Our annual hen show had become all fowled up

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Our local TV channel has been teaching navigation, I suppose a sop to our mahogany summer yachtsmen who are in season at the moment, and I feel an essay coming on.

The State of Maine owes many debts to the sea and today they show up in highlander guise and we don't notice they're crusted with salt.

When I was a boy our town had a poultry association that held an annual "hen show" in December, bringing thousands of hens and roosters to our town hall, where they were exhibited in wire cages kept for that purpose. The birds competed for prizes, and people came to see them for want of movies, radio, television, and other diversion.

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The hen show was a great deal of work, all volunteered by townspeople who liked hens. The clerical work listed every bird, breed, and origin; prizes if any; and the owner's name and address. The cages had to be set up and taken down, and returned to storage. The hall had to be cleaned.

The annual banquet of the poultry association was held at Pythian Hall. It was a baked-bean affair and not, as you might suppose, chicken pie. Anybody could attend, and did, and a lecture was heard on some phase of poultry, usually by a land-grant university professor. The hen show continued until changing times put the dollar sign on eggs and meat, and "utility" put good looks out of business.

The hen show of my home town began at sea. Maine ships were lofted and launched by Maine craftsmen in Maine yards, owned by Maine investors, sailed by Maine crews with a Maine master, and by every galley was a cage with sea-going hens that laid breakfast the world around.

When a biddy from home laid out her clutch she became a stew, and at the next port of call the cook would replace her with whatever kind of hen the port might offer. This brought home to Maine every breed of domestic hen known, and when he had a new kind, the cook would buy a rooster to go along for the ride. Our hen show had 'em all.

In the later days of sailing, the so-called downeaster had family quarters aft, and women and children went to sea with their captain fathers. A ship at sea with a wife aboard became a "hen frigate." Hen frigates would carry enough laying hens to supply what eggs were needed. That meant more and more hens being brought home. I should explain that a "ship's wife" in those times had nothing to do with hens or matrimony.

When a sea captain's son came of age, it was customary to make him a present of a vessel and he would go to sea as master of his own command. In Maine we had the Abbott School, an academy that had a department of celestial navigation to handle this filial custom. The boy about to go to sea with his own craft for his first voyage would be sent to Abbott School.

Alackaday, not every boy was student enough to pass, and when that would happen the father, taking no chances with his investment, would hire a competent navigator to go along and do the navigating for his stupid son. Such a professional sailor would not be called captain, and would normally have no investment in vessel or cargo. He was known in the seagoing trade as a "ship's wife."

Many a competent Maine navigator sailed the seas for his lifetime and made good money, but could not be dignified by "Captain, Sir." This "title" was not often said to his face, but he was a ship's wife all the same.

One captain I knew well was an esteemed graduate of Abbott. Although his daddy had handed down no great intelligence, and the boy's likelihood of passing the tests at the customs house was nil, he was a strapping youth and what the social set called a "catch." So a prosperous shipbuilder in the next town made this lad an offer. If he would wed his unattractive daughter, Thelma, thus effecting a merger of shipyard and shipping businesses as well as getting the young lady off his hands, he would give him a vessel, build him a house, and otherwise compensate him for his trouble.

This came to pass, and in their conjugal lifetime Henry and his Thelma sailed 48 times around the world and, with a ship's wife at hand, Henry never needed to know the binnacle from the leeward. Yet, in his retirement, Henry became the leading breeder of single comb White Orpington poultry.

One year he had a cockerel that won "best bird in show" at our town hall. During our hen show, the ladies on exhibition in the wire cages would lay eggs. These eggs were picked up by the superintendent of the hall, who was always Roy Marston, and he'd put them in a pail by the front entrance to sell to the public, proceeds to the association. They were guaranteed fresh and the hens were still cackling.

One year Clyde Young picked out 25 eggs and took them home to hatch in his incubator. Every egg hatched and only seven were roosters. He had one of everything from a Buff Orpington to a Leghorn the size of a dove, and he raised them all in a pen by themselves.

Then, the next December, he entered them in a double cage at our hen show with a sign saying, "Poultry Of The World, All Fowled Up."

The judge laughed and put a blue ribbon on the cage with a sticker: "Eggstra Award."

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