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Chickens deserve their place in history, too!

Updated: Sep 23, 2020

In the history of the Tonto Basin, cows and horses have played a major role, as they were the main means of livelihood and transportation. They have been given due credit for their role in the settlement of the West, but it seems that chickens have been left out. Few wagons arrived in the Tonto Basin without a cage of chickens tied on the side or the top or even the bottom. The chickens rode wherever there was room. Pioneers brought chickens with them so they would have a “start” when they got here. Soft-boiled eggs was a baby’s first food, eggs made rich custards and were excellent barter items. Chicken soup was looked upon as a cure for everything, and fried chicken was great for Sunday dinner, especially if a family was celebrating or had company. So chickens have their place in history.

Fowl also provided some entertainment for folks- and in at least one instance, played cupid. Anna Mae Deming said the first time she ever went out with her husband, Jimmy Deming, was after a Payson High School graduation. “We went down below where the Payson Golf Course is now,” said Anna Mae. “When we got out of the car, the guys asked the girls to cook the chickens. Since my mother had died and I had assumed the role of ‘mother’ in our home, I knew how to cook the chickens- I was the only one, too! I told them to skin the chickens, then I cut them up and fried them. Someone had brought a can of grease and some salt. A few days later, a Mr. Franklin approached Jimmy Deming and dunned him $2 each for the two old hens! They certainly were not worth that much, but they were his hens. The next weekend, Jimmy asked me to go to a dance at Gisela and that was it. We were married July 15, 1933 at the Natural Bridge.”

When Henry “Pappy” and Sarah “Mammy” Haught reached the White Mountains on their way into Arizona Territory, they had to stop for a day or two so Mammy could have a baby. Her daughter Ida “Sis” Haught Martin, told me that she remembered the event well. “Us kids were happy to get of the wagon to play, but chickens were turned out of their cage, too, but we had to take turns herding them.” The baby, Irene Million Champion Haught, was born August 10, 1897. Her daughter is Marty McDaniel of Payson. What impressed me was that even though Sis was only six years old at the time of Million’s birth, some ninety years later she still remembered having to herd the chickens while her mother labored to have a baby.

Helyn Chilson Conway tells this in her Chilson family history: “When my Grandma Platt (Margaret Ann Birchett Chilson Platt) was moving to Marysville (three miles west of Payson) in 1881, she had all her chickens in coops on top of the loaded wagon. On the back of the wagon was three barrels of sour mash. One of the wheels got caught on a big rock and the wagon turned over, breaking open all the coops. The chickens just went everywhere! She said she knew she would never catch her chickens, but in a while they started eating the sour mash and before long she just picked them up. But before they passed out, she said they were a funny, drunk bunch. The hens were flapping their wings and trying to crow like roosters.” This is the only story I know about drunk chickens, but undoubtedly, there were more, as a lot of Texas pioneers liked their sour mash and when they got too much of it, were prone to turn wagons over.

My great-grandmother, Ellen Neal, lived to be 98 years old and she told me things that happened on their trip to Arizona Territory. In her story, publishing in The Pioneer Women of Gila County Volume I, I wrote, “She wore a high-crowned cowboy hat to shade her face from the sun, not a sunbonnet as many women wore at the time. A cage of chickens was tied to the side of the wagon and two milk cows were tied on behind.” Then, “After another five or six hours of travel, they stopped for the night. The chickens were turned out of their cage to eat greens, then penned again.” The chickens were cared for because they were needed for eggs and meat.

If you have raised chickens, you know that chickens are not easy to catch. Catching them when they go to roost is the easiest way. But each day when the wagon stopped, the chickens were let out of their cage to eat, then caught and penned for the night so no skunks, bobcats or other critters would kill them. They had to be kept safe. One amazing thing is that the chickens laid eggs while bound to moving wagons in cages. At the beginning of the trip, they wouldn’t lay, but after they got used to the jostling and bumping, they settled in and laid eggs- something very precious on the trips West. Chickens that survived the trip from Texas to Arizona Territory were pretty tough chickens- and many made it. Pioneering chickens.

Women, being nuturers, grew attached to their chickens. After all, the hens gave them eggs for their little ones and succumbed to death by the wringing of the neck if a family ran out of food. They were a precious commodity. My mother, Anna Mae Hale Peace, had a special place in her heart for her chickens. She named each hen and was protective of their young. A skunk or a bobcat was always killing one of the hens, so mom kept the little chicks in a box on our kitchen table until they were big enough to fend for themselves. I remember watching them huddle close to a jar full of warm water which took the place of their mother. At mealtime, mom moved the box of chickens to the couch. Once, one of our dogs killed one of the baby chicks in the house. Mom sent the dog to a place he would never be able to hurt a chicken again.

I guess women have always been protectors of their chickens, but I am a little amazed at this story: During Reconstruction in the Southern States, a woman armed with a musket marched 10 unarmed Rebels into a Cumberland Mountain camp. She claimed the men had killed all her chickens! Enough was enough! She had hidden their weapons as they feasted and then took on the whole bunch. Forced to kill one man, the others surrendered meekly. She had been pushed out of her home, had endured many hardships, but when they killed her chickens . . . . she used her gun.

Dr. Roy Wilson came to Payson in 1906. Like all country doctors, he took many things in trade for his medical services. He received a frantic call from rancher, Albert Booth, who had ridden hell-bent-for-leather from Gisela to Payson in the rain to get the good doctor to help his wife who was in labor and having problems. Dr. Wilson rode through rain and mud, arriving just before dark at the Booth home. Albert’s brother, Ambrose Booth, fed the doctor’s horse, and his mother, Lovey, fried "hog meat" for the doctor. A husky boy was born at midnight. He was named Frank.

It was well into the next day before the doctor finished his care and started for home. When payment time came, Albert told the doc that he had had poor calf crop that year and wanted to know if he would take chickens for payment. Dr. Wilson asked him how many chickens he had. Albert replied, “about fifty.” The doctor said he would take half of them, but the Booths would have to deliver them to Payson. Albert agreed. Ambrose built a cage in the bed of a wagon, then captured the chickens and stuffed them in it. He delivered the chickens as promised. The doctor was seldom paid in money. H­e had accepted cattle, horses, whiskey, but this was the first time he was paid in chickens.

Undoubtedly, the descendants of the pioneering chickens still live in Gila County today.

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