How my old red hen with scaly legs helped
Jim's and my father died in 1970, our mother in 2003. In 2007, their living descendants gathered for a reunion in St. Louis.
For that occasion, we four surviving children (Jim, Gene, Dolores, and I) each set down in writing some memories of our dad. He had been dead for 37 years. His grandchildren could barely remember him, if at all, and they had scant personal experience of life on the farm where we grew up. Those grandchildren had many memories of our mother, since she had died just four years earlier, and since she had given each of them a signed copy of her autobiography, Prairie Fire, published in 1992. About our father, they knew much less. If they and later generations were ever to know what kind of man he was, what values he stood for, it was up to us to paint a portrait of him with our words.
Jim relished this task. He had storytelling in his bones, perhaps inheriting this aptitude from our Irish grandfather on Mom's side of the family. Jim jumped at the chance to write about memorable moments in his relationship with Dad, moments that shed light on both of them. His best story was about an old red hen with scaly legs. I asked him to give a dramatic reading of it at our reunion dinner. His and my great-niece, Dolores Boschert, had made drawings to illustrate the story and held them up one by one on big placards as Jim spoke. It was a touching performance, as memorable as Jim's auctioneering at the reunions of 2012 and 2017.
I can think of no better tribute to Jim, now that he, too, has passed, than to publish here the story he told at that reunion a dozen years ago, along with another he wrote for the same occasion, about being punished for finishing morning chores too late. These reminiscences say a lot about our father, about the kind of man Dad raised Jim to be, and about life in rural Missouri in that era.
It helps to know that on the farm where we grew up, chickens were a staple crop — for our own sustenance and, when sold in town, for cash. Children helped tend the chickens as a routine chore. In the photo below from 1930, some years before the incident Jim writes about, Dad is acquainting baby Dolores with the birds. Tthe boy in the picture is Jim or Gene, I can't tell which.
How my old red hen with scaly legs helped Dad catch a thief
This story about how a crime was solved begins with the plain fact that Dad wanted to mold his sons into decent men, responsible workers, not sissies. He was a no-nonsense guy. In no way did he baby us boys. From little on, he got us to work.
Once, in the early thirties, when Bud, Gene, and I were all under nine years of age, he offered each of us a penny a row to hoe weeds out of corn. Jimson weeds, horsetail, pigweed and hemp could sap nutrients from the soil. Bindweed and morning glory could suffocate the young stalks of corn by twining around them.
Dad knew we would accept his challenge. The rows were about a hundred feet long in the field just west of our house, planted on contour from the creek on up to the top of the hill.
I worked my tail off for a week to make a hundred rows free of weeds. That made Dad smile. I always strived hard to please him, so I could see his pleasant side.
After he paid me the dollar for my work, I used it to negotiate with him the purchase of his big red chicken. This bird was in the flock of about a hundred hens that were kept in the basement barn just up from the pond in the pasture east of our house. The hens would graze a long distance from the barn toward the road, eating grass and grasshoppers and anything else digestible.
I had observed the flock when I was sent to feed them and gather eggs for Mother’s grocery money. I had noticed the big red hen. She stood out, because most of the hens were white. More than that, she was the boss, top in the pecking order. I wanted to own the boss.
Years passed. Dad would sell the older hens each year and replace them with pullets just coming into their prime. But I would not let Dad sell my old red hen, nor another gray hen that was even older. They showed their age, were in fact on their last legs, but I just could not let them go. Dad respected my wishes.
I think it was in 1937, when I was about thirteen years old and when the old red hen was about seven years old, that Dad noticed that his flock of a hundred hens was dwindling week by week. After a couple of months, the flock was down to a dozen white hens and my big red hen, the boss.
Then suddenly, the boss herself disappeared.
Dad had a suspicion of what was happening. On the other side of the road from the pasture where the hens grazed there lived a black couple, husband and wife, Henry and Odessa Miller. They were in their late twenties, both of them good-looking. They had a pretty baby girl who accidentally suffocated to death while sleeping in the bed with her parents. The wake for the baby was held at the farmhouse of our neighbors directly across the road, the Weber family.
Henry Miller was well-liked and a good worker. He hired out regularly to Dad and other farmers.
Dad said to him, “If I find the person stealing my chickens, I will blow his head off.”
Henry answered, “I wouldn’t blame you.”
Now Henry had a beautiful knife. Dad borrowed it from him, then happened to show it to another of our neighbors, Everett Flaspohler.
Everett recognized the knife as one that had been stolen in a break-in at his home. He asked where Dad got the knife. Dad said he borrowed it from Henry Miller. In this way Everett knew that it was Henry who had committed the break-in and stolen the knife.
Dad and I then went down to Lewis Mill looking for evidence about the apparent theft of our chickens. Lewis Mill was a hamlet on the Wabash Railroad in the Chariton bottomland just off Highway 5 north of Glasgow. The elevator there was a thriving business, and the handiest place around to sell chickens.
Sure enough, the man at Lewis Mill told us that Henry Miller had been selling chickens there. Dad described my distinctive old red hen with the scaly legs. Yes, the man said, Henry brought her here to sell.
The day came for the arrest. Constable Burgess and Everett Flaspohler both came to our house. Dad walked over to Henry Miller’s house and asked if he could again borrow his knife. Then came Everett and the constable.
Dad said to Everett,”Is this your knife?”
Everett said yes.
Henry Miller said, “My uncle gave it to me.”
Dad said, “Henry, we have got the evidence on you. I will tell you right now if you are a man and own up to everything, I will go to bat for you because you are a good worker. But if you lie, I will let them throw the book at you.”
Henry admitted everything and was sentenced to one year in jail.
We kept Henry Miller as a friend. He visited us after the year in lock-up. He was a quality man who just fell into temptation. He said the chickens were so easy to catch, that some of them, on their own, grazed their way over near his house. He promised he had learned his lesson, and I think he did.
I was happy we did not lose Henry as a friend. I really liked him and felt for him because his grandparents had been slaves and he himself had suffered a lot of prejudice. He taught me much about baseball. One Sunday, Dad was short a player on his team because of injury. He asked Henry to substitute at shortstop. Henry was the star of the team that day: getting hits, making sensational plays, and also stealing second.
I was proud of Dad for forgiving Henry’s transgression. Dad believed that "to err is human, to forgive divine."
Henry and Odessa moved to Salem, Missouri, for better opportunities. A few years later, the house they had lived in burned to the ground.
Below: the five siblings in 1936. Left to right, Gene and Jim on the car, Bud, Margie and Dolores standing in front. Mom probably posed the children so as to show off the two vehicles, car and truck, the family owned even in the midst of the Depression and drought.
Morning chores and a lesson from Dad
A large dairy today may have 400 Holsteins, each giving about five gallons of milk morning and night. Our dairy had just five or six cows, usually Jerseys mixed with Angus, Shorthorn or Red Poll. These breeds produce a higher percentage of cream but less volume. A cow of ours would just about fill a two-gallon bucket at each milking.
Mom was usually the one to operate the separator machine on the back porch, that divided the cows’ output into cream and skim milk. Mom would then churn butter from the cream, to be consigned to Noth Brothers Grocery in Glasgow, the market for much of our farm’s produce, from apples to watermelons, beef to tomatoes.
Until Dad could transport the butter and milk to town, they would be kept in our ice box – the appliance used before refrigerators became available. People in town bought ice from Shackelford’s Ice Market located at their livery stable across from the VFW Hall. We had our own ice, harvested in winter from the pond and stored under straw deep in the ice house, which was located north of our home toward the horsebarn. It would stay frozen there all summer.
Dad assigned chores to each of us three boys according to age and ability. Bud usually had the job of feeding and watering the stock: alfalfa hay to the cows, timothy and oats to the horses and mules. Bud had to be careful not to give the latter moldy hay, or they would become windy.
I remember Gene having the job of driving the cows from the pasture each evening into the milking lot by the basement barn. He would sometimes get in trouble for stopping to talk to Woody or the coalminers when he went out to bring the cows in, causing a delay.
My job was to milk the cows each evening and then again the following morning. The cows stayed in the lot overnight. Each milking took about an hour.
Milking was done by hand, of course, and I had a knack for it. It was done in the basement barn, which was equipped with lock-down stalls, one for each cow. She would eat as I milked her. She seldom moved around or kicked. A young cow being milked for the first time might have to be equipped with leg cuffs until she learned to hold still.
We tried to be as clean as possible, but sometimes the milk would have to be strained. If a cow got an infected teat and it was not promptly treated with bag balm, early mastitis would set in and the teat would become mute – no more production ever. We bought the medication from Henderson’s Drug Store under the name of “Joe Flaspohler’s Balm Remedy,” named for our uncle who had developed it for his large operation, Sunrise Dairy.
The day began about 6:00 AM, with Dad calling upstairs to wake us up. If we were slow getting dressed, he would come up the steps and help us along. We had to get the chores done by 7:00 AM to have time to change into clean clothes, eat breakfast, and get to school by 8:00 AM, when we would march to St. Mary’s for Mass before beginning class about 9:00 AM.
Mom fixed oatmeal nearly every morning. Sometimes on weekends we would be treated to sausage. The kind made from the blood of hogs was my favorite. Dad butchered four or five hogs each year, usually exchanging work with neighbors. We rendered lard in an open kettle, stuffed well-washed entrails with sausage. The cleaned stomach was used to store blood sausage and head cheese. Hams and shoulders were sugar-cured and stored in the smokehouse fifty yards north of our home.
When I was in the eighth grade, my morning chores gave Dad the chance to teach me a lesson in responsibility. I was conscientious about getting the milking done, but found it harder and harder as each day passed to get it done on schedule.
Dad warned me that if I was late, I would have to stay home from school and do farmwork.
I was steaming mad. Home alone, I thought, this is the last straw. I am going to run away. I work so hard to please my Dad. I have never been treated this way before.
Then it dawned on me: after I run away, where am I going to go? So I decided to start cutting corn to give myself time to think of where to go. I cut corn with a vengeance, working up a sweat.
Dad always planted lots of corn. Only some of it would be shucked while it was standing in the field. The rest would be shocked. That meant stepping off a 16-yard square section of the cornfield, cutting all the stalks off at the ground with a corn knife, and arranging them in a “shock” in the middle of the square. The center was four sturdy stalks tied together for support, with the rest of the stalks arranged around and leaning toward the center in a kind of pyramid. Once the shock was assembled, binder twine was wound around it to prevent the wind from blowing away the outside stalks.
Dad came out to the field about noon to inspect my work. He saw that I had already cut six shocks of corn. I was back in good humor and so was he.
“Son,” he said, “you did a good job and have learned your lesson. Get cleaned up and I will take you to school.”It was a lesson learned well. From then on, I started the morning milking early enough to complete it on time, and I was never late again. I loved my Dad for teaching me to meet my responsibilities.