"THE CHICKEN THIEVES CAME SILENTLY IN THE NIGHT"

A Memory by Mildred Filbrun Heck  

Every farm family in the 1920s found it an absolute necessity to have a chicken house full of young adult chickens for the winter season. Those chickens supplied eggs and meat for the farm family table and extra eggs to sell for a little extra cash..

For seven months during spring and summer the whole farm family took part in raising those chickens to maturity. It all started in early April when it was noticed that many older hens were "broody" and ready to sit on a nest of 16 to 20 fertile eggs. Our mother found a private nesting place for each of about 20 hens. For the next 21 days we kids were responsible for carrying water and grain to those sitting hens. From time to time our mother would sprinkle those eggs with a bit of warm water and turn each egg over in the nest. 

"It was necessary," was her only explanation.

After 21 days the chicks broke through their shells and it was time to house each hen and her brood of chicks in a separate little coop in a sunny place in the farm yard. These tiny chicks had lots of enemies like crows, hawks, rats and rain storms. We kids were taught to be very alert to all these dangers to the baby chicks. Our mother always raised Rhode Island Red chickens for she felt they were a strong breed and matured faster than other breeds.

Finally, the chicks that survived their many enemies were full grown and it was time to house them in the large chicken house. But first that chicken house had to be thoroughly cleaned, white-washed and all roosting rails oiled to kill the ever-present lice. It was one of the most hated, hot and dirty jobs on the farm. Everyone was relieved when that job was done and the chicken house was full of healthy younger chickens and older laying hens.

( All the above is mentioned as background to show how much time and labor it required to raise those chickens to maturity. )

 The very worst enemy the farmer had to deal with was the seasonal two-legged chicken thieves who came silently in the middle of a dark winter night to steal chickens. They watched and waited until the farmer had raised the chickens to maturity. The thieves had carefully cased every farmer and his chicken crop.  They knew who had the most chickens, where the chicken house was located and how easy it was for them to approach from the roads and make a quick getaway.

Our farm - the Filbrun farm - was at the northwest corner of Old Troy Pike and Shull Road in Wayne Township (now Huber Heights) in Montgomery County, Ohio.  Shull Road was then a one-lane dirt and gravel road that connected the Old Troy Pike to the Brandt Pike. Our chicken house was near the barn in plain view from both roads.  We were always a good target for thieves.

Our father often reminded the kids when we had a moonless night that it was going to be ideal for chicken thieves.  Since my window looked out onto Shull Road, I was told to run to my folk's room if I heard even a slightly suspicious noise on that road. My father always slept near an open window facing the barn. Sitting in the corner near his bed were two loaded shot guns.  A heavy coat and cap hung on a wall peg and his boots were ready to jump into.

A flock of Guinea chickens roosted in a pear tree near the chicken house. They were substitutes for a watch dog because they did a lot of squawking when anything at all moved about near their tree.  My father depended on the Guineas quite a bit, but he could never be sure if they had heard some wild animal or a stray dog rather than a real chicken thief.

The thieves worked very quickly as in a group of  three to five men. One man was always positioned as a look-out and he was known to be dangerous to any farmer who carelessly came from his bed to check on a noise in the farm yard. Two men quickly snapped the heavy padlock on the chicken house door and went into the dark chicken house where they stuffed the sleeping chickens into burlap bags.  Another two men dragged the bags through a field to a safe place along the roadside. 

In just a few minutes two more bags were filled in the chicken house and quickly dragged away. The four or five men waited for their driver to cruise by, leaving the bags of chickens on the road side. Before daylight, a truck came along with no lights and the bags of chickens were tossed in the truck. 

Often a farmer did not know his chicken house had been robbed until he stepped inside to feed his flock. It was a big loss to every farmer for months of hard work had been in vain and winter food for his family was lost.

One December night I was awakened by a crunching sound on Shull Road just outside my windows. I looked out and saw a car with no lights moving very slowly east on the narrow road. I rushed to my parents room but my father had heard the car and was already putting on his boots.  He grabbed his coat and gun and was down the stairs in a flash. He took a position at the corner of the icehouse and listened, not daring to go near the chicken house for he never knew where the lookout man was. To shoot at the chicken house would break out the windows.  To shoot a bit to the left would kill the Guineas in the pear tree.  So he would shoot many times at the ground near the chicken houseAll he could hope was that it would frighten the thieves away - if indeed they were there.

As soon as the first ray of daylight appeared we learned the bad news.  The thieves had successfully been there and left the chicken house about one-third empty. It was always a sickening loss to any farmer and they were completely helpless  for they could make a report the next day to the County Sheriff - and then forget it.  Nothing was ever done unless the farmer had some proof.  Confused and angry,  neighbors often stopped by our house telling how they had lost half or more of their chicken crop. They all agreed that something had to be done.  But what?

My older brother, Bob, had many animal traps set in ditches, creeks and under culverts. He checked all the traps each morning before daybreak. He had so many traps that he was often late in returning so I was given the job of checking  the nearest traps about a half-mile back on Shull Road. I carried with me a short club and a flash light. 

On one cold February morning, before it was daylight, I was just about to crawl under the culvert on Shull Road to look at the animal traps. 

But I found the entrance of the culvert blocked with four big burlap bags. I felt the full bags and knew there were live chickens in them. Panic took over and I ran like hell west on Shull Road toward the cow barn where Dad was milking. But just as I reached the top of the hill there came silently and very slowly a truck with no lights on it.  I knew the thieves must be inside that truck but I could not see anyone.  I was so frightened that I actually froze right there on the roadside. A man in the truck yelled at me,  "Beat it kid!" and I did just that.

When I ran home and told Dad, he  rushed off in his Ford so fast he made the gravel fly on  Shull Road. Of course, by then the bags of chickens were gone. Dad drove as fast as he could the full length of Shull Road and saw no signs of any truck. Dad came home saying he had a very firm feeling that the truck had pulled into one of the few farms to the east of us on Shull Road.  It was only a feeling, but he wasted no time in stating that feeling to some of the neighbors who recently had chickens stolen. No one wanted to believe that anyone would steal from his close neighbors - and really there was no proof at all. 

Yes, the chickens under the culvert were our chickens and my folks were angry. It wasn't bad enough that I was scared stiff that morning but I was also scolded for not using my head to think of  untying the bags and letting the chickens run free. I was not much help to my family that day.

 

Neighbors thought about Dad's suspicions and showed up in our kitchen to talk about what they could do about the problem.  Bob and I listened for this was exciting and we did not have much excitement around the farm. It was a very serious matter and the neighbors all agreed to be more alert around the area. They decided that two farmers at a time would make a friendly visit to each farmer on Shull Road. They did that but learned nothing.

Sometime later that winter, a neighbor went to the rear field of his farm to clear out stones and rocks that had been forced up through the soil by the winter freezes and thaws. As he picked up rocks he noticed that the wind had blown lots of chicken feathers onto his field. The feathers were red, white and others were mixed black and white from the Plymouth Rock breed - just like those of the chickens from his own chicken house that had been stolen during the winter.

The neighbor walked over his neighboring farmer's adjoining field and saw hog manure and chicken feathers had recently been spread over that rear field. He scooped up a bag of the manure and feathers and brought it right into our kitchen where we all took a good look at the smelly stuff.  Our neighbor was angry and very suspicious. 

"This is all the proof we need!" he said. But was it?  Dad did not think it was enough proof and said so.

Neighbor after neighbor did not want to believe that another neighbor farmer would steal from them.  Two farmers decided to take the bag of feathers to the Sheriff's office in Dayton and tell him the whole story of another winter of chicken house thieveries. Soon they were waiting excitedly at our house for Dad to return from his afternoon school bus route. Bob and I were told to leave the kitchen for they did not want us to hear what the Sheriff had told them. But Bob and I heard most of what was said from our secret listening place in the hall coat closet which was next to the kitchen. We heard that the Sheriff had told the farmers that they should call him immediately if another chicken house was robbed.  He said he would pay a "serious" visit to the neighbor we suspected.  

Within two weeks, chickens were stolen from a farmer on the nearby Wildcat Road.  The Sheriff was called and he and his Deputy went directly to the suspect's farm on Shull Road.  A horse had been stolen during the night and the Sheriff told the farmer he was just checking all barns for the horse. The Sheriff was refused entrance to any of the buildings.  Angry, loud words and a bit of rough stuff followed.  The Sheriff had his way and insisted on being shown the back room in the barn where a smoking stove pipe extended above the roof.  (Search warrants were not always needed in those days.)

Inside that barn room the Sheriff found a chicken dressing operation about to begin. A large table sat in the middle of that room and a scalding tub of  water was boiling on a low iron stove.  On the floor were two big burlap bags of Rhode Island chickens, stolen only a few hours before from our Wildcat Road neighbor.  

The farmer was arrested on the spot but refused to name his helpers.  Those names were later learned. To the disappointment of many of our neighbors, the other chicken house thieveries could not be proven to be the doings of this culprit.  He was jailed for only a short time.  He and his helpers were also fined and put on probation of some sort.

For a few years the local farmers around our area had peace in their chicken houses. After a time we heard stories of chickens being stolen around the Brandt and Phoneton farms. Our Uncle Will Filbrun who lived between those two villages on Route 40 (the National Road) had his chickens stolen twice. Along with these thefts, the name of our convicted neighbor came up many times, but there was no proof.  

But then hogs began to disappear in our community, including two on successive Saturday nights from our Uncle Albert Brenner's farm on Taylorsville Road.  The neighbors thought it time for a posse or watch group to be formed.  This group paid particular attention to the night movements of our same chicken-thief neighbor.  Eventually, he was caught with a freshly stuck hog in his truck.  A trail of blood led from the farmer's barn, across an open field to the roadside where the hog was loaded. This time our Shull Road neighbor went to prison for four years.  

What became of him,  I do not know.  Did prison make an honest farmer and neighbor of him?  I have no idea, but I do know the countryside was certainly more peaceful - but less exciting from we kids point of view!.

- This story has been edited by Mrs. Heck’s brother, William S. Filbrun -


"The Chicken Thieves Came Silently In The Night" - Mildred Filbrun Heck - all rights reserved.  Permission to reproduce it or any part thereof must be obtained from the filbrun.com webmaster.

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