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!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

the coops of port oneida, part three (lawr coop)

By skipping straight to Orpha’s coop in my last post, I did the imaginative equivalent of going straight to dessert without eating dinner. But I think (hope) everyone would agree that Orpha’s story warrants a special place in the telling of the Coops of Port Oneida. I’m certain that all the other coops in Port Oneida and their families have similarly compelling stories, but those are stories I have yet to learn. I already feel as though I’ve fallen down a bit of a rabbit hole in the past week. It seems I could go on immersing myself in the history and current state of this place for weeks and weeks, always uncovering new details and never tiring of it. In fact, I fantasize about what it would be like to spend an entire rotation of seasons in Port Oneida…

On the day that I set aside to explore the coops of Port Oneida, I started back at the first farm we explored when we were just discovering Port Oneida, the one built by George and Louisa (Burfiend) Lawr. The Lawrs took ownership of this 120-acre farm in 1889, acquiring part of it from Thomas Kelderhouse’s son. They farmed it until 1945, after which the farm was owned by a couple different families and then the federal government. According to the park service report, all the buildings date from the 1890s. The chicken coop is a classic shed style and on the morning I drove up to the farm it was basking in its southern and eastern exposure.

As with Orpha’s coop, the outline of the pop door is clearly visible. That opening also reveals remnants of asphalt siding; the coop was restored some years ago and I speculate that new wood siding was placed over existing asphalt in an effort to restore the look of the coop to what it once would have been. 

But that siding has now become quite weathered and warped.

The coop rests on a foundation of multi-colored granite boulders, some of which are mortared together but most of which have lost their connection to their fellows. 

Granite boulder construction is idiomatic here in northern Michigan and the same rocks show up in the foundation of the Ole Oleson barn,
the Schmidt house:

and the relatively whimsical porch of the Martin Basch house.

Small bits of the same colorful granite, rounded smooth by the water into so many little Easter eggs, wash ashore along the beaches of Port Oneida and make their way, ahem, into the bathing suit pockets and backpacks of certain boyish rock hounds.

Before leaving the Lawr farmstead, I walked around the barn and was pleased to see the roof has recently been replaced.

Looking back towards the barn and coop from in front of the house, the lines, colors and textures of the materials appear to have been artfully placed for maximum aesthetic enjoyment, but I know that in reality, their placement was purely a matter of function. Still…

Monday, July 11, 2011

the coops of port oneida, part two (orpha's coop)

I said before that the story of Port Oneida is a quintessential pioneer story. Given the nearly hundred-year scope of the formative era of Port Oneida, it is also, of course, the story of the second and third generations, which followed the original settlers in quick succession. As you might expect in a small, relatively isolated farming community where each family was dependent on its neighbors, families were knit together through the generations by marriage. Carsten and Eliza Burfiend’s children were among the main strands of second-generation Port Oneida. Magdalena, the daughter who was born in Buffalo and waited there with her mother until summoned to the shores of Lake Michigan by Carsten, went on to marry Ole Olsen, who had emigrated from Norway. Their farm can still be seen at the eastern end of Kelderhouse Road and there are several outbuildings remaining there, among them several apparently intended for poultry. Ole and Magdalena in turn gave birth to Charles Olsen, who together with his wife Hattie built the farm that stands (sans a coop) near the southwest corner of Port Oneida. Carsten and Eliza’s fourth child (and third daughter) Elizabeth Louise, married Scottish immigrant George Lawr and they built the farm my family explored on our first visit to Port Oneida (and which still retains a lovely chicken coop). Peter Burfiend, who was Carsten and Eliza’s sixth child, married Jennette (Jenny) Goffar, who had grown up on the farm at the southeast corner of Port Oneida, at the edge of Narada Lake. Together they built a cabin and farm along Basch Road. Peter and Jenny gave birth to five children of their own, including Howard, who brought into the family by marriage the individual who has captivated my imagination and whose home and coop I was most eager to see. But first, just a little more background.

The home in which Carsten and Eliza first lived when they arrived in 1852 was built of logs and stood on a bluff overlooking the lake and across the Straits of Manitou to the islands. Legend has it that their original cabin stood directly on the beach until it was dashed to bits in a storm, but the Burfiend descendents (and common sense) insist that is an apocryphal tale and I can’t imagine solid-looking Eliza consenting to any such placement for her home in the New World. Neither the apocryphal cabin nor the one on the bluff remain, although a clump of lilacs marks the spot of the bluff cabin. What does remain is the solid but largely nondescript house Peter built for the family when he and Jenny returned to Peter’s “home place” in about 1893 to help his aging parents work their land.

In 1926, at the age of 29, Peter and Jenny’s only son Howard married Orpha Fralick and brought her home to live with his parents (Carsten and Eliza being long gone by then). Orpha was 31 at the time of her marriage, a teacher and the first female superintendent of schools in nearby Glen Arbor. Orpha’s parents, George and Minerva, lived in Maple City where her father was a well-loved country doctor who famously, when he developed lip cancer, operated on it himself and then sensibly quit his pipe-smoking. George Fralick also owned the first car in Leelanau County, known as the “Red Devil”.

Howard and Orpha’s wedding picture shows them standing side by side in front of a cypress-sided building with a stone foundation. Howard, facing the camera squarely in black tie, looks serious but well-pleased. Orpha wears a drop-waist Battenburg lace dress adorned at the hip with a bundle of lilacs also tied with lace. She wears her cropped hair in a finger wave and a small strand of pearls around her neck. She gazes at the camera through small oval spectacles with a whimsical half-smile, her right arm angled out from her body as if to steady herself on some unseen rail.

In 1930, with daughter number two either just arrived or on the way, Howard and Orpha hired a Leelanau contractor to build them a house across the yard from Peter and Jenny’s. It came equipped with the great luxury of hot running water! 

A picture from that year shows Orpha seated on a porch holding the infant Beck (short for Rebecca) on her lap while embracing 3-year-old Agnes. Orpha’s arms form a circle around her children; her broad, long-fingered hands are fanned out, the right one cradling Beck and the left drawing Agnes to her. Orpha’s head is bowed over her children and she watches with a tender expression as Agnes appears to offer something (a cherry?) to Beck. The small wire-rimmed spectacles have been replaced with dark-rimmed glasses ala Shostakovich. Both mother and elder daughter wear thick stockings and black leather lace-up shoes. The photo has all the grace of an old master Madonna and child and captures a moment of deep contentment.

I have spent a lot of time looking at these two photos of Orpha and contemplating how this very modern, professional “city” girl chose to become a farm wife and mother. I suppose one might also ask why Howard chose to marry a professional woman two years his senior and a relative old maid in a time when women often married at 19.  In my reading, I’ve found several clues. Together, Howard and Orpha turned the Burfiend farm into “the largest and most prosperous farm in the Port Oneida area—303 acres supporting 25 Guernsey cows” and the area’s first Grade A dairy. Orpha continued to teach, even as she raised her five children (the last of which was born when she was 42!), gardened, baked seven loaves of bread at a whack and put up hundreds of cans of food for the winter—among hundreds of other, unenumerated tasks. Howard and Orpha, it turns out, were a thoroughly modern and very smart power couple. How they met is a mystery to me, but they must have recognized in each other similar drive and intelligence. Whatever chance they took in forming their alliance, it clearly paid great dividends. And despite her seemingly endless toil, the remarkable Orpha lived to be 96, dying only in 1991.

On the day that I set out to visit the coops of Port Oneida I was not sure whether I’d find a coop still standing at the Burfiends’ place. A fire in the 1980s destroyed the barn and silo but other outbuildings remain. Perhaps this is the moment for a primer in spotting disused chicken coops (the ones currently in use tend to be easier to spot) in their natural state. Chicken coops of the general period with which we are here concerned tend to follow a certain architectural model, one that will soon be familiar to all of you. It's a model which tends to leave the front wall higher than the rear with either a flat but angled shed roof:

or a peaked roof with the peak closer to the front side of the coop than the back:

As you may recall me mentioning once before, the most desirable orientation for a chicken coop is to the south and I have planned windows on my own coop that will admit sun from the couth and east. One of the many books I have accumulated, a reprint of a 1924 classic called “Modern Fresh Air Poultry Houses” advises at page 29: “As a general rule the house should face south or a little east of south, so that the interior can be well sunned at all seasons.” [just for the record, you can open this book to any page and find gems of such quality]

In my travels this week, I have been acutely aware of directionality and on the lookout, not only in Port Oneida but throughout the region, for small shed-like buildings oriented to the south. Using this formula, I have spotted many an old coop. The coops of Port Oneida did not disappoint in this regard—every single extant coop faces south and follows the same general architectural model. But you’ll see.

Arriving at what I have come to think of as Orpha’s place, I stepped out of the car to the sounds and smells of Lake Michigan, which is just down the bluff from her house. Several turkey vultures perched ominously on the ridgeline of the roof and in the nearby trees but flew off as I approached. Their presence was a visible manifestation of the slight (semi-rational) anxiety I always feel about what I might find lurking around these ghost farms. I had the place entirely to myself. It being lunch time, I first settled on Orpha’s front porch with the sandwich I’d packed (I didn’t think she’d mind, although she would likely have put me to work), savoring the cool breeze off the lake. 

The sound of the waves was regular and insistent but I imagined it overlaid with the bustle of the house as it must have been in the 1930s. Lilac bushes (the ubiquitous marker of domesticity in Port Oneida) and apple trees dotted the yard and a row of large trees on the western edge of the yard marked the line where the original Port Oneida Road had run—along the bluff edge—and formed a windbreak.

Lunch finished, I headed across the road where the farm buildings were moved in 1930 when Howard and Orpha built their house. The stone foundation of the barn and silo remain,

as do a corn crib/granary
machine shed and butchering shed. And there, between the barn foundation and the machine shed, is the coop--right shape, right orientation! I was giddy with the thrill of discovery.

Walking around it and peering through the foggy windows I found further confirmation of its coop-ness:
remnants of the "pop door" through which chickens could come and go
old wooden nesting boxes
roosts and dropping boards, through ancient chicken wire
I felt deeply satisfied. This was the home of Orpha's chickens, who doubtless provided hundreds of dozens of eggs that helped keep Orpha and her family well-nourished. I was nearly ready to walk away when I spotted it, behind the machine shed:

Much smaller than the main coop, this was the brooder coop, where baby chicks were hatched or placed after being ordered and raised up until they were big enough to mingle with the existing flock. Its small size allowed it to be transported up near the farmhouse when the chicks were small, much like we kept our babies in our living room in order to keep a close eye on them. And unlike Orpha's main coop, the brooder was unlocked!
roosts in the brooder

pop door interior

pop door exterior detail
Which brings me to a complicating factor. One of the books I have pictures this exact brooder in a terrible state of decay. Today, it has clearly been restored and outfitted with a new, old-fashioned roost. Many of the buildings in Port Oneida have been or are in the process of being similarly restored. In every case I've seen, the restoration respects the original construction, but no restoration can be 100% true to the original. I am torn between relief that the buildings are being saved and dismay that in order to truly observe Port Oneida as it was I now have to "read" the original architecture through a scrim or theatrical "gel" of modern restoration that has been overlaid upon it. This is a fundamental dilemma of historic preservation, I suspect, and one that will color all of my explorations on Port Oneida. But all the same, I came away from Orpha's coop feeling I've had a visit with a great woman--and her chickens!