News of Otsego County

terry berkson

Life Sketches: Retired Poultry Farmer Recalls ‘Roger’s Colossus’ in Face of Avian Flu Epidemic
Life Sketches by Terry Berkson

Retired Poultry Farmer
Recalls ‘Roger’s Colossus’
in Face of Avian Flu Epidemic

Recently, Roger and Diane Vaughn—who operated the only small commercial poultry farm situated along the Route 20 corridor between Albany and Syracuse—retired. Theirs was one of about 15 remaining egg-laying operations in the state. At one time, there were 15 small farms like theirs within a 15-mile radius.

Then, the average setup consisted of about 300,000 birds, which made the Vaughns’ flock of poultry look rather paltry. Nevertheless, this small operation, in spite of Diane’s help, required Roger, an octogenarian, to put in a 70-hour week caring for his hens and delivering their bounty to stores and restaurants within 25 miles of the farm. Their eggs were also sold retail and wholesale out of a small shop in close proximity to the coops.

It was ironic that with every detail about the Vaughns’ 2,000 chicken operation painting a diminutive picture, a colossal egg was laid by one of their Rhode Island reds. The gigantic brown egg weighed in at 5-1/4 ounces, more than twice the weight of an extra-large egg, which averages about 2-1/4 ounces. It was 3 and 1/32 of an inch long and had a girth of eight inches. The ovate giant couldn’t even fit on their antique egg grader.

Since 1964, when Roger and Diane came to live and work on his family’s farm, more than 82 million eggs have sold directly or gone out for delivery.

Roger said, “This was the biggest egg the farm had ever produced.” He thought he knew which hen had dropped the football. “She was always laying larger eggs,” he said. Without a time-consuming search for a tell-tale “natural” episiotomy, there was no way of knowing for sure.

For Roger, coming home followed a degree in poultry science from Cornell University and later an army stint during the Vietnam era as company commander at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, New York.

Roger and Diane eventually took command of what was originally called Vaughn’s Hatchery from his parents, who had been stationed there since 1932. The change from a hatchery to an egg-producing farm took place back in the late 50s, when the market for hatched chicks dried up almost overnight. Roger thought that the age of specialization was responsible for the change. The pace of dairy farming had stepped up so much that to have chickens for home use was considered an unnecessary distraction. Back when Sidney and Katherine, Roger’s parents, were running the place, a spring order of 50 hatchlings each was the norm from surrounding farms.

According to Roger, 75 percent of the eggs consumed in New York State were shipped in from out west, where grain is cheaper, or from tax-advantaged states like Pennsylvania. The reasoning was that, “the price of eggs was very competitive, so why bother raising your own?”

The answer may have been ORGANIC. People were paying more than triple for eggs that could be labled organic. Free Range Charlie, an egg aficionado from Brooklyn, touted, “egg cartons containing an assortment of naturally colored eggs: green, blue, brown, orange, pink from naturally fed, free range chickens had great appeal. Voila! You have organic eggs at designer prices!” But for many, the quality of the egg in regard to the color of the shell remains debatable. Also, washing eggs as the Vaughns did, removed a water soluble protective coat which then required refrigeration. In many other countries, unwashed and unrefrigerated eggs are still put on the market.

Maybe Roger’s Colossus celebrated a relatively new and expanding age of poultry specialization and the growth in popularity of back-yard chickens in light of the specialty egg business. Of course, for most people, a good fresh egg is all that matters.

The recent epidemic of avian flu has killed millions of chickens and caused prices to fly the coop, soaring to unprecedented prices—ironically, shortly after hard-working Roger and Diane retired.

Back when the big egg was on display in a storefront in downtown Richfield Springs, bets were on concerning the possibility of it being a “triple yolker!”

LIFE SKETCHES: Made in the Shade: There’s More Than One Way to Curb a Rooster
Life Sketches by Terry Berkson

Made in the Shade: There’s More
Than One Way to Curb a Rooster

Clever thinking plus antique lampshade equals crisis averted. (Photo by Terry Berkson)

I once had this beautiful tropical fish that was mutilating and eating up the rest of the fish in the tank. It looked like he would have to be flushed down the drain, but before doing so, I tried threading a piece of dental floss through his tail with a sewing needle to create a drag that would slow him down when chasing after the other fish.

“Isn’t that cruel?” my wife, Alice, asked when she saw the streamer trailing.

“It’s better than flushing him,” I told her.

LIFE SKETCHES: Heart of the House: Uncle Harry’s Gift of Conversion a Godsend
Life Sketches by Terry Berkson

Heart of the House: Uncle Harry’s
Gift of Conversion a Godsend

Terry Berkson’s grandmother’s drafty, 12 room “country” house in Brooklyn was serviced by a coal burning steam boiler, later converted by his Uncle Harry into an oil fired system.

In 1932, my Uncle Harry graduated from New York’s City College with a degree in aeronautical engineering. For more than a year he tried to get a job in that field but, likely due to the Great Depression, he was unsuccessful. So, he turned to the heating business where thousands of homes and industrial buildings were converting to oil to take the place of coal, which was messy and, in most cases, required a lot of physical labor. Maybe it was for practice or maybe he was just being a good son, but one of his first installations was in my grandmother, Fanny’s, drafty, 12 room “country” house in Brooklyn, where he converted a coal burning steam boiler to an oil fired system.

BERKSON: Ringing in the New Year: From Aunt Edna to Richfield Springs
Life Sketches by Terry Berkson

Ringing in the New Year: From
Aunt Edna to Richfield Springs

Aunt Edna’s New Year’s drink of choice was a highball using Mr. Boston’s rye, Canada Dry ginger ale and a piece of orange peel.

I used to keep my Aunt Edna company on New Year’s Eve because her husband, Dave, always drove a taxi on that night. He’d sacrifice being home with his wife because in New York City the tips would be especially good and he would make a lot of needed money. My aunt would tune the television to Guy Lombardo (I secretly called him Guy Lumbago), whose band was playing at the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan. At 12 years old I thought the program was corny and would have welcomed some of Alan Fried’s Rock And Roll on the radio. Near 12 o’clock, my aunt would mix us a highball using Mr. Boston’s rye, Canada Dry ginger ale and a piece of orange peel, which she’d rub around the rim of the glass. I’d only get a capful of the Mr. Boston.

Life Sketches: The Ritz Crossing
Life Sketches by Terry Berkson

The Ritz Crossing

USS Darby (DE-218) was a Buckley-class destroyer escort in service with the United States Navy from 1943 to 1947 and from 1950 to 1968. She was sunk as a target in 1970.

In late November of 1965 my dad, in his yellow taxi cab, ferried me and my duffle bag down to the Brooklyn Army Terminal where I would board the USS Darby bound for Bremerhaven, Germany. Several other soldiers who had also gone to Preventive Medicine School were among the 1,400 troops that were about to cross the Atlantic. The water was calm for the first few days but, in spite of the smooth going, this guy, Harris, had already turned green. In fact, he looked seasick as soon as we set sail.

Life Sketches by Terry Berkson

Out On The Ice


One bitterly cold morning, Joe Gravelding, my muskrat-trapping partner, didn’t come to call for me. It was the weekend, so I figured he slept in knowing he could count on me to go and check the line. When I left the house, my dog, Pinkie, began to follow me. I threw a few snowballs at him and yelled for him to go home, but he kept trailing me.

Pinkie might sound like an effeminate name for a male dog, but he was no sissy. Every time a dog in my old Brooklyn neighborhood had puppies they seemed to have Pinkie’s black and white color and markings.

It was a dry, sunny morning and the snow crunched beneath my feet like hands rubbing on an inflated balloon.

Life Sketches: Puffball hunting
Life Sketches by Terry Berkson

Puffball hunting

Yesterday morning I looked out the window and saw that a puffball was emerging from the ground at the edge of a hedgerow bordering our back lawn. It reminded me of an incident that occurred many years ago. I had taken my son and his friend, Junior, puffball hunting on a farm just outside of Warren off of Route 20. What’s different about a puffball from others in the mushroom family is that they can grow out of the ground overnight. And, if you don’t find and pick them in time when they are still pure white and firm, they dry out and shrink to a paper-like sphere that emits a dusty cloud of spores when squeezed, hence the name puffball.

It was early in the season and I wasn’t sure we’d find anything, but with the cooler weather already upon us I was looking forward to a quiet walk in the woods. Maybe we’d even spot some deer. The boys were about 8 or 9 and were excited to be on an expedition, but they crashed through the woods, talking and laughing and slapping tree trunks with sticks. It wasn’t the calm nature walk that I had hoped for and for sure we weren’t going to see any deer so, to get some peace, I lied and told them that if they made too much noise the puffballs would suck themselves back into the ground. That seemed to quiet the boys, but after an hour of searching we didn’t find anything.

Life Sketches: Cats in Key West
Life Sketches by Terry Berkson

Cats in Key West

Several years ago my wife Alice and I made a trip down to Key West, Florida and among other sites visited the house where Ernest Hemingway lived and worked on great writing projects like “A Farewell To Arms.” It was an interesting two-story structure, one of the few in Key West that was made out of stone blocks that had been cut and removed to create a cellar. There was a veranda that skirted the second floor and overlooked a spacious yard that was populated with palm trees and myriad tropical plants. Papa liked cats and one section of the backyard held a feline cemetery where among other names carved in stone was Marlene Dietrich. In the back of the house there was a catwalk that led to the second floor of a carriage house that provided a surprisingly neat space where the writer worked.

Life Sketches by Terry Berkson: Thor Dackin, A portrait
Life Sketches by Terry Berkson

Thor Dackin, A portrait

Thor Dackin, center

The current attack on Ukraine reminds me of Russia’s invasion of Hungary back in 1956 and an army buddy who had been a product of the Hungarian Revolution. His name was Thor Dackin. His family upon fleeing Hungary and entering America, settled in Philadelphia. The first time I saw him was in June of ‘65 on the troop train that was carrying us and several hundred other guys down to Fort Gordon, Georgia for basic training. He was sporting a wild black head of hair that hung down to his shoulders. I remember thinking, ‘This guy’s looking for trouble. Wait till a drill sergeant eyeballs him.’

Column by Terry Berkson: A Miller’s Knot

Column by Terry Berkson

A Miller’s Knot

A Miller’s Knot

Bumped into Buster Whipple several summers ago at Joe’s Pizzeria downtown. He was up from Florida to attend his grandchild’s graduation. We hashed over old times, among them, days I used to work with him on his family’s farm. We were doing hay the year I was eighteen and headed for Brooklyn College in the fall. “You’re a good worker now,” Buster had said as I threw a bale onto the wagon. “But college is going to ruin you. You won’t want to bust your gut any more. You won’t come back.”

Buster had been wrong because the next summer I was once again on the Whipple farm tying bags of oats on the back of a combine driven by rotund and jovial neighbor Steve Spitko. We were in a large field across Route 20 from the new house where Buster lived with his wife and four kids. One of the guys working with me was an old man named Obie Marriot who wore bib overalls without any underwear. In spite of his age he was a good hand, big and powerful, and it was hard to keep up with him when on- and off-loading the heavy burlap bags of oats. Tying bags was a dusty job and working under a baking sun, it didn’t take long before I was as dark as a migrant worker.

Column by Terry Berkson: BEAR!

Column by Terry Berkson


There was an orientation video playing while Alice and I were signing in for a cabin in California’s Sequoia National Park. It gave a lot of information about bears. The narrator warned not to leave any food in your car. Then they showed a bear ripping off a station wagon’s door to get at the goodies some careless visitors had left behind. It was impressive how agile this lumbering animal was. I noticed that Alice was paying close attention to all that was said.

Naturally, we transferred all edibles to our assigned cabin that, to me, seemed less secure than the PT Cruiser we had rented. Alice looked a bit alarmed when she inspected the lock on the door. I had seen better security on outhouses. “Maybe we should have stayed at a motel,” my wife mused.

Sunset Stolen: Key West

Sunset Stolen: Key West

By Terry Berkson

After a visit with relatives in central Florida, my wife, Alice, and I headed all the way down to Key West to see one of those famous sunsets. The last 100 miles on the causeway were like flying low in a turquoise sky. We arrived in the late afternoon, paid through the nose for a room and headed over to Mallory Square to watch the sun go down. There was quite a crowd standing there with drinks in their hands, all facing west, like cows to the wind as a live band played Dixieland Jazz. The sun was just touching the water, giving the impression that it was melting into the gulf, and as it did, the water around it turned red as though some giant crimson ink spot was bleeding into the sea.

I was impressed, but just as the sun was at the peak of its ebb, a tugboat hauled a huge barge across the horizon and blocked the view for everyone on the pier.

All cried “Boo!” as the band played on.

Add a chicken in a cherry tree! Life Sketches by Terry Berkson

Add a chicken in a cherry tree!
Life Sketches by Terry Berkson

Late one afternoon several Christmases ago at the height of a driving snowstorm, I left my typewriter and looked out the kitchen window. There was a large bird roosting in our cherry tree. It wasn’t a crow or a pigeon or a morning dove. I knew those Brooklyn birds well. This was something much bigger.
The tree stood at the back of the yard against the fence, which was about fifty feet from the house. With the failing light and blowing snow, it was difficult to make out just what kind of bird it was. I didn’t have binoculars, but someone had once left a pair of pearl-covered opera glasses in my father’s taxi, and with those I could make out that the big bird in the tree looked like a chicken, one with those dark black and gray feathers.

My pregnant wife hadn’t talked to me for two days. Something I said or did had aroused her temper. It looked like it was going to be a heavy Christmas. I called, “Hey Alice, there’s a chicken in our cherry tree!”

“Yeah, sure,” she said from the next room. “And a partridge in our pear.”

Life sketches by Terry Berkson: Too stuck up for Thanksgiving

Life sketches by Terry Berkson:
Too stuck up for Thanksgiving

Several years ago, two friends from Richfield, Tiger Goodale and Rootie Marriot, came up the drive with what they thought was a good story for me to write.

They had been in the Genesee, one of the local watering holes, when this guy came in and told how he or some other one-legged man — they didn’t make it clear — was up in a tree, building a stand for hunting, when his prosthetic leg fell off and landed on the ground right under the nose of his Saint Bernard.

It sounded like a good story. It reminded me, in fact, of celebrated writer Flannery O’Connor’s tale where a man romances a woman in a hay mow just so he can run off with her wooden leg. When I pressed them for details, they told me I had better get them straight from the horse’s mouth and gave me a phone number to call, which I did, but there was no answer, so I just left my name and number on the answering machine.

Life Sketches by Terry Berskon: Peckulating Chickens

Alice Berkson

Life Sketches by Terry Berskon
Peckulating Chickens

The hens I finally found in late spring last year were now laying prolifically. I was feeding them mash but they were scattering it around the coop and yard so I switched to pellets that for the most part stay in the feed pail. Good egg production continued but I noticed that feathers were missing from the necks, breasts and rear ends of some of the birds. It wasn’t Romeo the rooster. He had been a gentle sweetheart. The girls seemed to be pulling each others feathers out — not all of them, just a few. One in particular was missing more feathers than the others. I assumed she was at the bottom of the proverbial pecking order. I didn’t think the feather-pulling was due to a lack of protein because the feed I was using had a high protein content. Also, allowed to free range, the birds had access to worms, bugs and greens that aid in providing them with a well balanced diet.

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