Backyard Chickens - Then and Now

Backyard Chickens – Then and Now

backyard chickens

In her book, Iva Wells writes about her regular experience with mail order chickens through the decades.

On a recent visit to our family farm, I encountered an autobiography written by Iva Wells, a neighbor and family friend.  She is a woman has lived in northern Minnesota and North Dakota of her life and has chosen to recollect some of her farming lifestyle memories throughout her years.  Of her many trials and triumphs living the agrarian ideal, Iva writes about purchasing, receiving, and raising chickens.  Here is an excerpt from her book Family Life on a Reservation Farm: The Autobiography of Iva Wells.

Chickens and Eggs

To supplement the income from the cattle, most farm women had a flock of chickens to raise and tend.  Every spring, one could walk into most rural post offices and hear the peeping of baby chicks, which had arrived through the mail.  The chicks were usually in groups of 25 within each of 4 compartments in a cardboard box with small holes for ventilation.  The chicks were a common spring sound in the post office as they waited to be picked up by the farmer.  They had probably been on the road from the hatchery for two days.  They would be in good condition with very few fatalities because they lived those first few days from the yolk of the egg, from which they were hatched.

Jim built a very nice “brooder house” for my baby chicks which would be their until fall.  This brooder house was kept warm by an oil stove with a metal skirt called a “hover” around it.  I always ordered 400 chickens every March.  As soon as I would get them home, I would take them into the warm brooder house and one at a time, I would dip their beaks in warm water and then let them run to a feeder where they would immediately begin to pick and eat food.

The chicks would gather and lay under the hover to keep warm.  The temperature had to be kept at a warm, even heat to prevent the chicks from crowding together in a pile and suffocating the ones on the bottom.  Since it was only March, we could and often did have some vicious snowstorms that had me worrying all night about those little baby chicks!  I would wonder if the stove was heating properly or if the strong winds had blown out the flame!

Some March storms were worse than others.  One year, I had many sleepless nights and I would get up, dress, and walk in knee-deep snow every 2 hours to check on the chicks!

backyard chickens

A backyard chicken flock from some time ago

It is interesting to see the decades old tradition of mail-order chicks from a historical perspective.  The logistics and concerns of receiving chicks remains largely the same – chicks are hatched and shipped the through the postal service, their two-day journey is supported by the nutritious yolk, and warmth is the key for young poultry.  However, much of the technology has changed in the process – mail order catalogs are being replaced with eCommerce poultry websites, planes now fly many young birds to their destinations, and electric heat systems now take the place of coops heated by an oil stove.

The practice of raising chickens and other poultry has been a source of income, food, and fulfillment for countless generations.  As Americans look for ways to be more environmentally friendly, economically self-sufficient, and nutritionally more in-touch, examples such as these prove that we often need not look any further than the agrarian practices of the past to find guidance for the future.


  1. James February 24, 2011
  2. jen June 24, 2011
  3. matt January 19, 2012
  4. Diane March 4, 2012
  5. nancy konovalov September 15, 2012
  6. Katie March 20, 2013
  7. Ed October 14, 2013

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