Our Nation's Treasures

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Location: Cincinnati, Ohio, United States

Monday, June 29, 2009

A duck farm in northern Indiana

“That makes it sound like they assemble ducks from pieces,” Mark says because I call the place the Culver Duck Factory. The company’s website gives the name simply as Culver Duck, not Farm, not Factory.

The PR guy, whom I contacted after our visit, says he prefers farm: “The word factory has gained a lot of negative press and is pushed by different groups to spin a bad light on what we do.” Culver Duck doesn’t piece together ducks; the place processes them—15,000 a day.

Tuesday after Memorial Day we arrive for our privately escorted tour with Tim.

On the way to one of several barns on campus, Tim tells us the company sells about 3.5 million ducks a year, mostly to Chinatowns across the United States. Ducks are processed at six weeks, like chickens, but spend less than 24 hours of those on site. The ducklings are sent out to surrounding Amish farms on the day they’re hatched, straight from the hatchery.

Baby ducks are born every workday, and before the tour takes us to the new arrivals, we pass a crate with seven or eight deformed or damaged baby ducks dying. Tim says that they’ve never had a healthy hatch rate better than 80%. Wild eggs hatch near 100% if weasels or another egg lover doesn’t find them and if they receive proper care from the mother duck. The eggs at Culver Duck, Tim tells us, are refrigerated for 3–8 days before they are incubated. Incubation is 28 days, nothing more, nothing less, which makes planning for hatchings quite easy.

In the back of the barn are stacks and stacks of crates, and I don’t even realize they are full of new hatchlings until we’re right up on them. Their quiet cheep, cheep, cheeps don’t give their location away. I hold one as Tim tells us that they are 100 per crate, and the baby jumps onto my chest and, like a kitten might, scoots over my shoulder. Luckily Mark catches it before it falls to the ground. Who knew ducklings could climb?

Ducks have little sharp points on their beaks that, at Culver Duck, get burned off right away when they are born. Tim tells us that ducks are carnivores, and bully ducklings can peck away at a more mellow one causing enough damage that many babies gang up and kill it—and THEN EAT IT!

Ducks at different stages of development are housed in the research barn, where feed and other variables are changed to try to produce a more optimal duck.

In the breeder barn are pens of ducks and fluorescent lighting overhead. Lights come up at 5 a.m., and most of the mommas lay their eggs then. Ducks produce one egg per day, six days per week. “Even ducks take one day a week off,” says Tim. Negotiated by the duck union? I forgot to ask.

We pass a wastewater lagoon, and Tim says all their water is treated on site and is used for field irrigation. The field is cut for hay once a year.

In the egg-sorting barn, lights shine on a tray of 30 eggs, and some are transparent. We see the inside of one is mostly purple, the color of a blood blister. These see-through eggs are infertile and are culled, as are any cracked, double-yolked, small, or imperfect eggs. The whole place carries a general bad smell, but here it’s almost unbearable.

Tim offers to let us see the entire operation: the stunning, killing, bleeding and plucking, but I decline. We do see ducks herded from a truck down a narrow path, at the end of which is the stunner and conveyor line, which carries the ducks, hung upside down, into the plant where they meet their deaths.

The tour took an hour, and before we part, Tim gives us directions on how to prepare duck; I tell him that I have eaten duck once, but it was greasy. He says people don’t know how to prepare them; they cook them like chicken, but that’s not the best way. He also hands us each a stick of duck jerky.

As we pull from the lot, Mark, chewing on his jerky, admits that the tour was interesting. I agree and am happy he thinks so. Picking alluring options for our long weekend up north was challenging.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

96 laps, 128 cars, 2 dazed drivers and an ambulance

Before the main event, a couple old beater buses loaded with kids race around the 3/8-mile track at the Kalamazoo Speedway where Mark and I sit high in the grandstands this Sunday of Memorial Day weekend. The MC, high in a tower somewhere, is non-stop talk:

“Lines are short at concessions, get your hotdogs before the race starts.”

“Who out there saw the race today?” meaning the Indy 500. “Who likes Junior? How many Jeff Gordon fans?”

“It’s Shelby Carlisle’s 17th birthday today. Happy birthday, Shelby.” On and on. Very small-town.

The two bus drivers are actually in the first race, so at 7 p.m. they stop to jump in their own speedsters.

Soon the late model cars are lined up, two by two, eight or nine rows.

The cars look much like the race cars that Dale Junior and Gordon drive: sleek and low, all surfaces covered by sponsors’ names. They start circling the track, and after three go-rounds, the flag drops. Wow, it’s loud. A man a couple rows down wears earplugs. Smart.

Oh! There’s a wreck. The yellow flag is waved, and cars must keep their places as they circle. Nobody’s hurt, but a tow truck does have to pull the car away. The checkered flag flies again, and the noise is over the top.

A tower on the other side of the track displays a lap counter, and after 25, we think the race is over, because every car exits the track. But now the lap counter is a timekeeper counting down from 10 minutes.

The MC talks up concessions again, and every couple minutes he announces how much of the 10 minutes remains. He asks, “Who traveled more than 5 miles to get here? 10? Are there people who came from more than 25 miles away? How about 50?” He stops there. At 300+ miles, Mark and I may have come further than anyone.

With a couple minutes left, a car drives onto the track and into pit row for weighing. And before the 10 minutes has expired, all the cars—even one that wrecked—are back on the track. After the weigh-in, they line up in the order that they finished the first 25 laps, and the whole thing starts again.

After 75 total laps the winner is awarded $5000, and the MC climbs down from his tower and interviews him. He’s a local and has won this race several times

The MC announces that the Euro cars will race next: 200 laps at 128 cars on the 3/8-mile track.

Did we hear right?

Yes, he says it again—128 cars at once—and continues with the rules: if cars wreck or stop, they sit where they lie; other cars do not continue their circling but come to a complete halt until the driver of the dead car safely exits the track. It’s almost a demolition derby.

From the opening between turns 1 and 2, a seemingly never-ending caravan of four-cylinder junkers begins to wind around the track. Most are decorated, their numbers spray painted on their sides. One black Toyota has an MIA flag flying from the back window area, one has a tire painted yellow and secured squarely in the middle of its top, a teddy bear rides the back bumper of another.

The cars stack five-wide, and the flag drops. After only a couple laps one jalopy stalls at the inside near turn 3. The officials give the driver a couple minutes to try to resuscitate the car, but eventually call for a stop. Lights placed on the outside fence coming out of each turn and one in the middle of each straight-away flash red, and the 127 remaining cars screech to a stop. Of course there’s some bumping.

This happens again and again, and by lap 96 the track is littered with 10 or 12 cars, and bumpers, tires and various parts from the other 100. Two drivers have walked away dazed, and one needs a stretcher.

As we wait for the ambulance, the MC tells the crowd that the cars will race in the other direction after 100 laps. This is crazy.

As much as we’d like to, we don’t see the remaining 104 laps because we have reservations 50 minutes east on the coast of Lake Michigan and need to be there by midnight. It’s been so much fun; we might be back next year.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Transport back in time in a dream car

On our way to Michigan Memorial Day weekend, Mark and I stopped to stretch our legs at Snook’s Dream Cars museum in Bowling Green, Ohio. Snook’s is just a couple miles off the highway and looks like a 1950s service station from the outside. We’re the only ones here besides the lady who collects our $6 apiece to enter, so our original thought is that the place is a dud. But contrary to our initial impression, we find the place fun.

Bill Snook is quite the collector and not just of cars. The first room is filled with old pinball machines, carnival games, and slot machines—and most are playable. Mark gives me a penny and I slide it into a small gallery and get 10 shots with a little gun to try to knock down 10 metal tabs. The game has no flash—just wood and metal—but it’s fun. It takes me four shots to get the hang of the gun, which requires some force to fire, and I hit only two tabs. On to the roulette wheel.

The top of the machine has the colors with a coin slot next to each. I choose my color, pull the lever, but lose. One of several old nickel slot machines is calling anyway.

My first nickel gets nothing. My second pull lines up two lemons and I get two nickels back. I’m even. If I were in Vegas, I’d probably quit, but since I’m “gambling” with Snook’s money that the lady gave me from the till, I pull a third time. I hit the jackpot! Not literally, but that’s what it seems. Three lemons result and nickels pour from the machine. I take the winnings to the front—because there’s no gambling in Ohio. Snook’s gets all the loot.

I could spend the afternoon playing with another person’s money, and there are about 10 more machines to try, but I have returned my coins and Mark is already looking at the cars.

In the back I see Mark’s hands are deep in his pockets. He says it’s all he can do not to pop the hoods and look at the engines.

The place is pristine. Not a speck of dust anywhere, and the cars all shine like new, but they’re far from it. Nearly 30 cars make up the collection, from a 1921 Model-T Ford (black, of course) to a 1966 Pontiac GTO. Each car has next to it a sign listing year, original cost, current worth and how many were manufactured originally. My favorite is a 1954 Kaiser Darrin 161, which I have never heard of nor seen before. I really like the color—a soft mint ice cream. The accompanying sign says the paint is not original. It’s still my favorite though. I like the 1966 Mini Cooper too, as cute as a bug. Mark can’t pick one favorite, maybe the GTO.

We end our visit with a walk through the workshop, where an old truck is high on a hoist, and a car is parked in the other stall—with the hood up for Mark to take a peek at the power.

Snook’s Dream Cars museum is easy to get to: from I-75 north, take a right off exit 179 onto Route 6. Turn left at the next crossroad, County Home Road. Snook’s is on the right. Enjoy yourselves. And don’t worry about change for the pinball machine; Snook’s has got you covered.