I grew up celebrating Independence Day with sparklers and barbecue. We lived in Kansas and didn’t really need the guise of a holiday as an excuse to eat barbecue. Fourth of July parades and celebrations seemed to be as ubiquitous as sunshine on a summer day during those years.
There were opportunities for fun everywhere I looked. Children ran through neighboring yards while flags flapped on front porches. As darkness enveloped the neighborhood, fireflies were caught in jars and held just long enough to marvel at their luminescence before releasing them back into the humid, warm air. Those Independence Day celebrations were filled with family, food and the pride we felt in being Americans.
These days, I celebrate the Fourth of July with my family in New England. Our geography has changed along with the way I view this holiday and commemorate its meaning. Living in a farmhouse that has seen so much of our nation’s history has strengthened my connection to this day.
In my opinion, every chicken keeper celebrates their freedom each time they collect an egg from their coop just as every gardener celebrates with each tomato they harvest fresh from the vine. 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 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 don’t take my freedom to make this choice for granted. Instead, I celebrate the opportunity we have been given to live on our farm and learn the real value of the food that graces our dinner plates. Generations ago, Americans learned that lesson by working on their own farms. They had firsthand knowledge of the amazing effort required to raise a baby chick to the day it laid its first egg or tend a crop and bring it to harvest.
Chickens are an integral part of our nation’s long history. 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.
Chickens were instead kept for their egg-laying capabilities. An egg-laying hen could supply a family with many meals compared to the single meal a chicken dressed for service on the dinner table provided. The lacking nutritional quality of the bird’s diet was also a contributing factor. Instead of carefully formulated, complete chicken feeds, chickens were fed diets consisting almost entirely of kitchen scraps. While today’s chicks can mature to table weight in as little as 8 weeks, back in the Colonist’s day it could take as long as six months.
At that time in our nation’s history, chickens were kept by Americans of all classes and backgrounds. Slaves were often allowed to keep a few hens at their quarters to supplement their diets or to trade or sell the resulting eggs. Poor families kept hens loose in their backyards to help dispose of kitchen waste and to assist in turning manure piles. Only the wealthy could afford to house their birds in decorative coops within the confines of their manicured gardens and lawns.
Care of the family flock fell mostly to the women in the early days of our country. It was lighter work than tending to the larger livestock and a chore easily managed by a woman and her children. Even the youngest child could gather fresh eggs and bring them into the farmhouse kitchen.
George Washington kept Dominique chickens along with other heritage breeds of livestock at his estate, Mount Vernon. By all accounts, he was captivated by animal husbandry. In fact, he longed to leave both the military and the presidency to return to his beloved farm. Washington carefully selected the breeds of livestock kept on his estate and endeavored to make use of every single product and byproduct of their life cycle.
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.
Our second president, John Adams’ relationship with chickens was slightly different. Like Washington, he saw himself as a farmer. He returned to Peacefield in Quincy, Mass., after losing a bitter election to Thomas Jefferson in 1800. While he hadn’t left political life willingly, he consoled himself with the work of his farm and lived there happily until his death in 1826.
His wife, Abigail, so loved her chickens and ducks that she tended to their daily needs herself. In fact, she remarked to Thomas Jefferson after living in France and England as a diplomat’s wife that, “I seldom meet with characters so inoffensive as my hens and chickens.” She much preferred the company of her hens to that of the dignitaries in St. James’ Court.
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.
1840 Farm has stood for more than 170 Independence Day celebrations. This year, we’ll mark the occasion by spending the day together at our farm. The flag will wave from its perch on the front porch as our day begins in the quiet of the barn and garden. There will be homemade food to enjoy for family dinner as dusk approaches.
We’ll attend our town’s fireworks display and then return home to put the farm to bed for the evening. In the end, it will be a celebration filled with family, food and the immense pride we feel in being independent American farmers. Somehow, I think it’s exactly what the Founding Fathers would have wanted.