by Jennifer Burcke
Photos by author
These days, I celebrate the Fourth of July with my children. We now live 1,400 miles away from the place that I called home as a child. Fireworks are illegal in our state. As a lacto-ovo vegetarian, I don’t each much barbecue. Things have changed and so has the way that we view this holiday and commemorate its meaning at 1840 Farm. In my opinion, every chicken keeper celebrates their freedom each time they collect an egg from their coop. Choosing to raise your own food rather than simply purchase it at the local grocery store is an epic decision. Every meal that consists of fresh eggs or other food personally raised, harvested and tended is a celebration of an independent spirit and the determination to hold our food supply close at hand.
I know this to be true because my parents both grew up on family farms. As a child, I heard stories of their experiences shelling peas until their fingers were raw or helping to move the dairy cows to daytime pastures. Now that I live on a farm and involve my children in the chores that make our daily lives possible, I find myself wanting to learn more about the generations of American farmers that preceded me. Independence Day seems like the perfect occasion to learn more about our country’s agrarian past and the starring role chickens played in it.
Chickens are an integral part of our nation’s long history. Many organizations today work diligently to preserve that history. The Livestock Conservancy promotes the preservation of historic breeds in danger of extinction including chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation educates its visitors on the subject of chicken keeping by exhibiting five breeds common in the early 18th century. Visitors can see the endangered Dominique and Nankin along with the ornamental Polish, Frizzle and Silkie.
When our nation celebrated the first “Anniversary of the Independence of the United States of America” in 1777, it was more notable to be an American who didn’t keep chickens. Chickens were easily accessible to the colonists and critically important to their daily survival. They were equally important to our Founding Fathers and the settlers who came before them.
Chickens arrived in the New World after long voyages to Jamestown in 1607 and Plymouth Rock in 1620. Those chickens helped travelers endure long journeys at sea and set down roots in their new communities in the New World. In those settlements, a chicken was a prized possession and held the promise of the incredible ability to produce food for your family.
In the early 1800s, chickens were a common sight on large plantations, estates and even the yards of modest homes. They were likely to be seen strutting through the streets of the early cities and towns looking for food. In those days, chicken was rarely seen on the dinner plate of average citizens.
Most notably, he aimed to incorporate their manure as rich fertilizer in the cultivation of his gardens and crops. In fact, he didn’t only collect fertilizer from his farm animals. He also constructed and located his “necessaries” within the aesthetic design of the grounds at Mount Vernon. Years ago, when I visited, I noticed these impressive, elevated structures with brick foundations and even photographed them. Only after reading Andrea Wulf’s Founding Gardeners did I learn that they were in fact the outhouses purposely located in the ornamental gardens at Mount Vernon.
A discussion of our nation’s history of farming would be incomplete without mention of Thomas Jefferson. He loved agriculture and believed that its advancement should be our primary national endeavor. His affection for gardening and farming included an affinity for chickens. While living in the President’s House, Jefferson exchanged letters with his granddaughter Ellen regarding a pair of bantams he had sent her. It was his hope that she would have the opportunity to experience the joy of chicken raising.
By the time Jefferson left the President’s House to return home to his famed gardens at Monticello, America had been celebrating its Independence Day for more than three decades. The landscape of the country was expanding, as was its agricultural knowledge. Agricultural fairs began to gain popularity and provided an opportunity for farmers to learn about new techniques, show their prized poultry and livestock, and spend time with other members of their local farming communities.