While most Pokiok children had pups or kittens as their first pets I spent my tiny-tyke years playing with baby chicks…….. the wee downy yellow balls of fluff that go “peep , peep” or “cheep,cheep” in the night … all night as well as all day long as they pushed , bumped and huddled together under the light bulb in the small pen my Dad had built for them in our dining room. Our house was still far from being finished inside back in the late 1930s and early 1940s so my father simply laid a foot-high plank on edge crosswise in our future dining room so as to create an enclosure for 45 to 50 chicks. On the rough floorboards he laid some straw , wood chips or hay , dangled a wire with a light bulb from the ceiling to within a foot off the floor to serve as a heater …… with a big tin plate full of meal and other smaller ones with water in the centre. Since the quasi totality of these chicks would eventually end up in our oven before the following Christmas….. becoming sentimentally attached to any of these birds was rather futile …
Come spring Dad put together a chicken coop on a bedrock ledge atop the hill behind the house …….a makeshift lean-to at the beginning surrounded by chicken wire fencing strung out between upright cedar poles. In 1941 he built a full-blown henhouse on the same spot which would stand there until 1950 when he discovered it was not on his land so down it came. At dusk the birds would all enter the henhouse single file through a small opening which my father would close off soon afterwards to keep them safe from hungry night-time prowlers such as weasels , raccoons , foxes and bobcats. Given our position high on the Pokiok cliffs , now and then we also had to contend with daytime visitors as well looking for a poultry lunch … ospreys and eagles. When the hens were outside in the pen during the day my Dad put his trust in a big , bad-tempered … bad-ass … Rhode Island Red rooster named Rudy to watch over the flock and scare off any uninvited intruders.. Dad loved Rudy and often referred to him as “The Strutter”.
Starting around mid July we would be having chicken twice a week. Any day I came home to find a huge pot of boiling water on the stove I knew there would be chicken for supper….. especially when I saw my father heading up the knoll to the henhouse hatchet in hand….. followed shortly afterwards by a great commotion … clucking and swishing of wings , etc . Unfortunately for the clucker my Dad always came out victorious ! Then came the “hot water” bath to facilitate the removal of feathers and down … the extraction of entrails … and finally into a pot on the stove. I remember well some Sundays during the war when friends from the North End … out for a walk … would waltz into our yard about 4 in the afternoon. Almost immediately Mom would give the “hi” sign to my Dad and he would head for the henhouse once again with his hatchet. You don’t turn folks away when they drop in like that… you invite them to supper , especially at that hour.
Apart from us there were not many other families raising chickens in Pokiok. Down at the end of River Street ( nowadays part of the filled in “Crick” and new Shamrock Park soccer field ) Eddy and Tessie Kiley kept a few around their old barn along with an aging old swayback horse. Out the road from us Charlie Gibbons and Charlie Copeland also had small coveys of “cacklers” but the gentleman with the most numerous flock , although fewer than we , was William Freer MacDonald ( wife’s name was Bertha ). Old Freer was my best friend ‘s ( Tommy MacDonald’s ) grandfather so we spent a lot of time with him and his birds. The house and chicken coop would burn down in later years when I was away from Saint John but the firemen told me afterwards that they had a “bugger” of a time keeping the birds from going back into the henhouse which was on fire ….. so they finally blocked off the small doorway…… thus delaying the BBQ until a later date !
Come Spring one year when we were about 9 years old my father gave two pullets to Tommy … setting my buddy up in the chicken business. We got our hands on an old tea box and converted it into a coop and placed it up against the back of Tommy’s house …. closed it up nights with a big wooden cover held in place by a huge rock we rolled up against it to ensure the safety of the two precious tenants. One morning soon afterwards a tearful Tommy knocked on our door to tell me that his birds “had flown the coop ” so to speak. During the night a nocturnal visitor had succeeded in sliding the cover aside and helping the inmates escape … yeah , escape into his stomach ! This skillful manipulation of the makeshift door by sliding it out of place had “raccoon” written all over it . And the bells knelled to mark the end of Tommy’s career as a chicken farmer….. indeed , a sad day in Pokiok!