Homegrown chicken makes for a memorable feast

Our story so far: My husband Tyler intends to draw on his previous experience in the early 1990s transforming an old house on a tobacco farm as he faces the renovation of a 126-year-old Methodist church into our dream home.

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When Tyler acquired the property, the first step was emptying the place of the decades of cigarette rolling papers and other assorted junk accumulated by two old bachelors. The unfinished half-story had two old iron beds with four-inch thick mattresses. Tables on each side of the bed were piled high with identical clothing for the brothers: Bib overalls, stained V-neck T-shirts and union suits in varying degrees of being worn out. Behind the tobacco barn, near a plow and disc (put into use in their time by mules) stood a stack of aluminum pie tins as tall and as wide Tyler.

“There must have been more than a thousand,” Tyler mused when he told me about his project. Here his story deviated a bit from renovation concerns to memories of this property.

“Back there was a stump, too, the brothers used for butchering chickens,” he recalled. “I did, too. There was a broad-head axe hanging in the tobacco barn that I still have, and I used it to cut the heads off the chickens I grew in the yard. My grandma Blair helped me. I chopped the heads off, dipped them in a caldron of boiling water, and Grandma did the feathers. I can still see her there in a lawn chair plucking feathers.”

“Did they taste good, those chickens?” I asked, thinking of a book I’d read recently about how free-range chickens in decades past have so much more flavor than mass-market chicken breasts of today.

“They were the best chickens I’ve ever eaten,” he remembered.

Tylers first reno
Tyler at work on his first reno, circa 1992.

Tyler returned to remembering his renovation experience and the difficult physical labor required to pull off such an undertaking. After cleaning up the property, he knocked all the horsehair plaster and lathe off the walls of the farmhouse, installed 100-amp electrical service and wired the whole house. Tyler had taken vocational classes on electrical and picked up real-world experience by wiring rental housing and cabins with his grandfather. He installed a high-tech (at the time) Swedish wood stove outside and ran HVAC channels to heat the entire house.

Then he ran PVC pipe throughout the structure in order to bring running water (from a new well) inside to the kitchen, two bathrooms and a second-floor laundry. As the days turned into weeks, he put in his own septic system. The neighbor dug the trenches with a backhoe, Tyler laid the pipe and rock, and a guy came out to set the tank.

The septic system passed inspection. The plumbing passed inspection. The electrical passed inspection. Now it was habitable.

The basement was another phase. Years before, his parents figured out a masterful method for keeping the teen-aged Tyler busy: He dug out their entire basement by hand. So he put that experience to good use by digging out the tobacco farmhouse basement the same way, moving out the dirt with a little elevator into the back of a pickup truck. Once it was deep enough to stand up in, he poured a cement floor.

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Tomorrow: Tyler’s first whole-house renovation comes to a surprising and possibly ironic conclusion. Read it here.

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