Kentucky Outbuildings: Chickens Can Have Historic Houses Too

Urban chicken-keeping has been a trending topic for several years now, but the hipsters tending their leghorns and Rhode Island Reds are merely part of a cycle. Chicken houses were once a ubiquitous sight not just on farmsteads, abut also in towns. If you keep your eyes peeled, you may even spot some historic (over 50 years old) chicken houses in the backyards of many an older home.

Half-monitor chicken house, Russell County, Kentucky.

The tending of the chickens was usually the domain of the women of the house, and thus, it was usually placed quite near the house, so that the chickens could be tended and eggs gathered while many other domestic tasks were also performed.

Chicken house, Franklin County, Kentucky. Photograph by William J. Macintire.

Often the chicken house was also located near the orchard or vegetable garden, which again stressed the importance of productivity and efficiency – women could tend chickens and work in the garden, while the chickens helped keep the insect population in check. Eggs were an important commodity for farm families to sell or trade.

A pair of chicken houses – the one on the left is a half-monitor, while the one of the right is a simple shed roof chicken house. Metcalfe County, Kentucky.

Chicken houses can be divided by function, whether as a hen (laying) house or a brooder house. The hen house, true to its name, housed laying hens. Brooder houses were specifically for the raising of baby chickens, often with design specifications for their care.

The form remains similar – most are simple structures with a shed roof, constructed of vertical boards with window and door openings, and often now clad in modern synthetic siding, such as rolled asphalt siding or vinyl siding.

A portable brooder house, from the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture’s 1940 Plans for Dwellings and Farm Buildings in Kentucky.

Chicken and brooder houses were often designed to be portable, allowing the chickens access to fresh dirt and grass, and the framing needed to be light. Sometimes they were built on skids.

Box frame or lightly braced frame structures on piers rather than permanent foundations are typical. Soil-borne diseases were a big threat to baby chickens, so moving brooder houses frequently helped ensure a high survival rate.

Interior of a brooder house in Taylor County, Kentucky, shows the flue that vented a small stove that kept the baby chicks warm.

Chicken houses typically had at least one human-sized door, several windows or openings covered with mesh or wire to let fresh air and light in, and a smaller opening, near the bottom of the façade, for chickens.

Built-in equipment, such as roosts, nesting boxes and water and feed troughs were common in chicken houses. Brooder houses needed to be tighter, in order to conserve heat, and often had more windows and did not have built-in equipment. They were also usually smaller than houses used for laying hens.

Nesting boxes inside a large chicken house in Franklin County, Kentucky. Photograph by William J. Macintire

The appearance of chicken houses changed over the years, just like house styles. One of my favorites is the slant-sided chicken house.

Early 20th century version of the slant sided chicken house, Franklin County, Kentucky. Photograph by William J. Macintire.

This type of chicken house, with its overhanging slanted roosting area, began to be promoted in scientific agricultural journals by the middle of the nineteenth century, though widespread adoption in Kentucky did not occur until after the Civil War.

The ingenious form allowed the waste from roosting chickens to fall through to the outside of the chicken house. The manure could then be collected to use as fertilizer elsewhere on the farm.

A late 19th century version, Mercer County, Kentucky.

Chicken houses are a fascinating part of the study of historic landscapes – I wonder if the newest incarnation of chicken houses will stick around quite as long?

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Comments

  1. Eric Thomason says:

    I think this is one of my favorite posts of yours! I can’t wait to model my own chicken house after one of these. Has the UK Farm Dwellings catalog been reprinted?

  2. Joberta Wells says:

    I still have my grandmother’s chicken house and brooder house in my back yard. They were built in 1895 when the original house was built. My sister (Joy Tarter) had a chicken house built on her farm based on our grandmother’s chicken house then had the plans posted to the Tarter Farm and Ranch web site.

    http://www.todaysplans.net/use-tarter-free-chicken-house-plans.html#.WmddFes8KrU

  3. Annie Jaech says:

    I had no idea how much I missed chicken houses! We lived in a town of 10,000. In our neighborhood 1 in 3 families had them. We didn’t but granddad built a stile so I could feed our garbage to Mrs. Kerr’s chickens. It was a way of life. You may have put more work in on this blog report than on many others (unless you are an expert on poultry too). Thanks!

  4. David Rotenizer says:

    Delighted to see this – good read.

    I documented a few of these structures in Kentucky back in the late 80’s/early 90’s. Section 106 work I would have loved to have documented in more detail, but time restricted me to quick images and pace count measurements.

    I recall there was a clustering of what I call “A-frame” form in western Kentucky. It resembled two wooden pallets placed together (joined at top, spread out at bottom). More substantial than pallets, but it gives mental image. One end was closed off. They appeared quite functional – likley a vernacular evolution. I saw these in early 80’s and all were long abandoned (could be sampling bias).

    Back in early 90’s, Bill McIntire had an interesting Kentucky outbuildings survey through KHC – where he was performing HAABS quality level of documentation. The study may have captured poultry architecture (vernacular and otherwise).

    I was part of the Kentucky Family Farm Oral History Project which had engaged various universities and colleges to capture farm from a multidisciplinary perspective. My fieldwork was focused on a mountain community in Powell County in eastern Kentucky. A focus of the research had a heavy personal leaning toward the use and layout of space around the farmstead – past and present. I conducted about 52 interviews and tried to capture “memory maps” with each session. These and other interviews are preserved with oral history collections at University of Kentucky.

    Aside from poultry architecture, another important dimension is relationship to other elements of farmstead and how it changed through time and to other regions. I like how you touched on this in paper.

    In answer to your question, I don’t think they will endure the passage of time well, though many have done been to the contrary. Outbuildings tended to be of a lesser standard for permanence. In reflection, as often with houses and substantial outbuildings, the older the structure, the longer the survivability in comparison to later constructions/modifications. Craftsmanship/matetials diminish with time.

    Keep up the great research effort.

    1. Janie-Rice Brother says:

      Thanks for reading! I used to work at the Kentucky Heritage Council (SHPO) and was Bill’s graduate assistant one summer. The Agricultural and Domestic Outbuildings in Central and Western Kentucky, 1800-1865 by Bill and Rachel Kennedy is a wonderful resource (it used to be available online and hopefully will be again). I’ve been fortunate to conduct several county-wide surveys focusing on rural properties and their outbuildings – as someone whose family has been farming in Central Kentucky for over 200 years, it is of personal and professional interest. I’ll have to check out that oral history series – I archived my first oral history project with the Nunn Center this past fall (https://kentuckyoralhistory.org/catalog/xt7v154drh6b).

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