As published by the Daily News Journal, Sunday, November 22, 2009
By Greg Tucker, President of the Rutherford County Historical Society
The surgical procedure was part of the curriculum. The mortality rate evidenced the limited experience and skill of the “surgeons.”
In the rural Christiana community in the mid-1930s, just about every male student was in “ag class.” In fact, Christiana High School offered four years of agricultural studies, and many of the students chose to major in ag. The attraction was not because it was easy. Actually, ag teacher Clarence Rogers expected a serious effort from his students, and was not an “easy grade.”
Most Christiana students in those days lived and worked on family farms. Some were from tenant families, others were working with parents and siblings on farms that had been in the family for several generations. Most expected to continue to make their living raising crops and animals, as had their parents and grandparents. Ag was a natural fit.
Among those in Rogers’ classes during the years just prior to the War were Eustis Zumbro, Everett Hargis, Gerald Jordan, Jerry Blalock, Myers Parsons, Ira and Kittrell Lowe, James Smith and Billy Lynch.
Recognizing the importance of agriculture, the federal government through the U. S. Farm and Home Administration subsidized the ag curriculum and supplemented the salaries of instructors like Rogers in Christiana. “The ag teacher probably made more than the school principal,” remembers Parsons.
“Rogers lived across the street from the school in a nice house, and drove the finest car in Christiana. He was married to the daughter of Sam Overall, one of the biggest farmers in the county,” recalls Parsons. “Because of Rogers, I decided to become an ag teacher.”
Every student was required to complete a farm project each year. This could involve planting, tending and harvesting a particular crop, or raising and selling livestock.
Most of the projects carried through the summer months and kept Rogers working 12 months a year, advising, observing and grading. “Most teachers at that time were only paid for the months that the schools were in session,” explained Parsons. “This 12-month salary was another advantage for the ag teacher.”
Many of the ag students, along with Rogers, went to “ag camp” every summer. The week at Camp Clements was a major social and recreational event, as well as a learning experience for the students, but it did require payment of a fee plus travel expenses.
Opened in 1928 and named for its founder, Dudley M. Clements, the first supervisor of agricultural education in Tennessee, the camp is on the Caney Fork River in the Cumberland Mountains, 12 miles south of Sparta. (In 1931 Tennessee was recognized as the first state to initiate a camping program for students of vocational agriculture.) Today the camp is still operated by the Tennessee Association, Future Farmers of America.
To pay the summer camp expenses, students in Rogers’ classes raised and sold meat chickens each year as a class project. The school ag department had an incubator and a large “brooder.” The chick hatching and raising were done in the school basement, and responsibility for feeding and watering was rotated among the students. Over weekends and holidays students would frequently stay overnight to tend the young birds.
Parsons recounted one occasion when two or more of the boys were staying over in the basement, but the chicken duties were overlooked. When Rogers came in on the following morning, he discovered that the boys had “partied” and forgotten to tend the birds. Strong drink was apparently involved, and individual grades were not the only things sorely affected.
As part of the class fundraising project, the students learned how to “sex” the chicks based on appearance and maturity at about eight weeks. The pullets (immature hens) and the cockerels (immature cocks or roosters) were segregated. To increase the market value of the male birds, the cockerels were “caponized” (castrated).
A capon is a sterilized male chicken. Capons are less aggressive than roosters and easier to handle. The only difference in appearance, besides a fuller body, is a smaller head, comb and wattle. More importantly, capon meat does not have the gamy taste of rooster flesh. Roast capon is moist and very tender with a higher fat content. A quality capon has a dramatically different flavor from a traditional roast chicken. Industrialization of meat production, however, has made capons rare in today’s market.
Caponization has yet to be automated, and capons require 12 or more weeks to maturity.
Modern chicken breeds raised for meat mature in five to six weeks. Some producers induce caponization with estrogen implants, but the resulting product is less appealing.
For the bird, caponizing is serious surgery. The chicken’s testes are located on the inside wall of the abdominal cavity between the kidneys and the lungs. Removal requires opening the skin and abdominal cavity between two ribs and using a sharp hook or similar instrument to grasp and pull the testes loose from connective tissue and out of the bird. Each testis is about the size of a large wheat kernel and must be removed intact to avoid complications or producing a “slip.” (If a fragment of a testis is left in place, it will release enough male hormone to mature a bird that will not function as a rooster, but will also not have the meat and features of a capon. This non-rooster, non-capon is called a slip.)
Caponizing in Christiana was something of an “art,” according to Parsons, and some of the ag students never could quite master the technique. As a result, there were a number of chicken casualties at Christiana High School.
After military service and college graduation, Parsons realized his ambition and begun teaching ag classes at Kittrell. But in his 13 years as the vocational ag instructor at Kittrell and Central High Schools, Parsons confirmed, there was never a capon project.
Greg Tucker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.