Thursday, March 12, 2015

Aroostook's gold-digging chickens?

In the recent resurgence of poultry raising in Maine towns and cities like Portland, one might often hear folks talk about the "gold mine" of eggs that comes from their feathered charges, or the "gold" of their yolks. But never have I encountered a tale in which the goldmine was literal.

Imagine my surprise when I ran across a story in a New Brunswick newspaper, the St. John Daily Sun. On July 27, 1899, the headline on page 7 read: "CARY'S HEN MINE. How a Wanderer Found a Maine Klondike. Mysterious Hermit Who Buys Poultry and the Use He Makes of It. Puzzled and Surprised the Folks from Perth to Aroostook Junction."

The headline is enough to make one curious about this character. The setting is remote. Simeon Cary reportedly hailed from Pickering Point, north of Perth (New Brunswick), making his way over the border into Maine once or twice a week to collect supplies in his dugout canoe from provisioners in Fort Fairfield.

Little or no notice was taken of him until one day when he turned his steps into a jewelry store there, and casually tossed an envelope onto the top of one of the jeweler's showcases, requesting assistance regarding its contents. "Pure gold," the jeweler was forced to admit in surprise after administering tests for proof. "Where did you get it?" Simeon glibly told the jeweler that a friend in the Klondike had mailed it to him.

But it was the curious folks of Perth, New Brunswick, who eventually wiggled the truth out of the situation. They knew nothing about the gold, but they had noticed Simeon was buying chickens. Lots of chickens. More and more chickens, in fact. What had started as two or three at a time turned into a dozen chickens at a time. The sex of the chickens didn't matter. Whether they laid eggs or not didn't matter. He paid well for vigorous, lively poultry.

After the locals realized he wasn't using the chickens to produce eggs or cutlets for sale, they started wondering -- what exactly was Simeon doing with all those chickens? And then, as the article says, "folks grew curious and made his business their business when he was not around." They stayed curious for about six months.

Then one day, three Perthites found their curiosity getting the better of them (it took a while, perhaps we can blame it on cabin fever), and they finally took the trouble to sneak up the road which led to Simeon's homestead. Two feet of snow lay about the land, covering the ground under the trees, but not so in Simeon's yard.

A clear dirt lot extended about his cabin, chickens scratching away at it busily. Simeon, lounging in the doorway, surprised the men by raising the gun and pegging one of his flock quite casually. This was immediately followed by a quick operation on the spot, in which the poor pullet's crop was removed from his breast and taken forthwith into the cabin, out of side of the baffled watchmen.

Enough was enough. The three men rushed the door. Simeon was "contrary and a trifle saucy." However, the emergence of the fact that one of the three men was in fact the owner of the land and cabin in which they stood had a surprisingly convincing effect on the man, and thus Simeon was convinced to spill the beans.

It had started with a natural love of hens. In his solitude, his first rooster and handful of hens kept him company with their continual busy doings and conversational cluckings. Their eggs were delicious. But on the day he realized it had been a full 46 years since he had eaten a drumstick, one unlucky hen became dinner.

In preparation for the meal, "he sat on a log picking the whiskers out of the end that goes over the fence last," and while doing so, ruminated on what the hens lived on besides "faith and gravel stones." He fed them no grain. What on earth kept them going?

Thought led to action, and he used his knife to extract the hapless fowl's crop from its plucked body. Therein he found small rocks, grit, grass, and "a large number of shining particles that were soft under the point of a knife," that looked suspiciously like nothing but gold.

It turned out that eventually Simeon determined that especially robust chickens could be surgically opened, cleaned out, carefully reassembled with silk thread, and reinstalled in the farmyard with a fortifying dose of stimulant to help them overcome the shock to their system. This was much preferable to executing them continually (and likely also preferable to being forced to eat chicken for the thousandth time).

Simeon found that young, strong chickens could be operated on every ten days, while older ones that moved more slowly could stand to be opened up every two weeks.

The article does not mention whether anyone in Perth or Fort Fairfield was inspired to try the same. The article gives as its provenance a letter originally published in the Lewiston Journal, though I have yet to find the original publication (if such exists) in my searches of old newspaper files.

The American Merganser
However, I did find the following on page 64 in the October 1898 issue of the National Magazine, which may explain where the author received his or her inspiration for this piece of purported journalism:
"The Klondike Mergansie which you now see," said Macfugle, calmly; "is a Canadian bird and is not so big a goose as he looks. He is of great value to the Klondike miners, flying up and down the narrow creeks and swallowing gold nuggets until he can hold no more. He then alights at his master's feet and the rugged miner gathers his crop. That's what they call gold croppings, see?"

The quote comes from a confabulation of tall tales in zoo form, titled "Seeing the Elephant," by Winthrop Packard. Perhaps the author of the "Fort Fairfield letter" read this write-up first, and wondered how to transpose it to his native ground? I mean, honestly -- who is going to send a correspondent up to the St. John Valley in Aroostook county to check on such a diversion?

In fact, despite Macfugle's fictitious assertion about the nature of gold croppings, the actual definition, according to a dictionary published in New York around 1902, is this:

"Gulch-mining. Mining in gulches, a method akin to that of placermining, consisting in ascertaining the existence of the gold-croppings which are washed down by heavy rains into the ravines or gulches."
This entry is found on pg. 217 of A New Dictionary of Americanisms: Being a Glossary of Words Supposed to Be Peculiar to the United States and the Dominion of Canada, by Sylva Clapin, NY, Louis Weiss & Co. Publishers (undated edition). I do recommend fans of odd turns of phrase find the book online for perusal, because it is itself a treasure trove of marvelous oddities.

So here we leave you until our next discovery, perhaps wondering a little -- but that is good. One must wonder before one can find.

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