In Episode 103, Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger visit the border town of Fort Fairfield, Maine, in search of Simeon Cary’s gold-hunting chickens. In 1898, Cary was quietly using chickens to peck for gold just over the Canadian border. His technique was so strange, it made the news in July of 1899.
Read the episode transcript.
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Edited by: Ray Auger
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Simeon Cary’s Gold-Hunting Chickens
*A note on the text: Please forgive punctuation, spelling, and grammar mistakes. Like us, the transcripts ain’t perfect.
[SFX CHICKENS CLUCKING AROUND]
RAY: Jeff, why are we in Fort Fairfield, Maine, completely surrounded by chickens?
JEFF: Ray, we’re a stone’s throw from the Canadian border surrounded by chickens because we’re looking for gold!
RAY: You mean gold—like a great story—gold?
JEFF: Nope. I mean gold. The rich stuff. 24 karats. We’ve come to Fort Fairfield, Maine, to try and cure our gold fever.
JEFF: I’m Jeff Belanger and welcome to episode 103 of the New England Legends podcast. If you give us about ten minutes, we’ll give you something strange to talk about today.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger. Thanks for joining us on our mission to chronicle every legend in New England one week and one story at a time. We’d like to thank our patreon patrons for helping us with the cause. If you go to patreon.com/newenglandlegends, for just $3 bucks per month you’ll get early access to new episodes plus bonus episodes that no one else gets to hear. Come be an even bigger part of this movement.
JEFF: We also greatly appreciate it when you post a review of our show, or tell a friend or two about us. That goes a long way in helping our audience grow.
RAY: Okay, Jeff, I get searching for gold. We all want to be rich. But I don’t get the chickens.
JEFF: This is a strange story, Ray. One of the weirdest we’ve ever chased. It’s going to involve two countries, an eccentric old coot, and the quest to get rich quick. Let’s head back to the summer of 1898 and set this up.
JEFF: It’s July of 1899, a bright summer’s day here at Fort Fairfield, Maine. A man named Simeon Cary is making his way down the Aroostook River in his dugout canoe.
[SFX OARS ROWING ON WATER]
RAY: Simeon Cary hails from Perth in New Brunswick, Canada. That’s only about five miles away from Fort Fairfield, just over the border. About twice per week he rows his boat down the river to the Fort in order to pick up provisions and supplies.
JEFF: Simeon goes pretty much unnoticed on most of those trips. He keeps to himself, buys what he needs, then rows his boat back home. But then one July day, everything changes for Simeon Cray. Suddenly, people start noticing him. On this one particular day, Simeon walks into a local jewelry store carrying an envelope with a hunk of metal in it. Simeon drops the envelope on the counter for the jeweler to inspect.
JEWELER: Why, that’s pure gold!
JEFF: The jeweler says. He runs a few tests on the shiny metal to confirm it. But sure enough, it’s the real thing.
JEWELER: Where did you get it?
JEFF: Simeon gives an evasive and uncomfortable answer. He tells the jeweler it’s from a friend in the Klondike and quickly leaves the store.
RAY: The jeweler shrugs, and goes back to his work. The thing is, dropping an envelope full of gold on a counter isn’t the event that tips everyone off that something weird is going on.
JEFF: No, for that part of the story we’re going to head a few miles northeast to Perth, New Brunswick, where Simeon is busy visiting various local farms and buying chickens.
RAY: That’s not so unusual, is it?
JEFF: No, not really. But Simeon is buying a lot of chickens.
RAY: How many is a lot?
JEFF: At first, just two or three at a time.
JEFF: But then he’ll buy a dozen live chickens at a time. He doesn’t care if they’re male or female. He just wants more chickens.
RAY: Maybe he’s starting a chicken farm? Maybe he’s going to sell eggs or meat?
JEFF: That’s what folks assume at first, but over the next several months, Simeon Cary just keeps buying chickens from every local farm in the region. And pretty soon, Perth folks get to talking.
RAY: They always do. And once they start comparing notes, like how many chickens he bought from one farm, and then another farm, suddenly, the locals want to know what ole Simeon Cary is up to. I mean, no one has seen him selling any eggs or chicken meat. And he has far too many chickens for just himself. They want to know what’s going on, so they go snooping.
JEFF: It’s January, and snowy, there’s at least two feet of snow covering the road that leads up where Simeon is currently living, but when the locals get close, they see no snow in the region around the cabin where Simeon is staying. But they do see dozens of chickens clucking, scratching, and pecking away at the ground.
RAY: And Simeon? He’s just sitting back in a chair leaning against the cabin with a rifle laid across his lap. But then they watch Simeon do something really strange. Simeon pops a chicken on the head with the end of his rifle and knocks the bird unconscious. With the bird lying there helplessly, Simeon walks up, pulls out a knife, and surgically removes the chicken’s crop.
JEFF: The crop is located near the base of the chicken’s neck. It’s a pouch in the esophagus that starts the first phase of digestion for the chicken. Chickens eat dirt, bugs, feed, and all kinds of other things, so the crop helps store it while everything sorts out.
RAY: Simeon surgically slices open the crop, removes the contents, then heads inside his cabin.
JEFF: Why the hell is he doing that?
RAY: That’s exactly what the local men watching all of this from the bushes want to know, so they storm up to Simeon and the cabin.
JEFF: At first, Simeon plays it cool. He tells the men to just mind their business. But then one of the men identifies himself as the land owner, and this cabin… it’s rightfully his. It’s Simeon who is trespassing, and they want to know exactly what is going on here. Suddenly, Simeon starts singing like a bird.
RAY: Simeon explains that as the chickens are scratching and pecking at the ground and gobbling up the dirt, he’s looking through the undigested stuff in the chicken’s crop to look for flecks of gold dust and even tiny gold nuggets.
JEFF: You’re kidding me.
RAY: Nope. Simeon is letting the chickens do the sifting over an area he thinks is full of gold flecks. After a chicken pecks for a while, Simeon knocks him out, performs his surgery on the crop, removes the contents, then sews the chicken back up with silk thread. The chicken fully recovers, and gets back to work. Apparently this process can be performed on young chickens about every ten days, while older chickens require about two weeks before you can do it again.
JEFF: So he’s sifting through all of the dirt and junk from the chicken crops and finding enough gold to make the whole operation worth it?
RAY: That’s what folks in Perth say. And the story was peculiar enough to make it into the July 27, 1899 St. John Daily Sun newspaper. And that brings us back to today.
JEFF: Does Simeon inspire some widespread use of chicken for gold mining after this?
RAY: Not as far as we can tell. I mean it is a lot of trouble, plus skill, and then you have to put these chickens in a place where gold flakes are near the surface of the ground. What I want to know is where Simeon Cray would even get such a crazy idea.
JEFF: We’ll have to tip our hats to Michelle Souliere of the Strange Maine blog for this one. She uncovered an article from the October 1898 National Magazine that described how a Canadian bird called the Klondike Mergansie which is like a small version of a goose, would fly up and down narrow creeks and swallow gold nuggets until it could hardly fly. At that point the bird returns to his master with the gold in its crop, and thus the name gold croppings.
RAY: We should point out the article is quoting a Klondike miner who is having a little fun with the author of the piece. The real term “gold croppings” refers to gulches where heavy rains have washed the gold down a mountainside to where it’s accessible near the surface.
JEFF: Meaning if you sift through the dirt at the bottom of the mountain, you may find yourself enough gold flakes to add up to something.
JEFF: Or if you had a bunch of hungry chickens, they could sift through it for you too.
RAY: Right. But late 1800 mining technology would still be faster and easier. Think about it. Miners take a shovel full of dirt, shake it through a screen to get out the large rocks, then sift the finer dirt with a smaller screen, and then you may find gold. That’s a heck of a lot faster than cutting open a chicken’s throat and you don’t have to feed all of those chickens.
JEFF: Good point. Meaning Simeon Cray is either a genius, or just really, really lazy.
RAY: Couldn’t he be both? I mean power steering on your car probably wasn’t invented by an exercise freak.
JEFF: I see your point. So I take it we’re likely not going to get rich hanging out with all of these chickens in Fort Fairfield, Maine.
RAY: Probably not. But maybe we could find a drummer for our legendary band around here somewhere?
JEFF: How so?
RAY: I figure all of these chickens already have their own drumsticks.
JEFF: Ohhh man, that’s terrible. Worst ending ever.
RAY: It’s better than the ghostly chicken joke I was going to use.
JEFF: Ohhhh right. To get to the “other side.”
RAY: We should quit while we’re ahead.
JEFF: Agreed. We love when you guys reach out to us. There’s our Web site: ournewenglandlegends.com where you can check out our entire archive of shows, see video clips from the New England Legends television series on Amazon Prime, plus photos and comments related to all of our episodes.
RAY: You can also call or text us anytime on our legend line at 617-444-9683.
JEFF: We’d like to thank Dustin Pari for lending his voice acting talents this week, and our theme music is by John Judd.
RAY: Until next time remember… the bizarre is closer than you think.
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