The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

1940-1969: Chicken Houses in the Foothills of the Blue Ridge

By Grace Cash © 1991

Issue: April, 1991

Editor's Note... The following is one of a series of articles written by Grace Cash. She lives in Flowery Branch, Georgia. Watch for more of her stories in future issues.

Chicken-raising began in North Georgia as a side-occupation to row-crop farming. Papa raised out a few hundred chickens in a small building used by a former owner of the farm as a garage for an A-Model Ford. He made small payments on his land during the war from his income till Big Business put him in his place, which was an old-time farmer.

When Papa's second son Carl came home from overseas service in World War II, he joined numerous other Southern Appalachian farmers in building chicken houses on a large scale. He didn't stop building till he reached a capacity for 10,000 baby chicks, and an additional house where they candled eggs for the market, and for hatcheries. He and my sister Irma, an experienced farmer herself, were partners in the business. They had a side-income from cracked eggs, sold privately for home use, and from sale of chicken feed sacks which people used for bedding and all types of clothing, especially women's and children's dresses and shirts for the menfolks.

We wore chicken feed dresses to school and church and I wore a beautiful light blue flowered dress with a matching grosgrain ribbon sash at my first job in Atlanta. Made-up by a pretty pattern, trimmed with colorful ribbon, lace, bias tape or rickrack, the dresses compared with those we purchased in Newman's Basement in town. I made three such dresses to wear on my war-time job at the cotton mill. As late as 1990 I found in my storage room one of Mama's feed-sack dresses. The pattern and workmanship showed the same fine skill she used in all her sewing. Yet after a few years, with the coming of prosperity on chicken ranches, it got to be a laughing-thing to wear the colorful flowered and striped and zig-zagged feedsack dresses.

Now there was a pickup truck and one or more automobiles in every yard, so that going to town to shop became as commonplace as quick-made tomato sandwiches (instead of home-grown beans boiled on a wood stove, seasoned with fatback and served with cornbread and buttermilk). Chicken growers shopped at the stores in town, riffling through the long racks, buying several dresses at a time, and the men diked up in new suits and silky shirts and ties, and brand new shoes that didn't call for a polish job when they went out in company. Cotton and corn, and small patch farming took a back seat to chicken raising. Farmers put away their plowstocks and sold their mules. There was no longer the soothing aroma of wheat and oats ripening in the fields, waving their beaded heads in the autumn breeze. The mules were not there to eat the oats, and the water-wheel grain mill had closed its doors except as a relic for tourists to gape at and sigh with nostalgia. Papa no longer took a turn of corn to the mill, and came back with community news from other farmers.

Yard chickens went with the mule and the plowstock. Mama missed feeding corn meal mush to her straggling flock, calling "Chick-oo! Chickoo!" till they were all gathered by head-count on the hard-surfaced backyard, not then softened with green freshly-mowed grass, a development that came with quick-made chicken-money. She had bloodily beheaded chickens galore, brought to her kitchen table from the flat-roofed buildings, but the fast-feeding had taken away something of the nutrients and the taste of chickens corn-fed and worm-fed thanks to their own ingenuity - in the backyard or wherever they wandered.

The old-time farmers still gathered at the country store, but they had no crops to talk about. They went there in their need to talk to someone, and those farmers young enough to adapt to chicken growing, were often crushed to hear that a local producer "had made a killing" with his last sale of broilers, whereas they had themselves lost thousands of chickens in a storm or a blight of one kind or another. When this happened the Supplier would rush down to see what could be salvaged. Sometimes he ordered an entire building of broilers - ready for market - destroyed by burning or burial under the ground. Abandoned wells received their share of diseased broilers. In a mild siege of chicken puniness - moping about, feathers ruffled - the Supplier would offer what was available in mass medication. It wasn't like the days when everybody suffered the same in a drought, or from the boll weevil scourge. Poultry farming with all its rewards - and an equal measure of worry - had come into its own in the foothills of the Blue Ridge.

It was a hard demanding way to make a living but at our house, typical of thousands of others in the Southern Appalachia, chicken-raising was preferred to working in town at jobs that became readily available after the war. It had become a way of life for families all over the region shadowed by the Blue Ridge Mountains, reaching east and west, north and south as far as the scalloped edges could be defined. My brother-in-law in Forsyth County raised chickens on a large scale, there in the shade of a mountain that gave residence to the Cherokee Indians, in the vicinity of Chief Sawnee of song and historical report. I was there on Saturday and my sister Lillian left their lesser ranch to show me a chicken ranch on up the road that was a city in itself, the owner grown rich operating his dazzlingly white chicken houses.

Chicken growing didn't bring the same contentment as working in the fields. In the 1940's, at the war's end, Papa took his seat by the window in the fireroom. He could handle five hundred baby chicks, but the dealers refused to deliver small orders. I would come home from Atlanta for the weekend and call a family member to meet me at the intersection of the Winder-Atlanta highway, needing a ride three miles on down to the homeplace. That went on a while, but the chicken ranch expanded so rapidly that I felt it an imposition to interrupt their work. Watering and feeding the chickens had to go on even when there was a community funeral or illness in the family. I had to buy a car and learn to drive so I could come home on the weekends. I, too - the welcome transient at the hearth - had to take a back seat to commercial chickens.

One weekend I was at home, on a Saturday night. I was on the porch alone, sitting in the falling darkness, enjoying the summer air, when an extrawide and many-decked truck turned into the driveway. It looked like a ship at sea, decks lighted all the way around, and hot blaring spotlights making a showplace of the unpainted farmhouse. Motor roaring, in a great hurry, the driver honked, drawing me to the end of the porch to inquire whether he had reached the Cash Poultry Ranch. I hadn't seen the night operations before - the unloading of chicks at any hour of the night if an order called for that. The yellow downy chicks needed to be set down in their temporary sawdust-floor residence for feeding and watering, beep-beeping till they feathered out and became energetic enough to deafen the grower with their cackling and crowding and sometimes acting for the world like disgruntled human beings. The urgency of that lighted, many decked delivery truck was the most poignant reminder of the war I had seen since a green Army transport truck roared down the highway, loaded with grim faced uniformed soldiers, when I worked at the New Holland war-converted textile mill in 1943.

The poultry Supplier had a set of rules that was as obligatory as that of any Army sergeant drilling his scared recruits. The flat-topped, tarpaulin-shrouded houses had to be cleaned out after the broilers were moved out in big commercial trucks to the marketplace. The company required electric lighting and glass-paned windows that provided natural light and air. There had to be running water which called for pipe lines stretching to the chicken houses from wells and the spring - if City Water was not available.

Chicken raising kept people out of church, and Papa objected to that. He had never led a song or taught a Sunday School class, and indeed sat on the back seat when he could, but he believed in being there. He would say, referring to his own blood-kin, "I made a living without working on Sunday." He despised the seven-day-a-week, twenty-four hours a day growing chickens required. In sleet, snow, lightning, rain and a soaring summer day temperature - and indeed during the grower's own physical illness - the chickens demanded care, and the Supplier saw that they got attention, or they would come and get the whole batch.

It got so my folks carried their lunches to the main chicken house. They had an ice box for coca colas, and a small heater for warming over ham biscuits and coffee. A First Aid kit set on a shelf, and calendars on the wall showed circled appointments such as chickens received, broilers to be picked up, and various itemized lists of expenses, and even reminders of flu shot appointments for themselves. My sister would come to the house at night, and often fry a chicken and bake biscuits and make a pan of chocolate ice cream, trying to make up for her all-day absence form the house.

Some changes looked fine on the surface. People got new cars and trucks, they had money in the bank and they became land owners. They sent their children to college, or gave them a new automobile when they graduated from high school. The young parents saw nothing in it but good, but the old heads kept grumbling. They missed the mule and the plowstock, the crib filled with corn, the loft packed with sweet-smelling fodder, potato digging in the fall and the haystacks. They missed the old-time church, crowded with their neighbors. Empty pews spelled of degradation, and a falling away from God.

As time passed, the Suppliers became millionaires, and some had streets and boulevards named after them. In our county seat town they built a tiny park and set it in the midst of rapid four-lane traffic, as a divider and an attention getter, in commemoration of the Chicken. They made an image of a red rooster, which appears a mixture of the Rhode Island Red (a big stock) and a Bantam (a small stock) and placed the rooster on a pedestal in the center of the square. Apparently the mixture represented the "Big" supplier and the "Little" chicken house producer.

And indeed they did have a lot to celebrate: Literally thousands of loads of broilers and crated eggs have been shipped to market over land and sea. All this was achieved by hard-working farmers after the Second World War in exchange for the joy and contentment generations of farmers before them had known in the fields of cotton and corn, growing rich and green in the hills shadowed by the Blue Ridge.