Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Hanging Chickens for the Danforth Family

by Pa Rock

I have recently posted stories about two summer jobs that I had while in college:  brush boy and door-hanger.   Several years ago I also posted a remembrance in this blog about my time selling popcorn and running the projectors at the Tower Theatre in Springfield, Missouri, while I was a college student there.   Today’s post will focus on the last job of my college era, that of a chicken-hanger.

I graduated from what was then called Southwest Missouri State University in January of 1971 with a BA degree in history and a commission as a second l lieutenant in the Transportation Corps of the United States Army.  I was not scheduled to go on active duty until the middle of April, a situation that left me in need of employment for three months.

I moved back to my parents’ house in Noel, Missouri, and, by virtue of knowing a couple of supervisors at the local chicken plant, was able to get a temporary job there.  (It’s always ‘who’ you know over ‘what’ you know.)

The local plant was owned by the Ralston Purina Company, which, in turn, was owned by the Danforth family of St. Louis.    The plant had been lured into Noel a few years earlier by a group of city fathers who thought they were doing a good turn for the local economy.  What they actually accomplished was to bring a major polluter into the community, one that ruined the quality of the river, pumped noxious odors into the air, depleted the local water tables, and provided a near-mortal would to the local tourist industry.

But I was not concerned with the politics of chicken processoing at that point in my life.  My goal was to acquire a regular paycheck until I could pin on those gold bars and go to work for the government.

The processing of chickens went something like this - and probably still works in a similar manner:   Thousands of birds were raised in large, industrial chicken houses where they were fed with automatic feeders and waterers - and never allowed to touch the ground.  When it came time to process them, people were hired to go into the chicken houses at night, while the birds were sleeping or more docile, catch them by hand, and stuff them into large wooden crates that were piled onto trucks and driven to the chicken plants.

(My oldest son was a chicken-catcher for a couple of days when he was in high school.   He would come home in the mornings covered in cuts and scrapes, and infested with chicken lice.  A real glamour job!)

The birds were killed in a special area next to where the trucks parked and unloaded.  I never went outside to see that process, and have no idea how the mass executions were carried out.  They were also plucked and gutted outside before being thrown into long steel cylindrical tanks called “chillers” where they were spun about in cold water until their body temperatures were more corpse-like. 

My first job at the plant was to collect the birds as they came out of the chiller and hang them on the conveyor belt that continually traveled around the plant  where they birds could be processed by workers at the different stations.  The belt was a series of hooks that the chicken’s legs had to fit in-between.  There were two of us hangers.  We had to constantly grab two birds in each hand, swing them over our heads, and hook them to the moving belt.  It was very strenuous work.   The object was to not let any hooks get by without holding a bird.

As the dead birds circled the plant hanging from the conveyor belt, they constantly dripped cold, clammy water on everyone.  I didn’t mind the smells of the processing plant, but the chicken rain running off of my paper hat and down my back is something that I can never forget.

(My sister worked at the chicken plant sometime after I did, and she tells the story of getting her rubber glove caught on one of the hooks and having to run along with the belt as she struggled to free herself – a’la LaVerne and Shirley!)

Lots of funny things happened at the chicken plant, but even so, it was a very dangerous place to work.

Another job that I had was sorting giblets (hearts, livers, and gizzards) on a steel table and packing them into five pound bags.  That was actually an enjoyable experience and I got to be very good at it.  Much less strenuous than hanging chickens!

One day a week the plant had an “in-sale” where employees could order packaged chicken parts at a substantial discount over store prices.  I learned quickly that people who didn’t work at the chicken plant were always seeking friends on the inside who could order chicken for them.

My line supervisor was an little alcoholic (and big Republican) who liked to walk around the plant telling people that he had a “college boy” working on his line.    But most of the people didn’t give a hoot about my advanced education – nothing mattered except keeping the line moving! 

My time at Ralston-Purina was limited, but it was three months that I will never forget - and  I am sure that I learned more there than I ever did in any college class!

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