The Good, the Bad and the Worse
By Joyce Zelnick Weiss
How did a little girl from the big city end up on a chicken farm in the middle of New Jersey?
I will try to tell you my story of living on a farm in the middle of nowhere. In the 1940s Toms River was much further from Brooklyn than it is now. Transportation was not readily available. We would ride on a bus for a few hours while passengers came and went at various stops in New Jersey. For those lucky enough to have a car it was a shorter trip.
BROOKLYN – TOMS RIVER
I was 9 years old when my father, Max, and mother, Bess, decided to move to Toms River. My father was a pharmacist who owned his own store in Brooklyn, N.Y. We lived on the top floor of a two-family house, and Bess’s parents lived downstairs. My parents were immigrants from Ukraine, and it was common to live close to the relatives and friends that one knew from the old country. So my comfort circle of people that I saw all the time were mostly all related to us.
We used to visit my Uncle Philip and Aunt Bertha in Toms River, New Jersey, on their chicken farm which they bought after selling their grocery business in Newark, N.J. Uncle Philip was one of my father’s older brothers, and he was married to Aunt Bertha.
I don’t know how my relatives ended up in Toms River, and I never did find out but, for reasons unknown to me, my parents decided that getting out of the city and moving to the country was a good decision for them and for their children. I don’t recall how long it took for us to pack up and move, but before I knew what was happening, we had moved.
It was not easy for me to leave the friends I had grown up with in Brooklyn. The street we lived on was my world up to that time. My brother, Seymour, was in college at that time so he stayed in Brooklyn with my grandmother. He never did live with us on the farm, but my older sister, Perle, came to the farm with us. She was not at all happy to leave the life she had lived in the city, but she soon made friends and adjusted.
Freedom, Flowers and Puppies
We lived for a short time with my aunt and uncle on their chicken farm while my parents had a beautiful house built for them right next door. My father also had to learn how to drive a car because that was the only means of transportation, that and walking. He was never a good driver, but he was persistent and insisted that he was the only one who could drive the car.
I loved the farm, but most of all I loved the two dogs that lived there, one of whom became my constant companion and protector. It never occurred to me that there were no children my age in the area for me to play with because I had freedom to wander around and bugs to catch and flowers to pick and dogs to love and a huge field in which I could run around and stay in all day if I chose.
The partnership with my uncle and dad lasted about a year. They never did get along and I don’t know why they thought the farm would make a difference and there was also no love lost between Bess and Bertha. So, my parents subsequently bought a large piece of land, also in Toms River, which had a very small house on it. My father built, by himself, a very large two room extension and then he set about building a chicken coop, again pretty much by himself.
After the house was done, we moved and got a dog, Butch, to keep us company. My parents didn’t know the first thing about raising dogs and Butch turned out to be a monster who bit me twice. He was ultimately confined to a fenced-in area with his own house. We also got another dog, a female, who my parents foolishly put in with the monster and she soon presented us with a litter of puppies.
We kept one of the pups. He was a beauty. He was all black like his father, but had four white paws and a white tip on his tail which he got from his mother. He became my best companion. My sister and I named him Bambi. Since he was a dog with no pedigree, we also gave him a breed name: Dainty Runner. Bambi and I were inseparable from the time he opened his eyes.
Cabinets, Marimbas and Clocks
Max was an extraordinary man. He was an immigrant from Ukraine and came to this country at the age of five with his parents, two older brothers and an older sister. He was the only one of his siblings to attend college and get a degree. Both of my uncles enlisted in the army in the first World War to fight for their new country. I think a lot of immigrants feel they owe something to their new country, and it is very sad that there are people that don’t want immigrants coming here.
Max also built some beautiful furniture for our house. As I said, he was an extraordinary man. When the chicken business ultimately failed because of rising chicken feed prices and low egg prices he and my brother-in-law, Hy, who were partners on the farm at that time, decided to make musical instruments. Hy was married to my older sister, Perle and they had three sons. One of their sons is still living in Toms River not that far away from the farm.
Max and Hy combined their talents and made marimbas. One of the marimbas is in my house after spending some time in a museum in D.C. celebrating the art of chicken farmers of Toms River. The marimbas did not sell so Max got a job at a small clock making factory in Lakewood, N.J. We have one of the clocks and also a barometer that he made while he was working at the factory.
My brother-in-law was a very talented musician and woodworker before he came to the farm. He ultimately ended up working for the U.S. post office while still continuing to craft wooden pieces and playing his musical instruments in a small orchestra in Toms River.
The father of one of my friends who lived nearby hung himself in the chicken coop when he gave up trying to make an income from the chicken business. That was a horrible shock to all of us.
Bess died of a heart condition when she was only 60 years old. Max lived with my sister for a number of years before he met and married Elizabeth, who also worked at the clock factory. They had a very happy marriage and, best of all, Elizabeth was not only the world’s greatest cook she was also a good driver and Max was happy to settle in as her passenger in the car. Elizabeth was from Czechoslovakia and had come to the United States as the chef for that embassy. She was very lucky to escape from her country and find a home with her two sons in Lakewood, New Jersey
We had neighbors, most of whom were farmers like my father, and they had children and so I had enough friends, but my favorite activity was walking in the woods to the creek in back of our house with Bambi. I would take food and snacks for Bambi and myself and he and I would leave for most of the day. Obviously, had I still lived in Brooklyn I could not have left the house for the entire day without my mother calling the police. In those days there was a special kind of freedom in Toms River and no one worried about children being carried off by strangers.
The special fun of walking with Bambi in the woods came to an end when the chemical company owned by Ciba Geigy came to Toms River. The woods began to smell from the horrible chemicals that they were pouring illegally into the creek.
Our house was broken into once. Bambi’s mother had just had her pups and was living in a little hallway in the house that had a large window. The burglar chose this window to break and enter and he landed in the same room as Buddy, the dog mother, and she bit him. He left and went to the police to report a dog bite. He was obviously not a very smart burglar. The police came to the house with him to complain about the bite at which point my parents lodged their complaint about the break-in. The man was promptly taken off to jail by the two officers of the law who had accompanied him to our house.
So, I grew up. I attended school in Toms River and as I recall there were no snow days back then. So if it snowed and wasn’t over our heads the school bus came and we got on it. I am still overwhelmed by the strength of the bus drivers who had to deal with a busload of screaming children every day…twice a day.
Before I go on any further, I must tell one story that involved my mother and a rooster. When the farmers got the baby chicks there was a man who they hired to make sure all the chicks were hens. Occasionally a rooster would sneak in as they all looked alike at one day old. Well, the farmers had no use for roosters, and they didn’t want the hens impregnated so they would separate the rooster from the rest of the chicks.
We had one that became a pet of sorts to me. I named him Fosdick (after the famous rooster) and he was destined to live out his days in the chicken hospital with all the hens that had a problem, usually a broken wing or leg or some such thing. Fosdick and I had a special relationship. He would come to me, and I would feed him little goodies and I loved the sound of Fosdick greeting the morning with his special crowing.
The problem arose because Fosdick, for some unknown reason, disliked my mother and would peck her whenever she came near him. She finally had enough of this and one day she took him off to be slaughtered and subsequently cooked. I was incredibly upset about this and refused to even sit at the table when he was served. I never quite forgave my mother for this, and I hoped he didn’t taste good.
THE BAD and NOT SO BAD
The Egg Business
Besides that, I think growing up on the farm was a fairly good experience for me. I learned to be very independent, but it was very hard work, and the work was shared by the whole family. My parents never hired outside workers to work for them, so the jobs fell on my father, my mother, my sister and me.
The thing I disliked the most on the farm was the job that I had to do. When I came home from school each day, I had to spend 3 hours in the basement weighing and packing the eggs in large cartons for the middleman egg buyer who came once a week to take the cases away. I could never go out for any after school activities which I resented very much.
If I had to stay at the school, I took a city bus home and I still had to walk another mile to our house. Sometimes the bus didn’t come so I walked the five miles from town to my house. I don’t recall when the New Jersey Parkway was built but it cut off what was a slight shortcut for me and made my trip even longer. I admit to not being a happy teenager.1
Max barely let me drive his car, his prize possession, so I felt like a prisoner when I grew up. I had to depend on friends to drive me or I didn’t go anywhere, or I walked.
Ben and I began to date when I was a senior in high school. That was a lovely time for me. I also entered some local contests that I won and that was a lot of fun. I was crowned Miss Tomco and I won first prize singing in the talent show at the Jersey Farm show in Lakewood. The next year I went off to college in Trenton and the farm was forever behind me. I missed a few things, the proximity to the ocean and my dog, but I didn’t miss the work that I had to do.
So, life on a farm was good and it wasn’t good. As much as I loved walking with my dog I also missed living in town where I could walk to a movie or a shop or a friend’s house. We also didn’t have much money to spend. A small chicken farm is not a place where you make a lot of money.
My mother was really a city person. When we lived in Brooklyn, she wore lovely clothes and had her hair done frequently and we ate out and went to shows in New York City. Obviously, that ended when we moved. I never heard Bess complain, but I know she missed her extended family very much. When I think back on it, all I recall her wearing was a pair of jeans while she worked all day.
Would I want to live on a farm?? No. I grew up and learned to entertain myself and I read a lot and I wrote a journal which I still have, but I still think I missed an important part of growing up. I did learn to be independent, however, as I had to depend mostly on myself for entertainment.
I sometimes miss the simple life we had and the sound of the roosters crowing in the early morning. However, I don’t miss it enough that I would recommend it to my children. And I found out recently that Max told a cousin of ours that moving to the chicken farm was the worst decision that he ever made.
- editor’s note: The Parkway referred to is the Garden State Parkway. It opened in Toms River in July, 1955.