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...