archival letters, archival photographs, Athabasca University Alberta Women's Memory Project, chickens, Eastend Saskatchewan, eggs, heritage chickens, ink drawings, Light Sussex, Peel's Prairie Provinces, pioneer prairie women, Saskatchewan Archives, University of Alberta Rare Poultry Conservancy Program, watercolour paintings
Part of what was considered to be women’s work for pioneer prairie women was often barnyard labour: raising livestock such as cows, pigs, sheep, goats, turkeys, ducks and chickens. These were valuable sources of food, clothing and household goods for the family in the form of meat, eggs, milk, cheese, butter, gelatin, soap, candles, fertilizer, leather, feathers, down, and wool, all which was utilized and made by the women as well. The raising of livestock and their products also provided an important source of regular income for the homestead, much in the same manner as the gardens did.
In the women’s diaries and letters that I have been researching, chickens are mentioned more often and are regarded with a fondness that other barnyard livestock do not seem to receive. I’m not sure precisely what the connection is, but perhaps it is the closer physical connection that was required with raising chickens.
I have come across many archival photographs of women with their chickens.
Anna Fricke (Pfeiffer), her sister and mother feeding the chickens, Stornoway district, Saskatchewan, 1909. Saskatchewan Archives #R-A18516
Woman feeding chickens and turkeys, Peace River area Alberta ca. 1920s, Prairie Postcards series #PC004617, Peel’s Prairie Provinces website, Bruce Peel Special Collections Library, University of Alberta.
In spite of their fondness for their chickens, pioneer women were also practical, and it did not prevent them from carrying out the essential work of butchering. Ada Forsyth, who I interviewed in person at the Wolf Willow Health Centre in Eastend, Saskatchewan on April 8, 2013, talked to me forthrightly about how she killed her chickens. Ada was born in 1916 near Eastend, is a petite woman less than 5 feet tall, and is both sweet and tough. She told me about how much she liked her chickens, but she did not shrink from the practical and necessary duty of killing the chickens, which she did by wringing their necks. She gave me a demo using her beret to represent the chicken. She also mentioned that she has large hands because she worked so hard throughout her life.
When you killed your own chickens you knew what you were getting. It was a great way to live – to raise and have those chickens. I would still do it, however I’m not as spry as I used to be.
In the letters of Anne Pringle Hemstock of Hanna, Alberta to her Aunt Ella Mitchell McClelland of Chatsworth, Ontario, she speaks of her chickens many times. In one particular letter of May 7, 1925, she talks about trying to get her hens to set (to sit on a nest of eggs to hatch them). Annie moved to Hannah Alberta from Ontario in 1918.
I haven’t a single chicken out yet. My hens seem to be awfully giddy this spring. They simply won’t settle down to set. I tried two of them out last week but I got so disgusted with them that I finally hung them in sacks on the clothesline and told them if they couldn’t sit properly they could start laying again.
I based this little watercolour painting on Annie’s quote. Look for the chickens on the clothesline!
My Mom raised chickens on the farm where I grew up too, and I was her assistant chicken girl. I didn’t like chickens very much at the time, but I have gained a new respect and affection for them more recently, and I think I would even like to have a few laying hens in the back yard if the City of Edmonton allowed it. But since they don’t, I have found the second best alternative. We have adopted a heritage chicken! Here is our Certificate of Adoption.
The University of Alberta Farm is just a few blocks from our house, and the Poultry Research Centre has started a “Rare Poultry Conservancy Program”. The public can support this initiative and become involved by paying a very reasonable fee to adopt a chicken, and the adopters benefit by receiving a dozen organic, free-range, very well cared for eggs every two weeks from the adoptees.
We got to choose our breed (Light Sussex) and name our chicken. I chose Light Sussex because so many of the women who I have been researching came to the prairies from England. I named her Gertie Chase in honour of a pioneer woman who lived in the Wapiti River area of Alberta in the 1920s. She is one of the women whose letters I have been reading, and she kept a lot of chickens over the years and reported on them regularly in her letters. Gertie Chase also seemed a name that would suit a heritage chicken.
Here are a couple of ink drawings that I did of Light Sussex hens; beautiful chickens who lay lovely light brown eggs.
Posted by Marlena Wyman