Hatchery memories

This past week, way-back memories came flowing back as never before. It all came about with a trip to the Frey’s Hatchery in St. Jacobs to pick up a box of newly hatched White rock Cornish cross chicks.

This hatchery has been in business since 1946. When I do the math, it places me in my very early teens when my dad first took me to the Rockwood train station to pick up a couple of boxes of day-old chicks. If my memory fails me not, I think it was along about the last week in March. I remember that it was cold and windy and that we had travelled the three miles to the station behind our quick-stepping team of dappled grey percherons pulling the sleigh on the still snow-covered roads.

We had left home a little early as we were not quite sure of the time the train from St. Jacobs was due in, and because we had guessed wrong, the train was not due for yet another hour. We tied the steaming team to the hitching rail, pulled their horse blankets over them, and spent the waiting time hugging a big pot-bellied stove for warmth in the waiting room.

When the stationmaster finally announced that the train was coming, right on time, and would be there in about three minutes, we went quickly out and pulled the blankets from the horses’ backs and brought them in to be warmed beside the big old stove. It was these that we intended to wrap the boxes of baby chicks in to keep them warm on the way home.

It was the first time that I had ever been at the station, and it amazed me at the time to find out that the station actually trembled when the big steam locomotive came thundering in. Being an inquisitive teen at the time found me out on the platform as close as I dared, looking up at the massive hulk of the big machine as it sat hissing steam and belching smoke.

I remember also having “the living bejesus” (my father’s words, not mine) scared right out of me as the engineer clanged the bell and pulled the lever that released an accumulation of excess steam that had built up in the few minutes that the train had been stopped at the station. I realized, by the laughter of both the engineer and the fireman, that he had purposefully waited until I had got close to give it a blast.

As we were receiving the only delivery at that stop, the boxes were handed directly to us from the train, and we quickly tucked them beneath the previously warmed horse blanket and immediately headed for home with the team trotting briskly along, while I stretched my arms out over the boxes to make sure the wind did not uncover them. Fifteen minutes later, we were lifting their lids, and the site I saw at that moment almost took my breath away.

The first box had bright yellow chicks, 26 in each of the four compartments. The second box was a little bit more of a surprise. My father, not sure of which breed was best, had ordered a mixed box. There, cuddled shoulder to shoulder, were burnt red, yellow, black, white, and some mottled chicks. I don’t think anyone, then or now, has spent more time in a warm colony house than I did that particular spring. Watching the antics of the newly hatched chicks as they learned to eat, drink, and scamper was fascinating. It still is today.

Take care, ‘cause we care.




Barrie Hopkins