Saturday, June 11, 2011

the chicken house

Last fall when we were new to the farm, Anne and I entertained the grand idea of building our own chicken house. We had seen kits on websites and photo stories of chicken houses in magazines. How hard could it be, actually? And we'd save money and we could make it charming, a grownup version of the play house Anne never got to have as a child. (She'd pour over the photos of lawn tool sheds in the catalogs and adverts of DIY stores and besiege us to buy her a kit for the back yard for her own. How often do parents look back and wish they could have made a different choice?)
As Winter began to loosen her hold on us and the arrival date of the chicks approached, we were running out of time. Temporary chick housing we had worked out. Surely they could stay in their baby accommodations for several weeks, right?
Life is truly an amazing journey. A new day dawns and your life can be forever altered. Small decisions have far reaching implications. I talked myself into taking a bread baking class while Anne was away in April and I wanted something to do on a lonely Saturday. There I met a young woman, Sherry,  who led me to the Eli Hershberger family. Now I had been aware of an Amish family selling at the Viroqua farmers' market whose cashew crunch was the absolute best candy you can imagine dissolving on your tongue. Eli's wife Lovina's creation. We'd purchased it often and I had even told the young Amish man and wife how absolutely delicious it was. I never dreamed that they'd become such a part of my life.
Sherry had hired Eli to build a chicken house for her and shared her story about that with me at the bread class. With her encouragement, for the first time in my life, I drove onto an Amish farm. The children were first out the door. Then mom appeared. It was nearly lunch and they were getting the meal ready as Eli was bringing in the team to rest while they ate their mid day meal together. There we were, Anne and I, on a hot sunny Tuesday in May right at lunch time, in our shiny red RAV4 interrupting their busy family workday. Pulling all the bravery I could muster from somewhere deep inside, I smiled and introduced myself, let them know they were recommended to me through people they knew well (Sherry and Thomas) and stated my business... would Eli consider building a chicken house for us. This lovely family could not have been more gracious.  Standing on his porch with his lunch waiting, Eli pulled out a map. Yes he could do the job. With the whole family participating Eli, Anne and I, decided the size, 8 x 10, and the colors, colonial blue with white trim and roof. That very afternoon he devised a list of needed building materials and mailed it to me.
I got price quotes from the 2 places in town that sell lumber and insulation and then called Menards in LaCrosse. The price differences were staggering. I had wanted to shop locally, keep business in town, but I saved several hundred dollars by using a big box store, and they delivered the order the next day.

Eli ordered the tin  to be made by an Amish metal worker, Levi, who we dubbed The Tin Man, whose shop is 20 miles south of Viroqua. The only snag was that we would have to pick it up. That worried me as we had no vehicle nor man power to do it on our own. On his way back to the city after visiting here over Memorial Day, Jerome stopped at the metal shop, paid for the order, and asked if it would be possible for them to deliver it. So the next day, Levi and his son, and their non Amish "taxi" driver Roger delivered the tin.
The day after that, I received mail from Eli, with a drawing of his ideas on a piece of looseleaf paper and a note of concern that they hadn't heard from us. Not wanting to wait a few more days to see them at the farmers' market I drove over to let them know all was now in place. They were having a bit of a holiday as it was Ascension Thursday! They invited me to come in and sit for a while and visit. With that, Eli said he'd begin the next day and would bring his eldest son, Dan, who will be 10 on June 14. Lovina professed that she hated packing lunches and asked if it would be an imposition for us to feed them lunch. I readily agreed to do so. I was then shown the garden and the chicken house and asked to return "just to visit." Lovina has 5 sons and only one daughter. Her sister Mary has 7 sons. So women company is in short supply.
The next morning, Friday June 3,  a horse and wagon road up our driveway about 8:15 and Eli and Dan began. Their farm is 11 and 1/2 miles from ours. It takes them an hour each way. They worked 4 full days in the hottest weather we've had this year and almost no cloud cover. The insects are ridiculous this spring. The earliest they left on any day was just past 7 and one day they worked til just after 8pm.
This is the in ground support. The 4 poles go down nearly 5 feet.
The only tool that was not hand operated was this gas run saw. I enjoyed watching them work with hand tools, some very similar to those my dad used when I was very small.
The floor was made as a sandwich: a frame built similar to the walls, with plywood below, insulation between the 2 x 4s and then plywood on top. Then one wall after the other was added. All the time Eli was using a protractor and a level. One day the winds were so strong I told Jerome I didn't know how they kept their hats on let alone handle the boards and keep the wood from blowing down. The best thing about the strong winds was how they helped keep the gnats from bothering us all. Anne and I worked in a nearby flower bed all day Friday and part of Monday, when the sun became too much first for me then for Anne, but the fellows just kept on working.
The roof frame is up and the outside insulation going on.

Inside there is rolled insulation between the 2 x 4s and then plywood over that.

Here the tin is on and the windows are in. Only the doors are left.

Here's the chickens' entry, with their own swing down door and a makeshift ramp.
Below is the front showing the people door in place.

Inside a rolled vinyl flooring covers the plywood. Ashley English, author of Keeping Chickens, said she had done this in her chicken house. Our roll of vinly was oversized, so it's large enough to roll up the walls on all 4 sides adding a bit of protection there too. I had contemplated sealing the wood with linseed oil but the raw oil takes days to dry even in good weather (it's cold and rainy here now) and is highly combustible. After one rather long sleepless night of worry, and an email from our friend Ken in Michigan who has kept chickens for years, I decided that the help for the floor was all we needed. Ken says raw wood is best anyway.
If tomorrow is sunny as predicted, we'll move the chicks to the house and keep them confined inside for about a week as they get oriented to being out of our house and into theirs. We will need to hang both their food and water units and add a few branches for them to begin learning to roost. The nesting boxes Eli will build and bring later in the summer as the hens get closer to becoming layers.
We still need to address the issue of fencing and some stone along the drip lines of the roof to reduce the likelihood of mud in heavy rains. But the house is snug and adorable and we love it.
And we've made such lovely friends with the Hershberger family and I couldn't be happier about that.


  1. The Amish community have touched my life twice this week. Firstly through baking brownies from a recipe in my Amish Baking Book and now by seeing their wonderful craftsmanship in your (best I have ever seen) chicken house. I would love to hear more about your visits to the Hershberger family. They sound very welcoming indeed.

  2. Sharon, I love the new chicken house! What a great story surrounding it's construction. I would love to see it one day and with that the rest of the farm! It's been really hot here in ohio but today and yesterday has been much less humid. I hope one day I can have chickens, it will take alot of twisting of Stefan's arm though. So I guess I will see eventually if that ever takes place! I miss you guys, so happy for all your progress at the farm! Keep keeping all of us informed!

  3. Even better than the adorable chicken house is the wonderful story behind it. I think it's so nice that you have made friends with an Amish family. What interesting people you're meeting, Sharon!
    I saw the chicks on Anne's blog and they are really beautiful little guys.
    Hope everything is going well - I'm sure you must be working hard, but I hope you're finding a lot of satisfaction in what you're doing.
    Sending you warm wishes from Boston and a hug!