This story is dedicated to a chicken. Her name was Abigal.
Originally, I hadn’t planned to devote my tale to the memory of a Buff Orpington – a lovely, coppery-colored chicken.
But then, on a recent Friday morning at Sal’s Ol’ Timey Feed and Seed store, along came 9-year-old Dawson Sandifer with an empty cardboard box and an equally hollow place in his heart.
“Is it OK with you if I tell the story?” Dawson’s father, Brian, asked his son.
Dawson pressed the collar of his jacket over his eyes and nodded ‘yes.’
“I may get choked up,” Brian warned.
“Dawson was in the 4-H Poultry Program at Sandhills Elementary School. We live in Swansea. At the end of the last school year, Dawson got a chick. He had to raise it through the summer. He named her Abigal.”
“I showed her,” Dawson said quietly. “I got three blue ribbons with Abigal.”
“She was sweet, gentle and always wanting attention,” Brian said, and sure enough, he choked up.
“The reason we are here today, well, Monday, when we got home, we went out to the coop and Abigal was dead. She lay down in her nest and went to sleep and never woke up. It was difficult, real difficult. I had to sit Dawson down and tell him things like this happen in life. You lose things you love. We have to embrace it. Accept it and move on. I told him, ‘Listen, you have Friday off from school, so we’ll go to Sal’s and get some chicks.’ I’m here to keep my promise to my kid.”
And so the dad did.
Dawson inspected the small cages full of biddies, deciding which of the many breeds he wanted to take home. He decided on “two Cochins, two Delawares, and two Speckles.”
“I just like the way they look,” Dawson said, his cardboard box full of fluffy, chirping chicks and maybe his heart a little less heavy.
“Chickens are just so interesting. They follow me around the yard. They let me pick them up and pet them. I water, feed and collect their eggs and clean out their cages.”
“A year ago, I said I’d never get into raising chickens,” Brian laughed.
“I convinced him,” Dawson responded, finally smiling.
And if anything makes raising chickens convincing, it’s a trip to Sal’s during “chick season.”
From February through June, the teal-colored seed and feed store on U.S. 321 north of Columbia is home to a remarkable variety of chicks, and Sallie Sharpe, proprietor, keeps the store’s Facebook page updated on incoming biddies.
“I don’t think you could find another feed and seed around that has the breeds we have,” she said.
The soft, fist-sized chicks usually arrive on Thursdays, many in overnighted mailing boxes.
And by the next morning, just before 9 a.m., customers equipped with cat carriers have gathered in the parking lot outside of Sal’s.
On this recent Friday morning, A.J., who goes by “just A.J.” and helps out at the store, looked out at the parking lot and turned to Sallie, who was still sorting out chicks.
“You ready?” he asked her, “ ’cause they’re ready.”
“Let ’em in.”
It was a methodical process. One by one, Sallie helped each customer pick out their chicks.
She dispensed advice – there’s care, feathering, color and frequency of eggs, and personalities to consider with each breed.
“Sometimes we have as many as 15 breeds in here,” Sallie said.
“We sold 750 chicks last week. We don’t ever sell meat chickens. Ours are just for laying eggs and we want people to have the best quality chickens they can have. I love to see the looks on people’s faces when they have the opportunity to bring home one of the really hard-to-find chicks. Each year we bring in new and exciting breeds. This year we have Blue Lace Red Wyandottes, Blue Copper Marans, Black Copper Marans, Lavender and Mahogany Orpingtons, and the rarest Ayam Cemani.”
And what about personalities?
“Stars are sweet and laid back. Delawares love to take long naps. They are so lazy. Orpingtons look like they have petticoats on and are so silly to watch run because of their wide girth. Naked Necks roost funny. They squat down and they lay a giant egg. We only sell easy-going chicks.”
And as for prices?
“The basic price for less rare chickens is $4 to $6. The most expensive this year have been the Blue Lace Red Wyandottes and the Blue Copper Marans at $20 apiece. We hope to have the Ayam Cemani’s hatching soon. At hatcheries, they sell for $200 a chick. We haven’t priced ours yet.”
Speaking of hatcheries.
While Sallie incubates and hatches some of her own chicks, and others come from local hatcheries, still other chicks arrive at Sal’s from miles and miles away.
“We get some (of our chicks) from the best hatchery in the nation – Ideal Poultry in Texas. As soon as the chicks hatch, they are shipped the next day. Chicks do not need to eat or drink for 24 hours. They still contain all the energy they need to get through 24 hours.”
I asked Sallie, who bought the feed and seed store in 2007, what first drew her to chickens.
“My granddad got some India Jungle Fowl from the zoo, back in the 1980s. Relatives let his chickens go after he died. When I moved into his house, the chickens were still living and thriving on their own.”
Then I asked the same question of 12-year-old Joey Garris, who’d come to Sal’s with his parents and his cat carrier.
“They are just so cute and I love animals. I play with them and I take care of them and I also show them to my neighbors. I have to feed them and water them and collect their eggs.”
A.J., a tall drink of water, stood by and smiled. A sign just behind him said, “CRAZY MOTHER CLUCKERS LIVE HERE.”
“Chickens are just so cool to watch,” he said.
“They all have their own personalities. They have their own cliques. They can be snobby. You see so much of human society in them. They act the same way as people and you can’t help but laugh at that. It’s drama in the coop. A reality TV show. A fight over a bug, you know? I mean, to hell with the idiot box. I get to watch it in my front yard. Everyone wants to live their lives through virtual experiences and chickens give you the real experience.”
And, in the case of my young friend Dawson, life experience. The love and loss of his first chicken, Abigal, who is buried alongside other beloved pets on the Sandifer’s property.
I called Dawson a couple of days after we’d met at Sal’s.
I wanted to know how his new chicks were coming along.
“They’re doing good,” he said.
And how was he doing?
“Good,” he said.
Well, I answered, “That’s good.”
Salley McAden McInerney is a local writer whose novel, Journey Proud, is based upon growing up in Columbia in the 1960s. She may be reached by emailing email@example.com.