Ex-chicken sexer revisits the old days
Mildred Revell, 94, was one of the best in her field before the arrival of modern technology
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By Jud Snyder  January 31, 2014 12:00 am

Mildred Revell wanted to show us her trophy room but forgot where the light switch was. She and her second husband raised two kinds of German shorthair pointers and won shelf after shelf of trophies dimly visible when her neighbor, Gay Deady, pulled back the door drapes to allow a slant of light. Mildred forgot where she put her nearest flashlight. 

Well, yes, things like this happen when you’re about to turn 95 years of age sometime in April, Mildred admitted. “I’ve always loved dogs and cats, farm animals, like cows and horses. 

“Some younger people over there,” she pointed north with her cane, “moved away and the cat they had was left behind. She found an empty shed in a pen at my house, moved in and I adopted her. My two dogs aren’t pleased to have a cat on their property, but she’s in a pen and safe from the dogs, who have their own kennel. 

“All this is easy for me, for I grew up with animals.”


Between Cotati and Penngrove

Mildred lives on several acres in a well-tended house filled with hundreds of framed or thumb-tacked to the wall photographs. It’s somewhere in that partially upscale area of Cotati, bonded by Myrtle, Willow, Eucalyptus and the railroad tracks. Penngrove’s not far away. 

We sat at her kitchen table covered by a heavy antique oilcloth that had its own lining. A real antique, Gay pointed out as she reminded me Mildred Revell isn’t the least bit inarticulate. This is true.


Centralia: ‘a dinky town’

Without referring to scrapbooks or photos, Mildred, her blue eyes sparkling, began, “I grew up in Centralia, Washington, my maiden name was Mildred Louise Carver and I was an only child.

“My father drove a truck for a feed company here when Centralia was a dinky little town where everybody knew everybody else. I adored him, he was the greatest man that ever lived. My mother was German, strict and very strong.” She pulled off her spectacles. “I don’t need them to talk, I hate to wear ‘em.” 

She brewed a pot of Folgers coffee. “I hope you like it strong and I think you do, too. I graduated high school and got a job in a Centralia hatchery and they taught me how to sex chickens. This was done mostly by Japanese guys who worked here. I was the first girl here to learn how to sex newborn chicks.” 


Chicken sexing details

She demonstrated how she sharpened her thumbnail to a point, then held the newborn chick and felt around its rear end for the urethra that separated hens from roosters. It’s a delicate art. The hens were kept for later egg-laying and the roosters, except for a few for breeding, were tossed into a garbage can.

“I got so experienced I could sex 700 newborn chicks in an hour. The job paid well, too. It sounds crude and callous, but that was the only method chicken farmers knew back then.”

Mildred added a few creams to her strong coffee (no de-caffeinated for her). “Then Pearl Harbor was bombed, and all the Japanese families were sent back home or shipped by train to camps up in Tule Lake or Utah. I had to train more chicken sexers to help me out.”


Cash for her first car

“I could’ve gotten jobs anywhere now. I got real busy and traveled all over the Midwest, like Iowa, down to Florida and as far east as New Jersey, picking the territory I wanted to visit and was always quickly hired at good pay. I bought my first car, paid cash for it, and did a lot of moving about with everything in the car with me.”

Mildred also married and had two sons, one lives in Lakeport, the other in Arizona. She still keeps in touch with her first husband, who lives in Sonoma County and she kept his name, Revell. She married again, but he died a few years later. 

Both husbands bought acres of vacant pasturelands south of Cotati and a lot of pieces were sold off for future development near the railroad tracks.

“My first husband got drafted into the Air Force, learned to pilot a bomber but never left the country. Flew up and down the coast, looking for Japanese submarines and rescuing ship crews from torpedoed freighters. 

“We heard about all the chickens in Petaluma and moved north from Southern California, and he kept on flying for the Air Force while I sexed chickens.”


Hens all white, roosters red

“You know what killed off the chicken sexing business I lived off? It was bio-engineering of some sort. The geneticists developed a science whereby all newborn hens were born white and all the roosters were born red. Now, any idiot can look at a bunch of chicks and know which ones to keep and which ones can be tossed in the garbage.”

Mildred Revell uses a cane once in a while as she tends to her German shorthair dogs (plus a cat) and the many chores her rural home demands. She allowed Gay (who’s probably not even half her age) to put her garbage and recycling cans out front. Her son in Lakeport comes down often to check on her and she knows all her neighbors.

“I enjoy talking about my life,” she said. “I might have forgotten many of the details, but once I sit down and start talking, by golly, I start remembering so many things.”

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