Reflections: Raise chickens in town? It was once commonplace

Before all the lunacy surrounding the COVID-19 epidemic sucked all the air out of local news, one of the hot topics seemed to be urban residents’ newfound wish to raise chickens in town. It wasn’t that long ago, of course, that you didn’t have to live on a farm to hear a rooster crow at sunup.

Within the memories of lots of local folks, including me, a few people in most, if not all, small towns kept some chickens. Some even kept other livestock, although the general practice of having a family cow was pretty much over by the time World War II started. And the family driving horse disappeared with the advent of inexpensive cars in the early years of the 20th century.

But from the 19th century through the early 20th century, many small-town residential lots were miniature farms, complete with barns and other outbuildings.

Farms once were figurative machines designed to produce livestock and grain using a variety of specialized structures, from barns to chicken houses. Likewise, folks who lived in town also produced a lot of food, although they generally didn’t produce enough to sell, at least in the quantities farmers did.

Like farmers, the most important building town residents owned besides their house was their small city barn. In the days before automobiles, many small-town folks kept a driving horse and a buggy for transportation, both of which were housed in the town barns that dotted communities all over the nation.

Many families also kept a cow to provide fresh milk for the kids along with cream and butter for cooking, and a few chickens that not only produced eggs but also the key ingredient for those wonderful fried chicken Sunday dinners, as well as acting as self-directed garbage disposals. Most household garbage could be discarded by simply throwing it into the chicken yard where it was converted into more eggs and, eventually, fried chicken.

Some town folks even kept a pig or two, although that was fairly rare.

But horses, cows and chickens were pretty common throughout small-town America. Sometimes, a small chicken coop was built to house the poultry, but most often they were kept in an addition to the barn or the woodshed. The town barn on most home lots included a stall or two for the horse and cow along with space to hang harnesses, a spot for the buggy to keep it out of the weather and storage for your one-horse sleigh.

Along with the cow, a milking stool and a few cats to keep the local mouse and rat population in check were common town barn inhabitants.

A stock of feed also was kept on hand – oats for the horse and ground corn and hay for the cow.

Elsewhere on the town lot was the ever-popular outhouse (in the days before sanitary sewers were added to the joys of small-town life) and, quite often, a smokehouse, where ham and bacon could be cured.

While town families didn’t necessarily grow crops for market, they often favored large gardens that produced a variety of produce for the dinner table, from potatoes to peas. A small stand of fruit trees and a grape arbor often rounded out the townfolks’ facilities and amenities.

As time passed, the various uses for town lots and buildings changed. In those pre-Social Security days, senior citizens had to find a way to survive, and they often did it by raising fresh fruits and vegetables to sell to the local grocery store. And like their country cousins, they also collected the eggs from the chickens they raised to trade at the local store for groceries.

When my great-grandparents retired from farming and built their retirement home in Oswego in 1908, they probably figured since they were already in their 60s that they’d live another decade or so. So imagine their surprise when they kept on plugging away for another 30 years. That meant they had to find some way to keep home and hearth together.

So they grew raspberries and planted a small fruit orchard. They made their own wine from the grapes they grew on the arbor along the sidewalk that led from the house to the barn and the outhouse. They smoked hams and bacon in the smokehouse they built next to the barn and they planted black walnut trees.

My great-grandfather also farmed the vacant lots along the riverbank to raise some food for the family chickens, cow and horse. And he went fishing, which my grandmother said was a very serious business with him. No fooling around or talking were allowed as he stalked catfish and the carp the federal government had stocked in the Fox River.

A photo of the area where they lived snapped just before they built their new home shows a few horses and cattle aimlessly wandering the neighborhood, which was curiously devoid of trees. Today, the area is fairly heavily wooded, but back then wood was used for heating and other purposes.

Talk about a different time. Most suburbanites now express a fair amount of concern when their neighbors decide they’d like to raise chickens in their backyard. A few years ago, an attempt to make family pets out of pygmy goats in Boulder Hill – on what ironically was the old Boulder Hill Stock Farm – was met with a cold shoulder from the Kendall County Board, the members of which reasoned that it was not suitable to raise livestock (even midget varieties) in urbanized areas. But 60 and more years ago, small towns were really small, with lower concentrations of people, that allowed for pursuits definitely frowned on today.

This weekend, and again on Oct. 3, Oswego’s Little White School Museum will host a walk visiting some of the village’s remaining town barns. If you’re interested in visiting one of these reminders of a bygone era, give the Oswegoland Park District a call at 630-554-1010 and see if there are still a few spots to register for in advance.

• Interested in more local history? Visit