Snakes didn’t stand a chance in the henhouse
Published 6:19 pm Tuesday, May 3, 2022
There’s nothing quite like reaching into a darkened hen’s nest to collect eggs and touching something that moves.
Our henhouse, like most of them back then, had a row of nest boxes. We kept fresh pine straw in the nests and my mother’s hens would dutifully use the boxes to lay their eggs. My sister or I were sent to collect the eggs daily.
It was usually pretty dark inside that house and even darker inside the nests. Frankly, I don’t recall whether I actually touched that blacksnake or merely sensed its presence in the darkened henhouse it was raiding that morning. I do recall beating a hasty retreat, as did the snake, which was probably almost as frightened as I.
Whatever specifically happened, it made a sufficient impression to be vividly recalled nearly 70 years later. It’s just one more “snake story” from life on a small farm in the 1950s.
Snakes always had a special place in rural conversations. If two or more farmers spent some time at a country store, eventually somebody would almost certainly mention seeing a 6-foot blacksnake, or killing a 3-foot copperhead — that’s a big’un. It’s not that farmers were obsessed with snakes, it’s just that snakes were always present, usually in abundance, on the farms that existed back during that period, so much so that they were an important part of rural life and lore.
If you do a search for popular country expressions and idioms, one of the words you’ll find most frequently is “snake.” While that may seem odd, it really isn’t, because snakes were a prominent part of country life.
We’ve all heard stories of farmers who were protective of the big king snake that lived in the corncrib. That snake was the farmer’s rat trap. He relied on the snake to depopulate rats and mice, which otherwise would eat away at what he had spent a year growing. You’d better not mess with his buddy, the big king snake.
Well, that’s one side of it. The other is that black snakes and king snakes liked eggs as much as they did rats — probably more. And on a small farm like ours, “egg money” was important. In fact, the whole micro-industry that consisted of raising chickens was important. It was certainly secondary to the income from hogs and peanuts, but an important subsidy, nonetheless.
The assembly line of chicken production began in the early spring. Chicks were bought from a hatchery and mailed via the post office. They were kept in a small house where they were provided a heat lamp, food and water. They quickly grew to fryer size, and a large percentage were slaughtered, butchered and frozen less than two months later. Hens and a rooster were then given range in the chicken yard and closed up nights in the henhouse.
The eggs they produced were taken to Leon Chapman’s Independent Market on Main Street in Smithfield and provided a small bit of barter against grocery staples.
When the hens quit laying, they became baked hen or a pot pie for Sunday dinner.
Even the feed became part of the process. The mash that was purchased for the chicks and the laying mash bought for the hens came in patterned cotton sacks. My mother picked the patterns she like and stuck with the pattern until she had enough to make dresses for my sister, who wore them for a number of years.
All of which created a tiny industry within the farm operation, and a blacksnake in the henhouse disrupted that little industrial engine.
I don’t recall whether that particular snake survived, but it’s doubtful. Like most farm women of her day, my mother would ruthlessly protect that which was within her charge from whatever threat existed.
In the late 1930s, soon after my parents bought the farm where I grew up, a bald eagle found the chicken yard and began young fryers. My mother was not amused. My favorite photograph of her is of her holding a very dead bald eagle in one hand and the .22 caliber single shot rifle with which she killed it in the other. Not politically correct — or legal — today, but that was life on a small farm before the Second World War.
Unfortunately, that snapshot has been misplaced and I would dearly love to find it. Meanwhile, any statute of limitations on 1930s treatment of bald eagles and my mother have both expired.
John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is email@example.com.