Animal Farm 1954-1961

     By the spring of 1953, with the arrival of Dad and Mom’s third child and my second sister, Kathryn, the decision was made to find a larger place for our growing family. The home on Hafer, though comfortable, was cramped, and Dad longed for some breathing room and a return to his farming roots. So they began looking at rural property outside of the city limits. To us city kids, driving through the countryside outside of Baytown seemed a whole new world, what with all the vacant land, barbed wire fencing, cows, horses, and space.
     The first time we looked at 6134 Cedar Bayou-Crosby Road (sometime over the last fifty years the name has been changed to Crosby-Cedar Bayou Road), it was not a very impressive looking place. Situated on a dusty, shell road five miles north of Baytown, it was a model of Early Americana. I say this through the eyes of an adult, because it was, even in 1953, an old house…wood framed, wood shingle roof, three tiny bedrooms, and no bathroom…it had an outhouse. However, the present owner was in the process of adding two bedrooms and a bath to the house, so by the time we moved in the outhouse was gone. I remember being a little disappointed in that. Included on the six acres of property were a barn, chicken house, and a small garage or storage building. The barn was probably the best building on the place…a two story, sturdy, pole barn with loft and cattle feeding area, plus a granary (place where your stored your grain.) The chicken house was fully furnished for chickens…i.e., there were roosting areas, feeding and watering areas, and a fenced outside area for casual afternoon strolls. If you were a chicken, it was pretty nice. The storage building was basically a single garage, and eventually became the place where we stored our boat.
     The yard area occupied about an acre of the property with the remaining five acres being pastureland. All of it was properly fenced in and ready for cows or roaming kids. I have said that the place was not impressive as viewed by an adult, but for us kids it was a grand new adventure. Miles of space to run and explore, a really cool barn, a chicken house, and tons of trees to climb…I mean, what more could a kid want? (Remember, this is pre-television and electronic stuff.) The only glitch that happened during the looking stage was on one of our early visits while the family was wandering around the house looking around. My little sister, Kathy, being a few steps in from of me suddenly stumbled to her knees. That was not uncommon, since she was only eighteen months old or so, but this time she let out a wail. I couldn’t figure out what the problem was and picked her up. When I picked her up, I noticed her right leg did not straighten out and, looking down, saw a roofing nail imbedded in her knee just under the kneecap. Without thinking, I grabbed the nail, which was driven into her knee completely up to the nail’s head, and gave it a pull, jerking it out. She REALLY let out a yell then, and I ran with her back to Mom and Dad and told them what happened. We hopped in the car, rushed to a doctor’s office, and she was given a tetanus shot and bandage. A few hours later, she was back to her normal self. After a couple more home visits, the farm deal was done. Dad and Mom paid $9,500 for the whole spread.
     In the ensuing days, another tradition of years past occurred. As I said, the house was old and needed work, plus the new addition that the previous owner had begun was unfinished. The walls were sheetrocked but not textured or painted, and the exterior of the new area was not painted. The new area had roof decking but no roof. So on a couple of Saturdays before we officially moved in, Downings from far and wide came and in a matter of two or three workdays the wood shingle roof on the old area was removed, new decking was applied with a new shingle roof over the whole house, walls were knocked out inside the house resulting in three bedrooms and a much larger kitchen/living area, the bathroom was finished, and the outside of the house received new siding and paint. The women brought enough food to feed a small army. It was not a happy time for me because I was tortured. Well, at least I thought I was, since I was put to work pulling nails out of old lumber. There were so many cool things to get into, but I was anchored in front of a pile of old lumber and given a hammer. Looking back, that’s what I would have done to my ten year old son to keep him out of trouble while everyone tried to work, but I didn’t like it then. Anyway, in a couple of weeks the old house was transformed into a very presentable home, and it wasn’t long before we said goodbye to Hafer Street and moved into our new home. It was the Spring of 1954, and school was still in session, so for a couple of months, Mom drove me to my old school, Alamo Elementary, to avoid a mid-year school transfer.
     Strangely enough, I have found no photos of this eventful period of my family’s life. The photo adjacent to this paragraph was taken in 1954, after the house had been refurbished, but before Dad built the double garage close to where the family’s 1952 Mercury is located in the photo. As far as I know, there are no photos of our old home in the original condition that Mom and Dad bought it. Probably just as well.
     Once settled into our new home, we began the exploration. The barn became one of my favorite places. On the second floor Dad kept bales of hay…not the big round 1,000 pounders you see today, but the square traditional sized 60 pounders that were easy to stack. Dad would have them all stacked in a corner of the second level, but I discovered that I could take the stack down to a single level and then build a wall of hay along two sides. What I created was a hay “room,” which I could access by pulling out one bale of hay, crawling inside, and then replacing the bale of hay. My “room” had a small opening looking out over the pasture, and I would sometimes after school crawl into my private room, look out over the pasture, and daydream. For a while there, dad couldn’t figure out why his stack of hay seemed to be growing, because once I restacked it to make my room, the stack took up more space. When he discovered what I was doing, he didn’t seem to mind, but as we fed the cattle that Dad had begun to buy, my room would occasionally disappear. But with each new load of hay, I rebuilt my Secret Garden.
     With the chicken house, visions of fresh eggs and fried chicken soon abounded, and before long we had a fully operational egg farm. In the beginning, it befell me that one of my duties was to gather the eggs. Mom would sell the eggs to people in our church, and it was not uncommon to gather 50 to 100 eggs in a day. Boy, I hated that job! The reason was we had some really grouchy hens and mean roosters. Going into the chicken house, I had to walk through the fenced-in outside yard, and those roosters considered me an intruder. They would come running toward me squawking, jumping, and flapping their wings as I beat it for the chicken house. Once inside, there were rows of nests for the old biddies to lay their eggs. They would be sitting on their nests, droopy-eyed and half asleep, and my job was to ease my hand underneath them and snatch the eggs without disturbing their beauty sleeps. Inevitably, about every second hen would be startled awake (cold hand?), let out a squawk, and give me a hard peck on my arm. I would come out of the chicken house fuming and ready to engage in chicken abuse. Even grouchier were the hens which were “setting.” They had eight to ten eggs underneath them that they sat on for however many weeks it was until they hatched. They did not want you even coming into the chicken house. They would growl and squawk the whole time I was gathering eggs from the other hens…but they wouldn’t leave their nests. Once they had their chicks, they were pretty friendly, maybe because they knew I also brought chicken feed to them. It was always fascinating to watch a mother hen and her chicks when they were outside the chicken house. The little chicks would be scurrying around in all directions, but if the mother hen sensed any kind of danger, like a hawk overhead, she would give a particular squawk, and the little chicks would come running to mama. She would stand up, spread her wings, and the little chicks would run under mother, Then mama would settle down, cover her brood with her wings, and not a chick would be visible.

Dad and "Sweetie Face"
      There were also visions of fresh beef on the table, and Dad began buying a few calves. In those days you could buy a young calf for $5.00, so the goal was to raise those cows and occasionally get one butchered to stock our freezer. What with fresh eggs, chickens, beef, and Dad having a green thumb when it came to vegetable gardening, we were going to be eating well, to say the least. The only problem was my sisters. To me a cow was a cow, but to my sisters, each cow was a member of the family. Each one was properly named (”Sweetie Face”) and treated according to its personality. Cows had to be brushed occasionally and properly fed. Those cows soon learned who buttered their bread, and they would follow Judy and Kathy around like little puppies. They could lead their pets around by just walking in front of them, whereas what cows were assigned to me, I think they knew I was looking at them as future rib eye steaks. Consequently, they were never very cooperative with me, and I never was able to complete the “bonding.” The upshot of all this however was the first time Dad mentioned taking one of our cows to the packing plant, and when the girls realized what “packing plant” meant, there was a shocked moment and then howls of protest. (We’re NOT going to EAT Sweetie Face!!) Needless to say, the entire time we lived on the farm, we never butchered a cow.      Hogs were a different story. I guess because it’s hard to call a hog “cute” For a year or so, Dad decided to raise hogs and built a hog area out next to the chicken fence. He bought three or four grown hogs and fed them, and before long we had bunches of little piglets running around. Okay, a six week old piglet is cute, but it goes downhill pretty quickly after that. Hogs live like…well, hogs, and their hog pen soon turned into a muddy, stinky hole, a breeding ground for mosquitoes and foul odors. They’re good food disposals, however, and my job was to take food leftovers from our table plus whatever scraps of other stuff Mom had and feed it to the hogs. They could hear me coming and would begin banging on the wooden fence to be first in line for their gourmet dinner. I held my nose as I dumped the slop over into the trough. Gross. In time, their poor manners and foul smells made Dad and Mom decide to get out of the hog business. Dad had the adult hogs sent to the packing plant, but about a half dozen piglets, all about 20 pounds, he butchered himself. I remember the day that we had some of our favorite relatives, Leroy and Louella Wilson (Mom’s sister and brother-in-law) with their two daughters, Karen and Linda, over to visit. Dad had taken the little piglets and butchered them, but he had only skinned them and cut them in half, right down the back bone. They were then put on a spit and roasted over an open fire in our back yard. Mom and Aunt Louella whipped up all the fixin’s to go with roasted pork, and we all enjoyed a feast of roast pig. To this day I can remember my half of pork and eating till I nearly exploded. And there was nary a squeal of protest from my super sensitive sisters.
     This doesn’t involve animals but it does involve food. Three or four years after we had become farmers, Dad decided we would become REAL farmers. He had already purchased a Farmal Cub tractor, but he decided that he wanted to grow corn. He bought a corn seed planter attachment for the tractor, and, choosing the south three acres of our land, proceeded to plow it up and prepare it for planting corn. With the planting attachment on the tractor and a load of corn seed, he headed down the prepared rows, and the planter worked amazingly well, digging a small trench in the furrows, dropping a couple of seed about every 12 inches, and neatly covering up the seeds in one fell swoop. It even added a shot of fertilizer as it dropped the seeds. We waited for nature to take its course. Three acres may not sound like much, but that’s over 200 feet wide and 600 feet long, and we discovered you can grow a LOT of corn on three acres. Once the corn reached maturity, however, I learned that farming was not for me. Naturally, all the corn produced has to be gathered, and we had to gather it by hand. Dad drove his pickup to the first rows, and he and I began yanking the ears off the stalks and throwing them into the bed of the truck. It was hot, sweaty, monotonous, torturous work. It was even worse than pulling nails on those work days. It took us all day to pick all the corn and we were worn out. But sure enough, that evening the Wilsons had come visiting again, and the women cooked dozens of ears of corn. We must have had other food, but all I remember is that Uncle Leroy, Dad, and I got into a corn eating contest, and we ate until we were nearly comatose. I don’t remember who won, but each of us ate over a dozen ears of corn. Best corn I ever ate in my life.
     Getting back to the chickens, eventually Mom and Dad tired of hassling with the chickens and eggs. By the time this decision was made, we were down to 80-100 chickens. My parents decided (and since my sisters had not adopted the chickens) that we would butcher the chickens and pack them all in the freezer and eat well for the coming months. I was around 13 years old at the time, and my cousin, David Phillips from Dallas, was spending the summer with me. The job that fell to us was the worst job of them all…we were to kill the chickens by cutting off their heads with hatchets and then dip the carcasses in a washtub of steaming water. The steaming water loosened the feathers, after which we were to remove all the feathers and take the naked chickens to Mother and Dad who would do the cleaning and butchering.
     So out by the chicken yard David and I built a fire upon which we placed a number 2 washtub with water. In time the water began to boil, and we were ready to begin our work. Each of us had a hatchet, and with a foot on the chicken’s heads, we aimed carefully, and with one fell swoop the heads came off. The birds would flap furiously for a few seconds, and then we would place the poor creature in the boiling water for about a minute. Taking the now-boiling chicken out of the water, we attempted to remove the feathers without burning our fingers. It was hot, tedious work, and we were miserable.
     Until David accidentally dropped his chicken after cutting off its head. To our amazement, the chicken ran off and rushed wildly from here to there for about 30 seconds and a good 75 feet from the fire. Thus the expression was born…”Running around like a chicken with its head cut off.” We thought that was the coolest thing we had ever seen. Sure enough, David, with his evil mind, (I’m going to blame this on David since he’s not here to defend himself…I really can’t remember who thought of it) said, “I bet I can make my chicken run farther than yours!” The challenge had been made, so on the next two chickens, we said, “Ready, set, chop!” We cut our chicken’s heads off, turned them loose, and watched them run around like…well, you know. After that, we started keeping score, and until we were nearly finished, we had a ball. Work turned into fun! But then, just as we let a couple of birds make their runs, Mother came out the door just as my bird ran underneath our house! Mother was absolutely horrified at what we were doing, and when she saw the chicken run under the house, she insisted we go in after it. The trouble was, underneath our house was a dank, dark, scary place that we had heard abounded with spiders, scorpions, and snakes. We moaned, groaned, and whined, but to no avail. Under the house we crawled to reach our poor, lifeless chicken. After that, the air had sort of been let out of our balloon, and we completed the chicken de-feathering without any racing incidents.
     Before you draw the conclusion that I am intrinsically cruel to animals, please remember that these stories took place in the context of the fifties. Now that I am older, more educated, and much (well, a little) wiser, I would never condone such activities today. Also, although it seems each time I mentioned work in this essay I was whining about the alleged torture, it was not as bad as I may have described. After all, to a young person, if it ain’t fun, it’s torture. The amazing fact is we youth were able to occupy ourselves without a single electronic device. We spent our time outside and did not faint in the heat. We ate real butter and fried chicken and didn’t gain a pound. And finally, speaking charitably, we were at least creative in our search for amusement. All I can tell you is that, looking back, I have priceless memories of my youth.