Once he'd squeezed the chick ever so gently, and folded open the tiny genital flaps to ascertain the sex of the bird, he would flip it to the left (female) or right (male), into boxes that a "swamper" kept ready. The swamper was a jack-of-all-trades assistant; he or she set and reset feeder trays of chicks so that they would proceed in a steady stream toward the sexer's left hand; set, reset, and labeled the boxes for sexed chicks; and counted the chicks as they quickly filled the boxes, twenty-five to a box. The swamper also plied the sexer with coffee and sandwiches at regular intervals and often drove the sexer back and forth to work so that the sexer, whose shift could easily stretch to twenty hours or more, could snatch some sleep. The rise of mega-hatcheries has forced the swamper, and the independent sexer who employed the swamper, into general obsolescence.
I asked Grove about his colleagues. Were there many female sexers?
"There were a few gals in the business, but mostly it was men," Grove said. "You had to travel around to where the business was. I was an independent sexer, registered as such with the State of Oregon. I sexed in Ohio, Maryland, Delaware, Kansas, New Jersey, Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Washington, Idaho -- even Hawaii once, when there was an emergency and the guy they had got sick. I don't know how they found me, but they did -- a phone call at night, and off I went. There was good money -- seventy-five dollars a week in 1938, when I was sexing out of Ohio, real good money for then. These last years I'd get a cent per chick, two or three cents per turkey. It's piecework -- that's why you have to be so fast."
Who was the greatest sexer ever?
"Well, it was a tough job, and very hard to learn -- maybe one in thirty folks who tried it got the hang of it, and maybe one in a hundred was good enough to be a professional. But I thought the very best were from the Northwest, and maybe the best of all was Johnny."
"Johnny" was Johnny Hada -- such a legend in the sexing world that he is still usually referred to by his first name alone. Like many legendary figures, Johnny had to overcome terrific adversity -- in his case, imprisonment in a Japanese-American internment camp in Idaho during World War II. He retired from sexing about twenty years ago and died in 1995.
Now Grove is thinking about the old days, the 1940s and 1950s, when he sexed for a slew of little Oregon hatcheries that are gone. He names a bunch of them and then gets to thinking about the huge chick factories of the past.
"I sexed in some of the biggest hatcheries in the world, like Morris Hatcheries, in Maryland and Delaware, where they hatched two hundred thousand chicks at a time, and Weans Hatchery, in Vineland, New Jersey -- hatcheries so big that they had little railroads running through them to haul boxes of chicks. I'd take a break just for a sandwich and coffee, and then right back at it. I went thirty-three hours straight one time; that was my record. That was at Hart's, in Beaverton. I started out doing fifteen hundred an hour and finished doing maybe seven hundred. I was tired."