Grit Blogs > A Farm Boy Remembers

Stewing Hens

Larry ScheckelImagine you were a chicken on the Scheckel farm, near Seneca, in Crawford County, in the hill country of southwestern Wisconsin in the 1940s and 1950s. You had a really nice life for one and half years. Then you were asked to retire if you did not produce eggs. You had passed your prime and became a “stewing hen.” Your days on the good planet Earth were numbered. It was simple economics. Let me explain.

Stewing HensThe Scheckels ordered White Leghorn young chicks to arrive by mailman in late March or early April. By late August or early September, the now pullets were laying eggs. In the fall they were transferred from the white brooder house to the red hen house. The ladies would dutifully lay eggs for another 15 months.

In the fall, they had to pass a test. Mom and Dad would find out if the old girl was a layer or a liar. They would go into the brooding house, flashlight in hand, in early evening in mid-October when all the hens were roosting for the night. Grab one bird, flip it over, feel the vent where the egg comes out.

A soft moist vent meant that the hen was laying eggs. This producing lady would be kept over another year. A dry hardened vent placed her on the list of soon to be stewing hens. She had a colored wooden or plastic band placed around her leg.

There were other tests. Feel the abdomen; if soft, the hen was a layer. If hard and firm, the hen had passed her laying prime. The color of the comb was a clue. If the comb has faded in color, she was a layer and a keeper. If the comb is bright red, she’s a liar and her days are numbered.

hen | iStockphoto.com/akarelias

Photo: iStockphoto.com/akarelias

After about a year, a hen isn’t tender enough to roast in an oven. The bird is tough and stringy, hence the euphemistic “tough as an old bird.” The only way to cook them is over a low heat with lots of liquid. The low heat and long time allows the meat to break down. Retired laying hens make good stews, soups and dumplings.

Mom and Dad put an ad in the newspaper every September. “Stewing hens for sale,” followed by name and address. The Scheckel family did not have a telephone. One late October evening about 6:30, a Chevy coupe with slanting tail, pulls into the driveway. My brothers, Phillip and Bob, and I had just finished milking cows. A husband and wife get out of the car.

“We’re here to look at some of those stewing hens. We saw an ad in the Boscobel Dial.”

Bob, “Yes, we got some to sell.”

Just then, Dad approaches, coming out of the barn.

The man introduces himself “Hello, I’m Fred Snodgrass.”

We boys heard that name, backed away, mentioned to each other the name “Snodgrass.” Snodgrass, well, we had never heard of a name like that. That was the funniest name we ever heard. We couldn’t keep from howls of laughter, and it didn’t please Dad none too much, what with his three sons howling and rolling around on the lawn like a bunch of fools.

In spite of our not-so-subtle poking fun at their name, the couple bought about 50 of those stewing hens. We captured the hens with the bands on their legs. We carefully placed the hens in wooden lath chicken crates that the Snodgrass couple brought with them. The Snodgrass car turned around in our driveway, and headed southeast on Oak Grove Ridge Road.

Our belated apologies to anyone named Snodgrass.