Thanksgiving is a time for reflection, for gratitude, for taking a few moments between the cranberry sauce and the pumpkin pie to appreciate life’s blessings, both major and minor. This may be or may not be why, over Thanksgiving dinner with a group of friends, we wound up discussing Mike the headless chicken.
Real name. Real chicken. Mike, for a few golden months back in 1945 and 1946, was the most famous resident of Fruita, Colorado. His notoriety was the result of a botched Sunday-dinner style execution. His owner, intending to behead the young rooster in traditional fashion, aimed a little high. He did indeed chop off most of the head, but most of the chicken’s brain stem was left intact. Mike not only survived, but thrived for an additional 18 months, thus proving something most of us would already suspect—that a brain isn’t really necessary to the everyday functioning of a chicken.
Mike’s owners put water and grain into his esophagus with an eyedropper, took him on a national tour during which thousands of people paid a quarter apiece to see him, and no doubt sincerely mourned his death when he eventually choked to death. For the whole story, see miketheheadlesschicken.org/story.html.
More than 60 years later, the town of Fruita still celebrates Mike’s unusual life each spring with a two-day Headless Chicken Festival.
Mike’s inspiring story came up over Thanksgiving dinner when one of the guests mentioned that she used to live in the Fruita/Grand Junction area. Another guest immediately brought up the headless chicken, which tribute to the fame of her former community caused the first guest to roll her eyes and shudder. Apparently she would prefer to see Fruita known for its excellent orchards and wineries rather than its famous fowl. She probably has a point, though you have to admit a public that breathlessly follows the latest escapades of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton may be culturally more attracted to headless chickens than to peach orchards.
It might have made her feel better had I thought to tell her about the institution that for several years was one of the claims to fame of my home town of Gregory, South Dakota—the outhouse museum. Some of the little buildings scattered across a vacant lot were original; others were reproductions. One was the outhouse in which a locally famous horse thief had hidden from a posse. Another—the highlight of the collection—was not merely a two-holer, but a two-story four-holer. The second level, presumably, was designed for easy non-shoveling access during harsh South Dakota winters. And in case you’re wondering about practicalities, the upper floor was set back from the lower to eliminate chances for unfortunate incidents.
The display never did quite achieve more than regional fame, and as far as I know it is now closed. Perhaps the fault was its lack of detailed research—the provenance of several of the buildings was suspect, and the historical accounts were simply full of holes. Or maybe it needed to pay more attention to the adage, “When you’re number two, you try harder.” Or perhaps the problem was its management. It may have done better under the supervision of a board of directors—a privy council, as it were. Or maybe an outhouse museum simply wasn’t exciting enough to move the general public.
But you never know—it was worth a try. The country is full of small towns that would like to get a small share of the traveling public’s vacation dollars. Some places, like the Black Hills, are blessed with an abundance of scenic and historic riches to tempt the curious tourist. Others have the resources to build exhibits like the Spam Museum (the edible kind, not the email kind) in Austin, Minnesota, or to annually redecorate the onion-domed Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota.
Smaller towns have to be more creative. So they sponsor outhouse races, bedstead races, turkey races, frog races, cockroach races, hog-calling contests, or husband-calling contests. They develop festivals and exhibits around whatever resources their history or their imaginations may suggest. It might be corny; it might be silly; it might be undignified. But what the heck—it just might be fun. And there’s always room in the closet for another silly tee-shirt.
After all, whether it’s a headless chicken or an array of outhouses, the important thing is not to squawk about what’s missing, but to go with what you have.