Thursday, June 5, 2014

Nancy Luce and her chickens

Rebecca Nikols wrote this reminiscence on her blog. Check it out to enter the contest at the end. I wonder what breeds of chickens she was raising.

When I first contemplated the idea of backyard chickens I originally intended that this venture was my little attempt at a more sustainable lifestyle...  My goal was: "grow your own" and not rely on purchasing aged, processed or chemically altered food. Well, I accomplished that goal in a sense. I haven't purchased store-bought eggs in years and I do enjoy the fact that I know where my breakfast comes from (at least the eggs). It's true that the freshest and most organic food is what you raise and grow yourself.

But...  what I hadn't expected was a flock of chickens opening up a whole new world of enjoyment, entertainment and adventures! These endearing "farm animals" each have their own unique personality and odd quirks that together make "flock watching" a part of my daily routine! One of the many things I appreciate about this Community is that we can share with other chicken enthusiasts the stories and photos of our flock. Whether the tales are odd, funny or sad, this group understands how easily a chicken can touch your heart...

Susan Branch wrote a wonderful tribute to a lonely kindhearted woman, Nancy Luce, who when faced with illness, poverty and abuse found joy and comfort within her small flock of hens. Susan graciously allowed me to share this touching story of Nancy's life with our Community...

Nancy Luce ~ by Susan Branch

I would like to introduce you to someone who lived what seemed to be a tiny speck of a life here on Martha’s Vineyard from 1814 to 1890. She did the best she could, against huge odds, which has caught the fancy of generations and has made her a folk hero. Her name was Nancy Luce. 

For years, on my way up-island, I would pass the graveyard where Nancy Luce is buried, and notice the headstone at the back of the cemetery that’s surrounded in fake chickens — all colors, little and big, cement and plastic, in the snow and in the grass, but I never understood why they were there.

One day, in our used bookstore, I found a biography of Nancy Luce, written by Walter Magnes Teller in 1984 (and out of print now), called, "Consider Poor I" and that’s where I learned the story of the chickens in the graveyard. 

Nancy lived most of her life in a dark, lonely world of poverty and illness. She didn't start out that way; when she was young, she was a good horsewoman, rode twenty miles to and from Edgartown, often, and did all the trading for her family. But she became ill in her early twenties. At the time, no one knew what she had, so they couldn't help her. (I have a friend who’s a doctor and he thinks, from looking at her symptoms, she may have had Lyme disease.) Whatever it was, it was debilitating and it lasted the rest of her life.
Just about the time she fell ill, her parents passed away; Nancy was on her own, and prey to avarice of family and neighbors; they tried to steal her home from her; there are minutes from the town meeting at that time showing what they tried to do. She fought them and won; but it left her vulnerable; her enemies didn’t like losing to her; it shamed them; she became the butt of local jokes (schoolboys came by to scare her and make fun of her), leaving her even more isolated than she already was. She lived in her little house, all alone, winter, summer, spring, and fall, in the middle of nowhere (with no electricity, no personal physical strength, no family, and no money). What she had, were chickens, which she needed for the eggs they supplied. And she grew to love them in an extraordinary way. As anyone would in her circumstances. They were all she had.

The other thing Nancy had, but probably wasn't as aware of as I am now, was an indomitable spirit. I don’t think it gave her much comfort at the time, probably made things even worse, but it gives me great comfort to see how she soldiered on, despite the difficulties in her life. She tried not to care what others thought; she loved her chickens, and so when they died, she buried them in real caskets, and spent all her egg money on carved granite headstones for them; she made a little graveyard for them next to her house. This of course made her the object of fun, people would come by to laugh at her, as if she was crazy or something, but she most definitely was not crazy.

Because of her ailments, sounds were disturbing to Nancy, loud noise hurt her, inspiring her “enemies,” as she called them, to serenade her by beating pots and pans at her door. Someone “brought in cow dressing and put it in my entry and shut the door against it.” She tells many stories of neighborly abuse. But despite everything, when she was around forty-six, and with no outside help, she had the courage, and amazing inner reserve, to write, illustrate, and self-publish her own small books; the first was called Poor Little Hearts, a book about her chickens. These books aroused interest from curious tourists who began to beat a path to her door (not everyone was horrible to her, some people were just curious).

Exploiting her own peculiarities, since it was clear people were interested; she tried to pay her way (taxes, wood for the fire) by selling the little books. She also had photographs taken of herself and her chickens (which is saying something for the 1860′s in nowheresville, USA). Others made money on her too; hundreds of picture postcards of her were sold, of which she got not a cent. Because of her own original self, because she followed her heart and did her best, Nancy ended up being the most well-known island person of her time, although there wasn't much comfort in that for her. At the end, at age 75, she fell in her house, alone. It was days before anyone found her; she died shortly after, in poverty, and was buried by the town where she is today– surrounded by chickens left for her by admirers with “good hearts and tender feelings,” Nancy’s preferred type of visitors.
Nancy was a folk artist and poet. She was fanciful and totally charming when naming her chickens (I took pains to spell them as they are written in the biography, these are not typos!): Teeddla Toonna, Lebootie Ticktuzy, Jafy Metreatie, Otte Opheto, and Aterryryree Opacky — to name just a few. When one of her favorite chickens, Ada Queetie, died, Nancy was in terrible mourning and remembering the good times when she wrote:

Poor little Ada Queetie 
She used to do everything I told her, let it be what it would, And knew every word I said to her.

If she was as far off as across the room, And I made signs to her with my fingers, She knew what it was, and would spring quick and do it.

If she was far off, and I only spake her name, She would be sure to run to me at a dreadful swift rate, Without wanting anything to eat.

I used to dream distressing dreams, About what was coming to pass, And awoke making a dreadful noise, And poor little Ada Queetie was making a mournful noise, 
She was so worried for me.

Nancy’s books were hand-written, covers were made from bits of old wallpaper, they were filled with vignettes of her life and loves (her hens). They were how she stood up for herself. Just knowing about such courage reminds me of all the amazing, hard-working, giving, brave, and sometimes lonely people there are in the world.

Recently I was at an Island Fair, one of the people exhibiting was a famous local artist by the name of Dan Waters. He had this WONDERFUL PRINT (printed from a carved block of linoleum on a hand-operated printing press), which, as you can imagine, I snapped up immediately and have hanging in my studio. Whenever I think I have troubles, I just have to look at my wall, see Nancy Luce flying with her chickens, and I feel much better. If she can do what she did, surely, I can do anything!

-Susan Branch
All photos, images and artwork used by permission.

Thank you Susan for sharing this wonderful tribute to Nancy Luce. I know that her story will be honored and understood by this community more than most... We know the benefits of a flock of backyard chickens goes beyond the obvious.--They provide much more than a daily fresh egg; they also give us a daily dose of entertainment, companionship and love!

Susan Branch is the self-taught artist and author of the fourteen (so far) best-selling "Heart of the Home" lifestyle BOOKS all published by Little Brown and Company. From her studio overlooking her picket-fence garden in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, Susan writes and paints about the "home arts" of cooking, gardening, sewing, family, best friends, entertaining and the little things that make life sweet. Her books are "homemade" as in, watercolored and completely hand-written.

Please visit the following links to view more of Susan's artwork and writings...
Susan Branch (website-blog-online store)
Susan Branch (facebook)
Susan Branch (twitter)

Now here's the best part!

Susan has offered to send one of our lucky readers a copy of the print of Nancy Luce flying through the air with her beloved chickens by her side! 
Just leave a comment below (and your email address) and in two weeks a winner will be randomly chosen and Susan will send the print your way! Good luck!


StacySix said...

Ohmygosh, I love Susan Branch! And I'm so happy to have found your blog. What a touching (and inspiring) story.

stacy 6 -at- gmail -dot- com

Jenny said...

Great story! Thanks

One of God's said...

What a delightful though sad story. Reminds me of my biddies. Would love to have a copy of this print.

Unknown said...

Loved this story!
What a generous offering; thank you!