Sunday, August 7, 2011

Like a Chicken with Its Head Cut Off

By Joann M. Ringelstetter

For the past several months, I’ve been working with one of my sisters on organizing our old family photographs. Among those photographs are a couple of images of an old stone chicken house that was on the first farm our parents bought when I was almost two years old.

The people who owned the farm before us had left an old horse in the barn and chickens in the chicken house. Our father’s intent was to eventually support our family with a working dairy farm and I’m not sure whose decision it was, but the decision was made to get rid of the chickens. So our mother prepared to butcher them.

A number of years ago, as I was sitting in a Milwaukee restaurant waiting with friends for our meal to be served, one of them said, “Let’s take turns sharing our earliest memory.” When it was my turn, I said, “Well, I’m not sure anyone is going to want to hear this right before we eat, but my earliest memory is of being chased by a headless chicken.”

In the old black and white photographs of the stone chicken house, one of them shows some old-fashioned snow fence next to the chicken house. The purpose of the snow fence was to contain the chickens when they were outside the chicken house. And if you look closely, you can see us kids peering through the snow fence at the chickens.

On the day of the butchering, Mom set up a chopping block and we kids, not wanting to miss anything, stood by to watch. It doesn’t seem like such a good idea to let a two-year-old watch something like this but, in those days, there was no one else to watch us, so Mom had us with her as she worked.

I really don’t remember if it was the very first chicken she butchered, but at some point, she laid a chicken on the chopping block and, as soon as she chopped off its head, its body began to run in a frenzied fashion. And, unfortunately, it ran right towards me. I tried to run away from it, but it seemed that no matter which way I turned, the chicken followed me.

Being only two, the chicken seemed almost as big as I was, and as it chased me, its blood spattered on my dress. The worst part of it, though, was that my older brother and sister found this scene to be very funny. Years later, as an adult, I asked my sister if it was just my imagination that the chicken followed me no matter which way I turned. She told me that it wasn’t my imagination. The headless chicken did, in fact, turn whichever way I turned. This is, of course, a story that I will never live down, but I keep my sense of humor about it.

When I was 13 years old, we moved from that farm to a much larger farm in Lake Mills, Wisconsin. The interesting thing is that the previous owners of this farm also left chickens in a chicken house. I think it was part of the agreement that they would be allowed to leave the chickens until they could get them moved to their new farm because I don’t remember us having to actually get rid of the chickens.

The thing I do remember, though, is that my sister, Linda, who was not quite four years old at the time, was fascinated by these chickens. She spent a lot of time in the chicken house watching the chickens and ended up being labeled with a nickname associated with this fascination. She, too, has not been able to live this down. After the chickens were removed, we turned the chicken house into a calf barn.

As Ruth and I travel the backroads of Wisconsin and other states, we often find old chicken coops. Many of them are easily identified by their slanted roofs and row of windows across the front of the building. Oftentimes, these old chicken coops are now being used for a different purpose. The most interesting design we’ve encountered is the poultry barn at the Star Barn Complex in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania. The buildings at this farm were built in the 1870s and are on the National Register of Historic Places.

Happy Shunpiking!

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