Counting Chicks

Growing up, we were so lucky to have a cottage in Grand Haven, where my siblings and I spent all of our summers, from the day school got out in June until the following fall. Built in 1904, the Hillside sat high up on a dune, nestled among towering pine trees overlooking Lake Michigan. It had a huge screened-in porch full of white wicker furniture, where, for more than 70 years and throughout five generations, friends and family gathered after a day at the beach.

The cottage, I think more than anything, shaped my life.

Although I’ve often written about that homestead and its environs* I hadn’t ever really explored how we ended up owning the cottage in the first place. I did know that our family’s great good fortune started with an idea hatched by my grandfather, Will Sproul, in the 1920s: incubating and selling baby chicks.

The business started out small, almost as a hobby, in the basement and backyard of my grandparents’ house on Fulton Street in Grand Rapids, where Grandpa Will and my grandmother Mamie sold their poultry products to nearby neighbors. At the time, Will worked for the railroad as some sort of administrator, maybe a bookkeeper, I’m not sure. But because of this background, he knew trains had the potential, both economically and logistically, to expand his growing business beyond the confines of their yard.

And he was right. Over the next 30 years, Northland Farm, as it was later called, ended up shipping tens of thousands of baby chicks by rail to people all over the country, from Texas and Tennessee to Wyoming and North Dakota.

The business was no longer around by the time I was born in ’47, and though I had always known about it, what I didn’t realize was what a huge operation it was. After my mother died I found a box full of information on it in her attic, from customer post cards and brochures to photographs and newspaper articles, one of which referred to my grandfather as a “pioneer in shipping day-old chicks.”

After it outgrew the Fulton Street facilities, Northland moved the breeding and hatching of the chicks up to Bill’s Lake in Newaygo, where “ideal climatic conditions,” helped create the perfect environment for what they called “Northland Winter Layers.” Described as “pedigreed and progeny tested,” and “bubbling over with vigor,” the resulting pullets were known for their laying abilities — large eggs and lots of them. One first-prize winner in the Central New York Office Egg Laying Contest dropped a record 312 eggs in one year.

Grandpa Will also worked closely with Michigan State and other agricultural and governmental organizations to continually improve the high quality of his special layers.

The chicks were sired by a similarly excellent breed of “big chesty Leghorns” imported from England, arriving, as the promotional copy explained, “after the long trip across the Atlantic Ocean as jaunty and peppy as if they were merely coming from a night’s rest in their home coop.”

These descriptions and many others were included in a beautiful 24-page, 8” x 11” catalog I found, complete with photos, which I also learned was written entirely by my grandfather. A copywriter myself for more than 30 years, I no idea he had created all his own marketing materials. And he did a masterful job – his style was professional and informative, but personal and folksy, too, just the kind of writing I love. Here’s a letter he penned to potential customers, perfectly placed in the front of that catalog. (See end.)

Satisfied customers wrote glowing letters to him as well, affirming the superiority of his chicks and providing solid testimonials he wisely used in his communications. (I would have, too!)

I had always been under the impression that Northland’s customers were mostly single families, people wanting to have their own source of meat and eggs during the Depression. But in reality, I discovered, most of their customers were commercial poultry farmers with large operations of their own. Wrote one, “During the past eight years, I have purchased between 25,000 and 30,000 chicks from you…the best of any strain we have ever worked with…”

I feel so bad that I have no idea what happened to Northland Farm. I think a nephew, one of the Hefferans, took it over after my grandfather died in 1945.  At one time I heard that a company in Holland ended up with it, but beyond that we simply don’t know.

I only wish I would have asked my mother more about it before she died. But at least I have all these enlightening materials, which I’m so grateful she saved. Reading through this archive taught me so much more than how we acquired the cottage. I feel like I finally know what my Grandfather Will was all about ¾ and that I come from pretty damn good stock myself.

*See “Sand in My Sheets” and “A Walk in the Park” (if I can ever figure out how to put them in here).

Letter from W Sproul

 

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To Her, With Love

The first African American I ever met was Lucille MacIntosh, my Aunt Eleanor and Uncle Jim Beaton’s housekeeper in the 1950s and ‘60s. We cousins spent a lot of time at each other’s houses, so I saw Lucille a lot. She was so tiny, only a little bit taller than I was, probably just over four feet, and was quite dark-complected, with a very pronounced Mississippi dialect, full of “you’se” and “ya’lls.”

I clearly remember standing in my aunt’s kitchen one time with Lucille’s granddaughter when we were about six or seven, as we curiously and tentatively felt each other’s heads: she putting her hands on my straight brown hair, and me putting mine on her tightly coiled, slightly fuzzy black braids. A first, I’m sure for both of us.

Another distinct memory I have is of the “clapper” sandwiches Lucille made for our lunches. She’d mix honey and peanut butter in a bowl, spread it on two pieces of bread, then clap them together to make a sandwich in this contraption that was a round metal pouch at one end attached to a long pair of handles that opened up. She’d lay the sandwich-end down on the stove’s hot burner to cook, flipping it over once to toast both sides evenly. The honey and peanut butter melted together, oozing out at the first bite of this now steaming gooey-on-the inside, crispy-on-the outside concoction that sometimes burned our tongues.

But Lucille was known for dispensing out a lot more than food; it was her words that people really savored and appreciated. By the time she started working for the Beatons, Lucille had raised ten children on her own plus numerous grandchildren, so she had a lot to say about life.

When my aunt died in 2005, we found several envelopes full of notes she had written about Lucille over 15 or 20 years. She was always going to write a book about her, and when my cousin Suze transcribed all the stories, verbatim, and there were more than 30 pages. What’s wonderful is that my aunt wrote all of Lucille’s words exactly as Lucille spoke them, which perfectly preserved the moments; we can all see her standing there with her hand on her hip as she gives us her opinions in her very recognizable southern drawl.

These stories are nothing like the ones we all read about in “The Help.” In fact, it’s obvious by the way they talked to each other that Aunt Eleanor and Lucille had a close friendship and greatly respected one another. As she states in her introduction to the book she never got around to writing, my aunt talks about what an “intelligent, unique, and lovable person” Lucille was and how she “freely communicated, in a sound and understandable way, her magnificent outlook on life.”

Most of Lucille’s carefully recorded comments are about the Beaton kids—there were six them—and it’s fun to see now, more than five decades later, how Lucille felt about each of them as they were growing up, how one was sweet, another a little spoiled, and so on. But what I really love are her many wise observations about life in general—the importance of getting an education or saving money, for example.

My personal favorite was something she said about men, specifically husbands: ”Naw, honey, they ain’t none of ‘em perfect.” I can say for certain that those eight words, which I’ve heard in my head so frequently, definitely contributed to the success and longevity of my second marriage. Not only that, but I’ve amended them slightly and applied them to everyone I know, from my best friends to myself: They ain’t none of us perfect. We all screw up once in awhile, so let’s give each other the break we need to keep the world civil and sane, and move on.

Lucille was one of those people you meet in childhood who turns out to be much more important to you than you realize at the time. She positively influenced me my whole life through, and I’ve never forgotten her, especially today when there is so much negativity regarding race relations in our world. In fact, I even found an observation that Lucille made 60 years ago that is worth repeating now: “Some Mexicans done move in across the street a while back,” she said. “Five or six of them plays together and they don’t stray from their yard. Yestahday I saw some little colored boys by them. They had some marbles and they done play togethah for first time. Now Miz Beaton that is good.”

Can you see why we all loved Lucille?

My stories, then and now

This is the post excerpt.

Welcome to Keash’s Life Stories, which I am trying to make easily accessible to anyone who wants to read them, either for posterity or curiosity’s sake. The categories are self-explanatory — Cottage, Family History, People, Previously Published, etc. — and I’ll plop in appropriate stories, in no particular order, as I get them done. My goal: 15 – 20 stories a year.  If you have any questions/comments/concerns as you’re reading them, please email me or leave a note here, thanks!

 

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