May 2016
Farm & Field

Fiona's Chicken Coop

Marion Bartlett prepares for his great-grandchild’s first visit to the family farm.

  Above, Marion Bartlett holds his namesake, Fiona Marion Dolan. For months, he planned for his great-granddaughter’s visit to his farm. Below, Fiona’s chicken coop took on epic proportions as her great-grandfather planned each stage of the construction. Marion Bartlett’s attention to detail was much like his many other engineering projects.

For Marion Bartlett, the birth of his great-grandchild was an epiphany! At 80, he had seen his life take many interesting twists and turns, only to come full circle to a small farm in Clarke County. But the birth of his namesake, Fiona Marion, brought him to a life-altering realization: Fiona’s first visit to his farm must be magical and memorable. Bartlett deliberated for weeks, making and discarding plans until he hit upon just the right gift. He would build Fiona her own chicken coop!

For Bartlett, growing up on his family’s small farm in Conecuh County was idyllic. He plowed using his family’s mule and helped in both the family garden and nearby cotton fields. After college, his life took on the demands of making a living as an electrical engineer, overseeing sensitive military research on radar and sonar at the University of Florida. Bartlett lived in Fairfield, Florida, where he raised and educated his two children, always telling them the stories of life on his beloved farm.

After retiring in 1997, he attended a high school reunion, and met Melba Bagley, who, like him, had lost her spouse. The two married in 1998 and moved to Alabama to the small community of Sandflat, just south of Thomasville, living in the old Bagley farmhouse until they built their new home in 2001. 

Marion and Melba Bartlett enjoy their tranquil life on their farm in the Sandflat Community, south of Thomasville. The Bartletts met at a class reunion after both had lost their spouses. They moved to this area to enjoy the pastoral life.  

The Bartletts enjoyed their peaceful, tranquil life on the 30-acre farm. Bartlett experienced a little deja vu as he sat atop his father’s old 1950 Farmall A tractor, planting fruits and vegetables that he shared with family and friends. The Bartletts also built a barn to house their farm equipment, but, as the building progressed, Marion decided to add a few extras such as an attached living and entertaining area the Bartletts have used for many family and community gatherings. 

Bartlett continued to work from home with the University of Florida through his company, Bartlett Consulting. He and Melba also traveled extensively, returning to Florida to visit family or to finish various work-related projects. Bartlett often joked about "blowing his cover" by letting everyone know too much about his tranquil, pastoral life. His posts to family and friends related many amusing stories of the "ups and downs" of life on the farm. 

Bartlett was blessed with two children: Brian, who lives in California and has two girls, Sara and Monica; and Julie, who lives in Montana. In February 2014, granddaughter Sara Dolan gave birth to the first great-grandchild, Fiona Marion. Unable to travel to New Jersey to see their new great-grandchild, the Bartletts began to plan for Fiona’s first visit to their farm. Melba, a well-known cook in the area, planned menus for months, especially ones involving fresh vegetables and fruits grown on their farm. Marion, however, was consumed with building Fiona a chicken coop. He scanned the Internet, scrutinized the hen houses of nearby chicken lovers, and stockpiled pages of data before sketching his final design. He enlisted the help of friend and neighbor, Tommy Anderson, and attached Fiona’s chicken coop to the back of his barn. At times, the project seemed to take on epic proportions, but in the end, Fiona’s chicken coop was a masterpiece any hen (or engineer) would be proud of! 

  Fiona’s chickens are prolific layers. They provide large, brown eggs each day for the Bartletts. Collecting eggs, feeding and playing with the chickens were among the favorite activities of Fiona’s visit.

Bartlett acquired five young Red Star pullets from a neighbor, hoping they would be laying eggs by the time Fiona arrived. He soon discovered, however, that the chickens were not really impressed with his engineering feat! The hens snubbed their noses at many of Bartlett’s modern conveniences. For example, instead of roosting on the poles Bartlett had carefully measured and installed, the chickens climbed to the roof of the pen and huddled in a small space between the rafters. Bartlett immediately closed this area and modified the roost, thinking he had outsmarted the hens. The next evening, the hens showed their contempt by clustering together in one nest. 

"I learned that chickens have ideas of their own," he laughed. "I told Melba I had been playing ‘Are you smarter than a chicken?’ and the chickens had won!" 

Bartlett decided that Fiona’s chickens would be happier if they were occasionally outside the pen, pecking grass and scratching to their heart’s content, much like the yard chickens he remembered as a boy. Sadly, this experiment ended poorly when a predator killed one of the hens. Now, Bartlett’s attempt at free ranging was put aside until he could figure out a way to outsmart the wildlife. His solution was to build a "chicken tractor," a mobile unit that could be moved from one area to another, keeping the hens safe while allowing them to scratch and eat grass. Ever the engineer, Bartlett used treated lumber, instead of the suggested redwood, and made a few adjustments. The massive tractor worked, but the heavier wood required even more adjustments to make the contraption mobile and easy to move around from place to place. 

As time drew near for Fiona’s arrival, Bartlett sent his guests a list of things he had planned for their entertainment while on the farm. One event was riding in the "family chariot." Bartlett remembered many enjoyable days when his father would use the old farm tractor to ride the children around the fields in a wooden box. Bartlett decided Fiona would need to experience this family tradition on her first visit to the farm, so he lovingly constructed "Fiona’s Chariot." He built it large enough for two riders, even installing chairs for comfort. When his family arrived, this was one of the special treats they enjoyed most, as Bartlett recounted his own memories of riding in his family’s box. 

Riding on the 1950 Farmall A that belonged to her great-great-grandfather was another treat. Fiona is held by her grandfather, Brian, with (from left) great-grandfather Marion, and parents Sara and Trevor Dolan standing by.  

Other planned activities included fishing for bass and blue gill in the farm pond, pulling up and picking off peanuts for an outdoor peanut boil, gathering and eating scuppernongs, hunting snakes in the wooded areas, shooting vintage weapons, shucking and shelling corn, and, of course, playing with the chickens and gathering eggs. The women quickly eliminated the snake-hunting activity. Bartlett had also preserved some of his Hickory King field corn for his family to experience shucking and shelling the old fashioned way. The visitors first enjoyed shucking "the Conecuh County" way, using their fingers to open it. Later, they also learned to use his family’s old Black Hawk corn sheller. 

The family’s favorite activity, however, was feeding and playing with the chickens. The gentle, red hens seemed to delight in being the center of attention. Gathering eggs became daily rituals, followed by picture taking and sharing even more stories. Everyone seemed to enjoy the relaxed, easy pace of life on the farm. 

Sara Dolan watched as her daughter and her grandfather shared many moments and connected in a way that time could never erase.

"I grew up with my grandpa teaching me about nature," she explained. "He would tell me stories about growing up on the farm. It was very special to see him get to do the same with Fiona." 

Bartlett’s life has indeed come full circle from growing up on a farm to now sharing his farm with family. Fiona’s chicken coop had become an emblem of a great-grandfather’s love, enabling him to sprinkle a little stardust through four generations.

Carolyn Drinkard is a freelance writer from Thomasville. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..