and was dreadfully concerned about something he calls his "Tookie," but I am unable to tell you what that is. The road, being so muddy, was full of ruts and the stage acted as if it had the hiccoughs and made us all talk as though we were affected in the same way. Every time the stage struck a rock or a rut Mr. Stewart would "hoot," until I began to wish we would come to a hollow tree or a hole in the ground so he could go in with the rest of the owls. 
At last we "arriv," and everything is just lovely for me. I have a very, very comfortable situation and Mr. Stewart is absolutely no trouble, for as soon as he has his meals he retires to his room and plays on his bagpipe, only he calls it his "bugpeep." It is "The Campbells are Coming," without variations, at intervals all day long and from seven till eleven at night. Sometimes I wish they would make haste and get here. 
There is a saddle horse especially for me and a little shotgun with which I am to kill sage chickens. We are between two trout streams, so you can think of me as being happy when the snow is through melting and the water gets clear. We have the finest flock of Plymouth Rocks and get so many nice eggs. It sure seems fine to have all the cream I want after my town experiences. Jerrine is making good use of all the good 
things we are having. She rides the pony to water every day. 
I have not filed on my land yet because the snow is fifteen feet deep on it, and I think I would rather see what I am getting, so will wait until summer. They have just three seasons here, winter and July and August. We are to plant our garden the last of May. When it is so I can get around I will see about land and find out all I can and tell you.
Yes, you noticed! She had chickens!!! And not just any old chickens, but Plymouth Rocks.

In May, as expected, she went to Green River, WY to register her claim. The trip there and back took a week. Here is her description of the evening of the first day of travel, bordering on rhapsodic:
The sagebrush is so short in some places that it is not large enough to make a fire, so we had to drive until quite late before we camped that night. After driving all day over what seemed a level desert of sand, we came about sundown to a beautiful cañon, down which we had to drive for a couple of miles before we could cross. In the cañon the shadows had already fallen, but when we looked up we could see the last shafts of sun-light on the tops of the great bare buttes. Suddenly a great wolf started from somewhere and galloped along the edge of the cañon, outlined black and clear by the setting sun. His curiosity overcame him at last, 
so he sat down and waited to see what manner of beast we were. I reckon he was disappointed for he howled most dismally. I thought of Jack London's "The Wolf." 
After we quitted the cañon I saw the most beautiful sight. It seemed as if we were driving through a golden haze. The violet shadows were creeping up between the hills, while away back of us the snow-capped peaks were catching the sun's last rays. On every side of us stretched the poor, hopeless desert, the sage, grim and determined to live in spite of starvation, and the great, bare, desolate buttes. The beautiful colors turned to amber and rose, and then to the general tone, dull gray. Then we stopped to camp, and such a scurrying around to gather brush for the fire and to get supper! Everything tasted so good! Jerrine ate like a man. Then we raised the wagon tongue and spread the wagon sheet over it and made a bedroom for us women. We made our beds on the warm, soft sand and went to bed. 
It was too beautiful a night to sleep, so I put my head out to look and to think. I saw the moon come up and hang for a while over the mountain as if it were discouraged with the prospect, and the big white stars flirted shamelessly with the hills. I saw a coyote come trotting along and I felt sorry for him, having to hunt food in so barren a place, but when presently I heard the whirr of wings I felt sorry for the sage chickens he had disturbed. At length a cloud came up and I went to sleep, and next morning was covered several inches with snow. It didn't hurt us a bit, but while I was struggling with stubborn corsets and shoes I communed with myself, after the manner of prodigals, and said: "How much better that I were down in Denver, even at Mrs. Coney's, digging with a skewer into the corners seeking dirt which might be there, yea, even eating codfish, than that I should perish on this desert -- of imagination." So I turned the current of my imagination and fancied that I was at home 
before the fireplace, and that the backlog was about to roll down. My fancy was in such good working trim that before I knew it I kicked the wagon wheel, and I certainly got as warm as the most "sot" Scientist that ever read Mrs. Eddy could possibly wish.
I can imagine finding it too beautiful a night to sleep on a bed of soft, warm sand, sheltering under only a wagon tongue and a sheet of canvas, with the discouraged moon and flirtatious stars above and coyotes and sage chickens playing out a drama alongside. Although I'd expect after a full day of hard driving sleep would come easily. And I can't imagine being even remotely cheerful about waking up covered in several inches of snow. In May.

So much of this book spoke to me. Elinore was full of spirit and humanity. She understood the value in a life lived close to the earth, at a time when, thanks to the industrial revolution, more and more people were moving to the cities and seeking their fortunes away from the land. Spending my days as I do now, tethered to a desk laden with electronic devices, mostly sedentary, I very often think we've got it all wrong. My grandparents grew up in the Great Depression, close to privation and borne of that generation that believed city living was synonymous with a better life. They always cautioned me not to work too hard--by which they meant physical labor. Physical labor was to be avoided; desirable was the modern life in which machines did the hard work for us, liberating our bodies and minds for more pleasurable pursuits. But the joke was on us because the way that story came out has us laboring every bit as hard as our forebears--except instead of doing so in the open air, moving our limbs about and feeling the sun and wind on our skin, we breathe stale, conditioned air, rarely rise from our desks and only see the sun and the wind as they course through our urban concrete cañons, on the other side of the glass. And then we wonder why we're so sick and depressed all the time.

Even in 1913, when the choice was between hard physical labor on one's own land and hard physical labor in the service of another, I think Elinore had it right:
When I read of the hard times among the Denver poor, I feel like urging them every one to get out and file on land. I am very enthusiastic about women homesteading. It really requires less strength and labor to raise plenty to satisfy a large family than it does to go out to wash, with the added satisfaction of knowing that their job will not be lost to them if they care to keep it. Even if improving the place does go slowly, it is that much done to stay done. Whatever is raised is the homesteader's own, and there is no house-rent to pay. This year Jerrine cut and dropped enough potatoes to raise a ton of fine potatoes. She wanted to try, so we let her, and you will remember that she is but six years old. We had a man to break the ground and cover the potatoes for her and the man irrigated them once. That was all that was done until digging time, when they were ploughed out and Jerrine picked them 
up. Any woman strong enough to go out by the day could have done every bit of the work and put in two or three times that much, and it would have been so much more pleasant than to work so hard in the city and then be on starvation rations in the winter.  
To me, homesteading is the solution of all poverty's problems, but I realize that temperament has much to do with success in any undertaking, and persons afraid of coyotes and work and loneliness had better let ranching alone. At the same time, any woman who can stand her own company, can see the beauty of the sunset, loves growing things, and is willing to put in as much time at careful labor as she does over the washtub, will certainly succeed; will have independence, plenty to eat all the time, and a home of her own in the end. 
Here I am boring you to death with things that cannot interest you! You'd think I wanted you to homestead, wouldn't you? But I am only thinking of the troops of tired, worried women, sometimes even cold and hungry, scared to death of losing their places to work, who could have plenty to eat, who could have good fires by gathering the wood, and comfortable homes of their own, if they 
but had the courage and determination to get them.
Of course I've never had to live as she did and perhaps it would have broken me. Perhaps I have fallen under the spell of an idyllic agrarian fantasy. And perhaps I have the best of all possible worlds, putting my wits to work in the service of good people most days, dipping into the well of creativity to make music on some days, and, between times, stepping out into my yard to cultivate food for our table. And I've never had to awaken outdoors in several inches of snow. But the photos of the ruddy and vigorous Elinore at this page suggest she was nothing but content with her lot!

If you want to read the book, you should probably stop reading now, because I can't resist including Elinore's account of how she finally managed to prove all she set out to prove. Listen to this recitation of abundance:
I never did like to theorize, and so this year I set out to prove that a woman could ranch if she wanted to. We like to grow potatoes 
on new ground, that is, newly cleared land on which no crop has been grown. Few weeds grow on new land, so it makes less work. So I selected my potato-patch, and the man ploughed it, although I could have done that if Clyde would have let me. I cut the potatoes, Jerrine helped, and we dropped them in the rows. The man covered them, and that ends the man's part. By that time the garden ground was ready, so I planted the garden. I had almost an acre in vegetables. I irrigated and I cultivated it myself. 
We had all the vegetables we could possibly use, and now Jerrine and I have put in our cellar full, and this is what we have: one large bin of potatoes (more than two tons), half a ton of carrots, a large bin of beets, one of turnips, one of onions, one of parsnips, and on the other side of the cellar we have more than one hundred heads of cabbage. I have experimented and found a kind of squash that can be raised here, and that the ripe ones keep well and make good pies; also that 
the young tender ones make splendid pickles, quite equal to cucumbers. I was glad to stumble on to that, because pickles are hard to manufacture when you have nothing to work with. Now I have plenty. They told me when I came that I could not even raise common beans, but I tried and succeeded. And also I raised lots of green tomatoes, and, as we like them preserved, I made them all up that way. Experimenting along another line, I found that I could make catchup, as delicious as that of tomatoes, of gooseberries. I made it exactly the same as I do the tomatoes and I am delighted. Gooseberries were very fine and very plentiful this year, so I put up a great many. I milked ten cows twice a day all summer; have sold enough butter to pay for a year's supply of flour and gasoline. We use a gasoline lamp. I have raised enough chickens to completely renew my flock, and all we wanted to eat, and have some fryers to go into the winter with. I have enough turkeys for all of our birthdays and holidays.    
I raised a great many flowers and I worked several days in the field. In all I have told about I have had no help but Jerrine. Clyde's mother spends each summer with us, and she helped me with the cooking and the babies. Many of my neighbors did better than I did, although I know many town people would doubt my doing so much, but I did it. I have tried every kind of work this ranch affords, and I can do any of it. Of course I am extra strong, but those who try know that strength and knowledge come with doing. I just love to experiment, to work, and to prove out things, so that ranch life and "roughing it" just suit me.
The Stewart Homestead, now a ruin  
And now I will stop because to paraphrase Elinore, who was forever apologizing for the length of her letters, said:"I am ashamed of my long [blog posts], but I am such a murderer of language that I have to use it all to tell anything."

Monday, August 29, 2011

the coops of port oneida, part seven (eckhert coops)

Oh, how the days of August have flown away from me... As I sit down to write this, I note that it has been sixteen days since my last post. The truth is that with my own chicken-dom on hold, with things proceeding slowly and unremarkably at the city council and with my inordinate busy-ness over the past weeks, posting here has been a low priority. But tonight the coops of Port Oneida call out again and we pay a visit--the last of the summer--to another charmed spot on that peninsula.

Henry and Catherine Eckhert were among the early settlers of Port Oneida, arriving in Michigan from Bohemia in 1857 and settling on their farm in 1862. The farm sits at the corner of Basch and Kelderhouse Roads, in a slightly elevated position with views to the south of Peter and Jenny Burfiend's farm and the Lawrs' farm. Although nearby and to the east, Ole and Magdalena Olsen's farm is obscured by the same trees that keep it feeling lonely and secluded.

The position of the Eckherts' farm, on a corner, gives it a unique feeling of openness and accessibility consistent with its reputation as the party house of Port Oneida. Reported to be the scene of many dances, I suspect it was also the spot where at least a few matches budded among the scions of Port Oneida families. The broad farmyard, ringed by outbuildings, welcomes visitors into a kind of giant outdoor room. It's easy to imagine the boys and girls of Port Oneida, milling about the yard in the twilight--laughing, dancing, stealing a kiss or two. And perhaps shooting a few hoops.

Barnside hoop!
I actually paid two visits to the Eckherts this summer. The first time around, a work crew, although not on site, was clearly in the midst of restoring several of the buildings, including the coop and brooder house. Their big flatbed truck and blue tarps made photographing difficult, but I snapped a few, peered through some windows and figured I'd had enough.

The second time, I hadn't even intended to stop. I was on my way to pay a goodbye visit to one of my favorite spots, the Schmidt farm (sadly coop-less). I was headed north on Basch Road and nearly past the Eckherts when I spotted not a boy or girl lingering in the yard but a sizable wild turkey! I pulled the car over, parking it on the road, grabbing my camera and attempting to sneak up on the turkey. Of course, you can imagine how that went. Me: tiptoeing around the corner of the barn, camera at the ready. Turkey: long gone into the fields behind the farm, gobbling all the way.

But once in the yard, I realized that both flatbed truck and blue tarps were gone, making photographs much easier. The coop and brooder sit side by side at the corner of the yard farthest from the house:
L to R: barn, coop, brooder, glimpse of house (red), small barn
The south-facing coop is jaunty in green and sports wooden vent stacks at either end of its gable roof. The shed-roofed brooder nestles close by.

I inspected the coop and found it closed with what I'm sure is yet another example of the handiwork of Martin Basch:

And, much to my delight, that was all that secured it! I unhooked the door and stepped inside. There are the nesting boxes, outfitted with straw as if a hen could return at any moment to deposit an egg.

Although the door threatened to shut me in, I moved to the other room, where the roosts and dropping boards are similarly at the ready. I adore this roost made of straight, bark-stripped saplings laid into V-notched boards. Simple, functional, retaining the natural character of the tree...and I bet the hens loved it.
I left the coop and re-latched the door. The brooder was similarly unsecured and I took a look inside. It is less immediately legible than the coop, although there is a bundle of branches that are clearly former roosts. But the hardware on the repurposed brooder door is far more elaborate than the coop's simple Basch hook:
And so, dear readers, we've come to the end of the Port Oneida coops for this summer. As I had on the day we first drove into Port Oneida at the beginning of the summer, I shed a tear as I drove away on M-22 for the last time. On that first day, I was overjoyed to be back in what I knew to be an extraordinary place, but one about which I still knew so little. On the last day, having immersed myself in their histories and their environs, I felt as though I was bidding farewell to all those intrepid settlers whose stories I had come to know. But it is a temporary goodbye. Next summer I'll be back, to dig a little deeper into their stories, to wander longer among the ruins of their homes, farms and imagine a life built on the (admittedly poor!) soil of Port Oneida. 

And, although I looked in every cemetery I spotted, I never did find Orpha's grave. Next summer, I'll find it and lay a bouquet there, wherever she lies.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

tour de coop

One of the things that became abundantly clear in the earliest City Council chicken meetings was the vast amount of misinformation and misconceptions under which many folks (including several City Council members) labor. But the most comprehensive recitation of facts seemed to have limited effect. Facts seem to hold little sway in this debate, strangely. At some point, the best advocate for a chicken is a chicken herself. So the inestimable Linda hatched a plan to take the City Council members on a tour of neighboring communities' coops, demonstrating to them that their worst fears are simply unfounded.

Wednesday night Cheryl, Friends of Richmond Heights chair, and I scoped out the first two coops on the prospective CCCC (City Council Chicken Coop) Tour.

First up was Anne Martin, who has so graciously turned up at two City Council meetings to voice her support for chickens in Richmond Heights--even though she has no personal stake in the outcome. But that is the kind of spirit that seems to animate the chicken community.

Anne lives in a beautiful Clayton neighborhood, in the beautiful, characteristically Clayton house where she grew up. And she happens to have chickens in her beautiful Clayton back yard. Anne is also a wonderful artist and her home and garden are adorned with lots of her inimitable sculptures, many of which incorporate chicken and vegetable themes. Her art plays wittily at the borders of the profane, but what I notice most is the undeniable life force she captures in the animals and food she re-animates in bronze and terra cotta. [And having veered dangerously close to art criticism, I will now return to safer ground, i.e., chickens.]

Anne's flock makes its home in a purchased coop set into a corner of her yard with a run extending behind it and abutting a retaining wall.
The close quarters made it hard to get pictures of her wonderfully diverse flock and her two cheeky roosters (yes, roosters!) but I did manage to capture the coop's weathervane:
Anne's flock peacefully coexists with her exuberant standard poodle. Although they have day-long access to the run, Anne lets her chickens out into her fairly manicured back yard in the early evenings and tolerates their habit of relocating mulch to suit themselves.

Liz, who also lives in what I think of as a classic Clayton house (although it is, technically, in "the city", as we call St. Louis proper in these parts), has a set-up more like what I envision for myself. Cheryl and I followed her out her back door into a yard beautifully landscaped with flowering plants and herbs.

Her four girls live at the back of the yard. During most of the day they have access to a smallish but adequate coop and a small run.

But first thing in the morning and every evening, Liz's girls are turned loose in her vegetable garden.

Like me, Liz uses raised beds, although hers are made of plastic lumber. To protect her plants from the vicious depredation of her hens, Liz has ringed each bed in fencing. At the moment, she has an abundance of melons and has left one hanging on the hen side of the fence for them to attack. The girls have already decimated all the melon leaves that poke through the fencing at hen height. As I watched, one of them jumped up to pull at a leaf just out of reach. Moments later a second popped up and before long all of them had attempted the jack-in-the-box method of grazing. It's priceless, really, and a perfect example of copycat flock dynamics.
Liz's girls, a Buff Orpington, a Barred Rock and two Black Jersey Giants, are sweet and curious. When I took out my phone to photograph them, they crowded close to inspect.

The birds burbled and clucked contentedly as they busied themselves about the yard. I crouched down to their level and extended my hand. Immediately, one of them dove with laser-like accuracy for my wedding ring and I was reminded of all the times the chicks, especially Millie, pecked at my ring, my freckles and any other anomalous spot within their field of vision. Full of nostalgia for my lost girls, I can't wait to have my own flock again. I do love chickens.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

the coops of port oneida, part six (peter & jenny burfiend coops)

First of all, I must apologize to my faithful readers for the long hiatus between posts. Life has returned me to a consuming schedule of lawyering, including travel a couple weeks ago to a hearing in Rockford, Illinois. That trip afforded me ample opportunity to observe from the highway the coops of Illinois which, unsurprisingly, look an awful lot like the coops of Michigan from the same period. In fact, a highlight of that trip was when I arrived at the home of the union rep who was going to ferry me the rest of the way to Rockford and recognized immediately that his "shed" was actually an old coop:
 Facing south, of course, and complete with the remnants of the old pop door!
This particular rep and his wife are avid gardeners and enthusiastic about the history of their farmhouse, which abuts a giant corn field, so they were nonplussed when I insisted on photographing their ex-coop.

The same trip offered slightly surreal views of Illinois' massive wind turbines, both cartwheeling in their fields and being transported, blade by blade, down the highway. I know there are those who criticize their environmental impact, especially on birds. I confess I don't know all the facts, but seeing them makes my heart glad. In those moments I feel we are actually doing something about our hideous dependence on oil. And aesthetically, well, they are just incredibly beautiful!

The next week's travels took me to Portland, ME where, sadly, I had no opportunity to explore the local coop architecture. I did manage to acquit myself respectably in a survey of local pub...ahem...culture and consumed vast quantities of wonderful local seafood, including a beautiful sushi lunch at Miyake and a delightfully atmospheric lobster dinner  at the Peaks Island Lions Club after a cruise across the harbor (1 lobster, 1 potato, 1 ear of corn, a half-dozen very sandy clams served on a cardboard tray and eaten on picnic tables overlooking the water). Being the inveterate foodie that I am, I had made a reservation for two at Bresca before I ever left home, assuming I'd find someone who'd be glad to accompany me. Sure enough, my new friend Beth and I enjoyed a slightly ironic "romantic first date" (couldn't be otherwise in that space) that included a shared braised kale salad with a perfect 6-minute local egg. When Beth saw the same dish being delivered later to the next table she declared she could have eaten another all by herself, it was that good. I was inclined to agree.

But none of this has anything to do with Port Oneida, of course. So I try to remember where I left off and find it exceedingly difficult to cast myself back, both geographically and chronologically. But that's where the photos help.

Peter and Jenette (Goffar) Burfiend bought their farm in 1882 and built themselves, as so many did, a log cabin. Peter's parents were the trailblazing Carsten and Eliza, you'll remember. In the 1890's, Martin Basch, who had a reputation as an expert blacksmith but must also have been quite the carpenter, built Peter and Jenny a proper farmhouse which stands, well-preserved, to this day.
The old cabin is long gone, as is the original barn. What remains is a curious collection of outbuildings not unlike that of the Spooky Olsens but made infinitely less spooky by the farm's position mostly out in the open, with views that stretch across to the Lawr farm in one direction and to the Eckhert farm in another.

On my first visit there, I set out for a clump of pine trees behind and to the south of the house, spotting a ruin and some small structures there.  After a brief and welcome pause amidst the clump (did you think there were bathrooms in Port Oneida?), I savored some of the most picturesque finds of the whole venture.

There is a heaped up ruin:
But there is also a sweet little pair of dog houses (which I later realized even show up on the park service plan) next to which rests an old wooden rowboat.

The only other boat I spotted in my Port Oneida travels was, fittingly, at Jenny's natal home, sidled up next to the mixed granite foundation of the Goffar barn on the shore of Narada Lake:
But back to Peter and Jenny. Strewn about the edge of the field were several old farm implements, including this disk harrow, looking very John Deere in its green remnants:
A pair of puffballs:
And a clothesline sentinel:
But no coop. Venturing in the other direction, to the north of the house, I spotted another ruin and, standing near it, yet another small structure.
The ruined building has been allowed to rest where it fell. The end walls have simply fallen in toward the center and the old foundation is still visible and intact.
A closer look reveals a tangle of ancient chicken-wire:
I spent some time climbing gingerly around the periphery of the ruin, trying to pick out nesting boxes or any other telltale sign. Nothing, although I'm pretty well convinced it was a coop. Finally, I turned my attention to its slightly forlorn companion.

There, on the side opposite the ruined coop, is a little door. The paper wasp standing sentry and I eyed each other at length.
I was slightly nervous about the proximity of a stinging insect, but I braved its nearness all the same because of what I spotted inside this lovely little brooder coop. At first, I couldn't believe it, but then I reached in and pulled it farther out into the light:
Those of you who've spent any time around them will know that what I saw was a galvanized feeder trough for chicks! I doubt that it has resided there continuously from the days the coop was still in service. Like so many Port Oneida structures, this one has likely been restored and the trough was simply re-placed in the building. But its presence feels right and I sang a little song in my head at the sight of it.

And then I wrestled with myself because I found myself coveting the trough. I thought through the options. If I left it, how many more visitors would it be before some cretin spied it, scooped it up, popped it in his trunk and carried it back as a trophy to some "ye olde country style" family room to be hung on a wall as one of a constellation of stupid decorations? But if I took it, I'd be removing government property and--and this is the decisive consideration--depriving someone else of the utter thrill of discovery. I have to believe that before the cretin someone else will come along with a keen eye and enough knowledge of history and agriculture to understand what she is seeing inside the brooder coop. And that she will, in that moment, feel the same thrill and sing a version of the song I've just sung to myself. So I carefully slid the feeder back into the darkness of a corner of the brooder coop, back perhaps a little farther than it was when I found it, and I left it for another explorer to discover. Perhaps even one of you reading this will be that explorer...

Sunday, July 24, 2011

the coops of port oneida, part five (olsen coops)

After the relative legibility of the Dechow farm's outbuildings, a visit to the Ole and Magdalena Olsen farm feels like trying to decipher a moth-eaten scroll, albeit one that once contained quite a lot of information. The Olsen farm lies at the eastern-most end of Kelderhouse Road. To get there, one travels down a rugged two-track, completely surrounded by trees and scrubby understory plants, with marsh just beyond. The Olsen farm changed hands perhaps more often than any other in Port Oneida. Thomas Kelderhouse bought it from one Andrew Tuffner in 1857 and sold it to Ole Olsen in 1877. In 1879, Ole sold the farm to his father-in-law, Carsten Burfiend, but bought it back just two years later. I wonder if that pair of transactions was merely pro-forma, a family effort to retain the property in the face of hardship, but the record doesn't divulge that detail. In 1891, Ole's son Charles took over, farming there until 1915, when he moved to the southwest corner of Port Oneida and built this distinctive barn and silo:
For almost 40 years, Albert Prause and his wife Ida (nee Dago, remember them?) farmed the land before selling it back to an Olsen grandson, Howard, in 1954. Howard's widow Bertha remained in the house until at least 1995.

The Olsen farm feels to me the saddest and the creepiest of all the properties in Port Oneida. Well, all except for the remains of the Weaver house, which lurks like a ghost nearly out of sight from the road but reveals more of its bones with each passing year:

Perhaps it is owing to its isolated position, down a long, tunnel-like road, seemingly surrounded by swamp, but the Spooky Olsen Place (as I generally think of it) does have a kind of haunted quality. I am generally vigilant around all of the Port Oneida properties because I feel as though, given the relative desertion of the place, I could easily stumble upon an animal lurking within one of the buildings. Many of the buildings bear signs of forced (or attempted) entry and it seems possible I could surprise such an interloper. I chalk such thoughts up to a rather (over)active imagination, but around the Olsen farm, my senses are on unusually high alert. It just feels like bad things and misery happened there.

The ramshackle buildings don't help. Despite having been so recently inhabited, the buildings here feel extra run down. And there are lots of them, making it even more difficult to puzzle out each one's function. There is one, marked as "pig pen" on the plan in the Park Service report, that looks awfully coop-like:
pop door? check. southern exposure? check.

Scattered about the yard near the house is a constellation of small buildings, all denoted as "shed" on the Park Service plan. This picture shows a few of those.
The one on the far right in this picture also has certain coop attributes:
The next one over is partially sided in a pressed aluminum or tin siding with a scalloped pattern I've never seen before:
Clearly NOT a chicken coop. But what about the next one over?
Brooder? Rabbit hutch? Turkeys? I am mystified and a closer inspection moves me no closer to an answer. At least Shep's house seems pretty clear:
I check out the main house before crossing to the south side of the yard.
There, partially concealed by a fallen tree limb, is yet another coop contender.
A branch pushed aside reveals what appears to be a pop door and although the windows are now boarded up, they do face south.
The main door has a hook that I suspect was forged right here in Port Oneida, most likely by Martin Basch, who was a skilled carpenter and blacksmith and emigrated to this country (so the Park Service report tells me) as a political prisoner from Hanover in 1868.
A graffiti artist has tagged one side of the coop and I struggle to imagine the efficacy of such a gesture. Another "shed" nearby shows a different decoration scheme:
The Olsen barn is quasi-legendary in the literature of Port Oneida and it truly is an impressive edifice. But I'm most taken with the use (again) of the local granite for the foundation...
...and the reappearance on the backside of the same pressed tin siding, which looks particularly forlorn here:
Before heading out, I help myself to a very green, very tart, very under-ripe apple.
It will be many weeks before the apples are ripe and I feel another pang of longing, this time to be in Port Oneida for the apple harvest and then the changing of the leaves. Of course there is no "apple harvest" these days, but this small fruit reminds me of all the people who ate from the same trees I now see scattered about Port Oneida, ubiquitous as the lilacs. One of those people stood where I now stand, reached up and twisted a ripe fruit from the branch. As I nibble on the hard fruit, which is surprisingly refreshing despite its tartness, I feel a visceral connection to the Olsens and the Prauses and I feel grateful for the tree one of them surely planted.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

on hold

It's been a long week. This time last week I was waiting for Hank and Max to roll in from Interlochen--a 10 hour trip. Sunday was spent unpacking, processing laundry...which barely made a dent in the piles stacked about the house. Monday was a full work day, my last day in the office before an arbitration hearing on Wednesday, with Tuesday being a travel and witness prep day. On Monday, after slightly frantically pulling together all the documents for my case and overseeing my brand new secretary's (literally on her first day) assembly of exhibit notebooks, I turned my attention to the evening's activities, another meeting of the Richmond Heights City Council with backyard chickens on the agenda.

For a few reasons, I didn't prepare remarks for this meeting. First, I spoke at the last meeting and pretty much said everything I thought needed to be said. Second, the wonderful Linda Lieb had lined up a full slate of speakers on the topic and had assigned each a subject. The City Council has a policy of limiting comments to 3 minutes each; if we wanted all of our points to be made we'd need (and easily had) a cast of thousands. It had come to our attention that a small but vocal group was planning to express an anti-chicken position and we'd seen some of the misinformation they'd been circulating. We were prepared to educate and rebut. In fact, one of Linda's recruits was Guy Niere, who teaches a backyard chickens class at St. Louis Community College and whose resume ranges from field research on jungle fowl in South America to a stint with ConAgra, advising them on poultry care. My job was to bat clean-up and rebut any of the anti-chicken points we might have missed.

The meeting was packed, literally standing room only. The City Council moved mercifully quickly through the early business of the meeting and got straight to the main event: chicken commentary. The majority of the commenters spoke in favor of backyard chickens. A few made a particular impression. A young girl whose neighbor keeps chickens spoke about how being around the birds is soothing. When pressed by the Councilors to describe how she classifies chickens in her mind ("do they seem like pets? do they seem like a cat?"), she took a long pause before answering that no, they don't seem like cats because, well, cats are just cats...but......chickens...seem like one of us. She then presented the Mayor with a drawing she had made of a chicken.

Her mother spoke in beautifully accented English about her experience growing up in Russia and how, amid food shortages, a plot of land on which food could be grown and chickens raised gave essential peace of mind. As she described the sense of security that came from growing one's own food, I recognized one of the strands that draws me down the path of keeping chickens.

Anne Martin, who keeps chickens in the relative chicken paradise of Clayton, graciously spent her evening with us and urged the Councilors to pay a visit to her coop and see for themselves the realities of backyard chickens. I hope they will.

Tom Wickersham spoke about the school district's chicken program, which is thriving. He recounted one parent telling him that her son was not a big fan of going to school--except on Tuesdays, because that was the day he got to see the chickens.

Guy Niere spoke knowledgeably and thoughtfully about the benefits of keeping backyard chickens and reminded everyone that the concerns about salmonella and avian flu are tied to the giant flocks raised in commercial production. He observed that the deadly 1918 pandemic coincided with the rise of large-scale factory chicken farming and clarified that a virus cannot mutate such that it poses a threat to humans in a flock of less than 1000. He also spoke of his own practices, raising something like 100 birds, mostly rare and heritage breeds. It was inspirational.

Hank spoke, describing chickens as voracious predators who would be happy to dispatch an errant mouse that happened to infiltrate their coop and explaining that chicken owners have a vested interest in maintaining coop and run conditions to exclude predators and rodents.

The anti-chicken folks beat a steady tattoo of rats, feces, disease, property values, rats, feces, disease, property values. Oh, and one guy who wanted to talk about fecal runoff. Wow. There seems to be very little first-hand knowledge among these folks, except for the "my grandfather raised chickens on his farm and it stank to high heaven..." or the "I grew up on a farm with 100 chickens and my job was to clean the chicken coop..." variety. There also seems to be an inordinate amount of fear. Fear of disease, fear of rats, fear that their carefully guarded and tended corner of the world will come tumbling down, fear of their neighbors. Most seem quite certain that chicken owners will be a sadly irresponsible lot, allowing their birds to run about the neighborhood, throwing food about their yards and harboring every sort of vermin known to man. Oh, how I longed to cross-examine each and every one of them.

In the end, I had very little to say, once our team had done its thing. I talked about my disappointment that so many folks seemed to have such a dim view of their neighbors' ability to manage chickens responsibly. I talked about how this was an issue of being good neighbors and how I hoped they would strike a balance between those folks who want to raise chickens in their yards and those who are opposed. It was decidedly uninspired. But then, in a moment of exhaustion and in the context of describing this as a movement whose adherents were increasing in numbers, I blurted out that unless they liberalized the conditions to keep chickens, I'd likely leave Richmond Heights. As soon as I said it, I could see it was probably over the line of reasonableness in the eyes of the Councilors. One Councilor though, the most anti-chicken of the lot, seemed especially pleased with my comment, smirking at someone in the audience. Really? another asked. You'd move because you couldn't keep chickens? Yes, really, I said. I feel that strongly about this. Afterwards, I thought of many things I should have said, as you will see shortly.

I also started this week expecting to take delivery of my new flock of baby chicks. When the whole brouhaha at the City Council first came to my attention, I truly believed that it would be quickly and reasonably resolved. I decided to go ahead, confident that all would be fine. I placed my order back in June and my chicks were due to ship out on Wednesday. After Monday night's meeting I began to have concerns that the whole ordinance thing was not going to resolve quickly, but my main concern was the weather.

I had been watching the weather with concern but by late Monday I was very worried that it would be dangerously hot for shipping live baby chicks. I imagined them, locked in a truck in the blazing sun while the driver ate his lunch in an air-conditioned restaurant. I sent an email to Chickens for Backyards outlining my concern (well, not the part about the driver and his lunch) and got a response back the next day. I could cancel my order, Monica said, but at least one of the breeds I had ordered would not be hatching out later this summer. I called her from the car, on my way to Rockford, Illinois, Tuesday morning. I didn't want to cancel, I explained. I was just concerned that they would not survive the trip and didn't want to have to open a quiet box. Monica was very understanding and assured me that as far as they knew there would be no problem shipping them. She checked and reported that my chicks would actually be coming from Missouri (Cackle???). When I expressed surprise (CFB is located in Texas) she explained that the Texas facility is a call center and warehouse but that the chicks actually ship from all over the country. CFB matches the customer with a hatchery based on location and breed availability. Monica confirmed that the May chicks had come from a Michigan hatchery (thus the DTW sticker on the box). Given that these were coming from Missouri, I could expect them Thursday morning.

Thursday morning finally arrived. I had set up the brooder, filled the feeder and fount and turned on the brooder lamp, which promptly burned out. Hank was dispatched to Lowe's to pick up a replacement bulb. I had steeled myself for the likelihood that some or all of the chicks would arrive dead. It was self defense, a manifestation of the new, tougher attitude I am trying to adopt regarding this endeavor. I told myself that if I had cancelled my order they would likely have been "disposed of" and that if they did survive the journey, they had a stupendous life in store. But Thursday morning came and went without any sign of the chicks. We called and visited the post office. No chicks. I worried and fretted but finally resigned myself to the fact that they had not arrived and would not that day. I tried not to think about where they might be and harbored a small hope they had not been sent after all. I planned to give it until the next morning before calling Monica back.

At about 5:00 Thursday, my phone rang. It was Monica, calling to tell me "as soon as she found out," that my chicks had not shipped Wednesday as planned. Apparently, one of my breeds had not hatched out. They would go out next Wednesday instead. I thanked her for calling, full of relief.

Yesterday I spent all day in a hearing but checked my email at a break late in the day. A friend had sent me a link to a letter to the editor of the Clayton-Richmond Heights Patch written by Councilman Ed Notter, the most anti-chicken of the lot. I read it, slack-jawed, especially when he turned his ill-tempered attention toward yours truly. My heart rate sky-rocketed, my ire rose. I felt threatened and fiercely protective.

I thought about the letter and my visceral response to it all the way home yesterday. Because I had chicks coming and already viewed myself as a chicken owner, I felt vulnerable. A bad outcome at the City Council would have a disastrous effect on my own backyard and my soon-to-be young flock. It was clear that I had opened myself up for intense scrutiny and any chickens I placed in my backyard now were not likely to fly under the radar. My sense of vulnerability clouded my thinking, made it impossible for me to respond rationally. This, I thought, is why people hire lawyers.

And so, after much deliberation, I cancelled my order. I think my expectation that the ordinance issue would quickly resolve was reasonable--it should be a no-brainer. But it has become clear to me now that this is going to be a long fight. I need to keep my wits about me and not operate from a place of emotion. I need to be a lawyer, not a client, and I've learned I can't be both.

And so, having cancelled my order, I sat down to write a reply to Mr. Notter:
Councilman Notter’s call to submit the keeping of chickens in Richmond Heights to a ballot initiative demonstrates a failure of leadership and a willingness to squander precious city resources. Mr. Notter’s letter also perpetuates many of the same misconceptions and prejudices that have, unfortunately, characterized much of the debate.

In recent years, municipalities all over the United States (most recently Denver, CO) have recognized the value in having ordinances that support, rather than discourage, raising backyard chickens. The leaders of those communities did their homework and drew reasonable conclusions based on evidence both scientific and experiential. They did not abdicate their responsibility for crafting legislation that moved their communities forward or turn the issue into a popularity contest and waste taxpayer resources on a ballot initiative. I fervently hope that my elected representatives will follow their example.

As those of us who support raising backyard chickens in Richmond Heights have been saying all along, existing city nuisance and animal abuse and neglect ordinances (found in Sections 210 and 220 of the Richmond Heights City Code) are sufficient to address the genuine (as opposed to the fabricated) concerns that go along with such an endeavor.

The City of Clayton, which places no limit on the number of chickens a resident may have, has an ordinance elegant in its simplicity. It prohibits anyone other than a veterinarian or pet shop from keeping fowl for commercial or resale purposes and sets forth these perfectly reasonable, common-sense guidelines:

Domestic fowl kept as pets must be adequately confined within a yard or other place surrounded by a wire netting or other fence sufficient to prevent their escape therefrom.  The pen shall be maintained in a clean and wholesome manner.  Any manure or other discharges from the birds shall be collected so as to prevent the spread of offensive smells or disease.

Despite having allowed backyard chickens on these terms for at least 17 years, Clayton reports less than 5 complaints in the past year and seems, based on a recent perusal of Clayton real estate, to be doing just fine in the property value department. Ladue, which also places no limit on the number of backyard chickens, reports no complaints in the past year and seems to have avoided turning into Dogpatch.

But of course Mr. Notter doesn’t believe we should look to our neighbors in Clayton or Ladue for evidence of how our own community will fare with similar policies. I appreciate Mr. Notter’s belief that Richmond Heights is an exceptional community; it is a belief I share in many regards. But I do not believe, as he seems to, that the experience of raising backyard chickens south of Clayton Road will be fraught with troubles our neighbors to the north have avoided nicely for many years. We look to our neighboring communities as examples not because we believe we should blindly ape them but because their experience sheds light on what our own is likely to be.

Mr. Notter’s incredulity about chicken owners’ commitment to maintain good hygiene in their birds’ coops and runs betrays his fundamental misconceptions about the realities of raising chickens. He mocks the testimony of Guy Niere, a recognized backyard chicken expert and educator who very graciously spent an evening of his own time to help educate the City Council on this topic. In fact, what Mr. Niere describes is not unlike what those of us who compost and garden organically already practice—and is essential for a chicken owner to derive the maximum benefit from raising chickens. Such tasks are not for everyone and I would never encourage anyone to commit to raising chickens without a full and complete understanding of the responsibilities involved. But just because Mr. Notter cannot imagine assuming such responsibility himself does not mean those of us who would gladly do so should be penalized.

Mr. Notter’s assertions that “poop is poop” and his likening 10 chickens to 10 dogs show just how little attention he has been paying to the information that has been placed before the City Council. Ten chickens generate less manure in a day (.66 lbs) than one 40-pound dog (.75 lbs). Chicken manure is water soluble and safe to compost, unlike dog manure, which must be picked up in a plastic bag, pathogens and all, and thrown into a landfill. If we’re basing our decisions about backyard animals solely on questions of poop, it seems pretty clear the chickens win hands down. And after hearing Mr. Notter’s account of the burden it would be to keep chickens I’m not so sure allowing me to have 10 constitutes a special privilege.

I want to raise chickens in part because they are a facet of a sustainable lifestyle I strive for. Why chickens and not goats or sheep? Because as communities all over the country have recognized, chickens are a good fit for the urban backyard. From what I’ve seen, the folks who want to raise backyard chickens have already “till[ed] those yards,” turning over large portions to productive crops. These are not people caught up in a fad; they are serious and committed to a better way of life.

Finally, as the resident who averred she would have to move if the city does not allow backyard chickens, I regret that Mr. Notter chose to perceive my statement as “the height of pompous.” What I hoped to express was the depth of my commitment to this and similar issues and my strong feeling that I cannot feel at home in a community whose leaders turn their backs on residents’ efforts to practice sustainability. If I do leave Richmond Heights, I will hit the highway regretfully. I am speaking out on this issue because I hope and believe I am not alone in feeling as I do and that together, we can ensure our community reflects our values and vision.

It’s clear to me that Mr. Notter underestimates the momentum and staying power of the sustainability movement. I place my trust in those leaders of our community who have the vision to imagine a Richmond Heights that supports rather than discourages sustainable practices of all kinds.
It may still have a little of the taint of the pro se litigant, but I promise to work on that.

In the meantime, coop construction is on hold, because there has been talk of setbacks, building standards and inspections. I will likely put the roof on to protect the frame from rot, but I want to be able to easily move it with four strong men (into a moving van, if necessary) and every sheet of plywood I hang renders that less do-able. The brooder has returned to the basement. I am so very sad about this turn of events and have been in the worst of moods ever since, but I know it is the correct, responsible thing to do.

As for this blog...I will finish my Port Oneida series (apologies to those who find it a yawn) and report on the progress of the Richmond Heights chicken ordinance. By spring, I hope to be able to report that chickens are welcome in Richmond Heights. Keep your fingers crossed! And...if you feel inclined to comment on Mr. Notter's letter, by all means do so!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

the coops of port oneida, part four (dechow coops)

The next stop on the tour de coop was the Dechow Farm. This is one of the most impressive farms in Port Oneida, a status that is surely tied to the relatively good soil quality on the farm. The Dechows, and after them the Kletts, also seem to have been smart about how they used their land, devoting a lot of it to pasture for their cattle (which requires less fertile soil than field crops and which cattle happily convert to milk) and investing in a very advanced (for the day) milking operation. This farm was also in operation longer and later than many of the others, so a lot of the buildings are more "modern" and have had less time to decay. Walking around the farmyard, it is easy to "read" how the buildings were used. For views of the rest of the farm, check out the pictures at the link above. I was focused (perhaps a little obsessively) on chickens.

In addition to their milking operation, the Dechows/Kletts kept the most chickens of any family in Port Oneida. That is instantly apparent from the size of the first coop, which is variously referred to in the literature as a brooder and as the broiler (i.e., meat bird) coop. From across the yard, it is easy to spot. Distinctive coop architecture: check. Orientation to the south: check.
Coming around to the other side, lots of details confirm it as the coop.
Three pop doors in all, one peeking coyly from behind the gate to nowhere:
Another whose sill is worn in a pattern that tells of many years of chicken comings and goings:
The south-facing windows are still at least partly sheathed in chicken wire of various gauges and vintages:

Taking pictures through the windows is an exercise in approximation. The lens must be pressed flat against the glass, which severely limits the field of photographable vision. A free hand cupped around the lens helps to minimize glare. It took me several tries to capture a decent image, but finally I got an acceptable shot of what appears to be a couple of old brooder hoods:
I've never seen anything like this before, but my experience of brooding chicks tells me that this canvas(?) hood was fitted with lights for heat and would have been placed over a pen full of chicks to keep them warm. I love the slightly carnivalesque feeling of the tent-like hood. I also love the detail on the two cupolas:
A little searching yields an interesting site about the Hex Signs of the Pennsylvania Dutch and tells me the 8-pointed star proclaims abundance and good will for all. Good symbol for a coop!

The other coop stands behind the big barn and I'm embarrassed to say that on my first visit I was so taken with the first coop that I entirely overlooked the second. So much for my agri-anthro-archi-archaeological skills. But on a second visit, I make its acquaintance. Looking now at the photographs, I cut myself a little slack for having missed it. Aside from its south-facing orientation, it looks nothing like the rest of the Port Oneida coops and is practically barn-like in its scale.
It is much rougher than its mate and the pop doors are comparatively enormous. But a peek through a crack between door and jamb yields an only partially obscured view of a lovely old galvanized nesting box set-up:
While there, I paused to document the "hardware" on the door and noticed a massive number of bees swarming in through the crack.
A trans-window shot shows a rather clever roost, hinged so that it can be raised (as it is in the photo) to allow cleaning of the inevitably high-soil area underneath.
There is something especially poignant about the hardware on these old buildings. This was not on either of the coops, but I found it winsome:
Later on my first day of reconnaissance I paid a visit to the Kelderhouse/Port Oneida Cemetery. The names of the founding families appear regularly--like a rhythmic pulse--but forming different chords as they combine first with this family and then with another. I notice there are both Dechows and Dagos in the cemetery but I haven't encountered the Dagos in my research and I'm having trouble figuring out the ethnicity of that name. The mystery clears when I find a stone that combines both names:
Frederick and Fredericka Dechow travelled the same route as the Burfiends, leaving Germany in 1853 and stopping off in Buffalo before arriving in Michigan in 1857. Like the Burfiends, they started in a log cabin in a different spot on their property. Their grandson Frank, who by then had made the switch to Dago, built the current house in 1910. Twenty-five years later Frank Dago traded the farm, which then consisted of almost 300 unusually fertile acres, a lovely house, all the farm buildings and a sugar shack (don't get me started on the unparalleled deliciousness of Michigan maple syrup!) other words, paradise...for a gas station in Detroit. Yes, folks, you read that right.

I can only imagine that in 1935, farming must have seemed awfully hard and the rewards tenuous. The automobile was the future and a gas station was probably a very sound investment. The historical record is silent on what happened to poor Frank in the big city (although his brother's 1945 obit lists Frank as living in Detroit still) but the city slicker with whom he traded (Mr. McGaughlin) lasted only a few years in Port Oneida. In the late 1930s, Elmer Klett, who had been a farmhand for the Dechows, bought the property and improved it. The Kletts were the first Port Oneida family to have electricity--in 1941!