William Rankin was to goose farming what his brother, James, was to duck farming, both men were recognized as authorities on the subject of breeding, hatching, and marketing poultry.
It is not known exactly when the African goose first arrived in the U.S., but William Rankin claimed to have become acquainted with the African goose in 1859 when some landed at Essex, Mass. When asked about them in 1897, William had been raising the geese for some thirty years. He also knew of geese landing by a Provincetown, Mass. vessel. The geese were scattered about west of Boston and were exhibited under the name African. Fortunately for poultry historians and breeders, William kept detailed records and was able to refer to them when asked about his hatching practices.
The African goose has the knobbed head like the smaller Chinese goose, but weighs roughly twice as much making it more desirable for the table.
He claimed the African geese were better layers than Toulouse or Emdens and discussed the increased laying ability of his flock over the years. “When I was a boy my father used to say, ‘If you raise ten goslings from a goose, you are all right’. Now we feel that we ought to raise from twenty-five to thirty”.
He made fantastical claims as to how long the geese would live. This author has no plausible explanation for his exaggerated statements when in modern times we only expect a goose may live for 10 to 20 or 30 years. The reader will observe later in this article, however, that there was a time when William left the farm and pursued a teaching career before returning to farm life. Perhaps this absence led to some confusion about the age of particular geese.
Rankin was quoted by a number of publications as saying he purchased almost 30 years prior a wild gander that had been owned by the same family for 50 years. He also claimed to know of a goose in Boxford, Mass. that had been the property of one family for 101 years, dying after being kicked by a horse. “In former times it was not uncommon for the farmer’s daughter, on her wedding day, to receive, among her other gifts, a goose from the old homestead, to become her property and accompany her to her new home. In some instances such geese were kept for many years, perhaps far beyond the life of the young lady to whom it was presented”.
“When sexes are equal geese pair and become very much attached to their mates, seldom proving unfaithful…Should the gander be separated from his mate and placed with another he will seldom accept the new one so long as the old mate is anywhere within hearing distance.
William disapproved of “mongrel” geese, that is, breeding two different varieties to produce an offspring that was of only half the gene pool of each type parent and more than likely not having the full attributes of either.
He recommended colonies consisting of three geese to each gander and housing the geese in covered boxes about two feet square. “Put some fine cut straw and a nest egg in each box, and have each goose lay in her own box….Feed each colony near their nests, to teach them that is their home and when they are not to be molested.”
He fed his geese a mixture of boiled cabbage, turnips, or potatoes mixed with cornmeal. “Give them all they will eat of this, with a good feed of corn once a day while laying. Keep ground oyster shells by them all the time [for calcium and grit]”.
“When they begin to lay, take their eggs as soon as convenient and with a pencil write on the eggs the date, colony, goose, and number, as No. 1, 2, 3, and so on, so that at the end of the laying season you know how many eggs your goose lays; and then, should she be very productive, mark her as one you want to serve by punching a hole in the web of her foot—colony 1, one hole; colony 2, two holes, etc. With this method, after a few years, you will secure for yourself a lot of first class producers. Now one reason for doing this is because you want to set your first laid eggs first, because the fresher the egg the more vigorous the gosling, the stronger and more liable to live”.
William had good advice for relocating a goose’s nest. “Keep your geese laying. Should you see one line her nest to set, take her and shut her up for a few days, and she will forget it and soon commence another litter. Always have them lay two litters, letting them set on part of the last litter. After the hens set about two weeks, I take all the infertile eggs, noting on my book from what colony they are taken and the goose, so that any mistake in mating is readily discovered. If not in time to correct this year, I am prepared the next. One making a low average I discard. After getting a good goose, keep her. I never knew one too old. My oldest are my best”.
He felt ganders from one to six years old were the best producers. He left them in the nest with the goose for 36 hours then put them on a green plot where the grass was young and tender.
This author fully intends to put into practice some of William Rankin’s advice, especially dividing up our nesting space to make more, but smaller, nests, and prompting the geese to lay a second clutch of eggs before trying to hatch them.
William Rankin, son of William and Isabelle (Smellie) Rankin, was born Nov. 12, 1833 in Glasgow, Scotland, he died May 4, 1904 at Brockton, Mass. He left Scotland with his mother to join his father in Massachusetts when but two years old. The senior William Rankin emigrated to Mass. in 1835 and settled in Rochester. There he was superintendant of the Randall farm for many years until able to purchase his own farm. He served as county commissioner of Plymouth County, Mass. and was known as a practical agriculturist descending from a long line of Scottish farmers named William. The family name of William continued in use for at least three generations after him. The elder William sold the farm and lived out his twilight years with his son, William.
William, the son, suffered a broken leg at the age of 17 after which he was compelled to find less physically challenging work and settled on that of teacher. He eventually gave that up as well and took up dairying, producing milk for the Brockton market and became famous throughout New England for his purebred Holsteins before he took up poultry farming.
He married Catherine J. Smith on July 5, 1860, and had six children: Isabelle, Sarah Ann, Lawrence, William Johnson Rankin, Katherine, and Sabin. They are buried in the Village Cemetery in Easton, Mass. Sarah Ann was named after her grandmother, Sarah Ann Johnson Smith and Sabin Mann Rankin was named after his grandfather, Sabin Mann Smith. Sabin Rankin died young.
William Johnson Rankin worked on his father’s farm before becoming an engineer in a shoe factory, a position he held for six years before returning to the farm to, again, work with his father. Upon William [II] Rankin’s death, his sons, William Johnson and Lawrence, became partners in running the former’s cattle and poultry farming operation. Like their father, both men are found in the Holstein-Friesian Herd-books and other publications. – Copyright. Vickie Brady, (Thehistoricfoodie) ©
Sources: “Report of the Agricultural Experiment Station”. 1897. “American Poultry Advocate”. Feb. 1913. “The Poultry Herald”. Oct. 1900. “Reports”. Rhode Island Board of Agriculture. 1897. Obituary of William Rankin. “Representative Men and Old Families of Southeastern Massachusetts”. 1912. Obituaries. Poultry magazines, various.