BUTCHERING DAY ON THE FARM
Published in the Sunday Journal Gazette
MOST SAVORY PACKING HOUSES WERE OPERATED ON THE FARM!
By Forest J. McComb
The invention of the deep freeze has completely changed farmer’s methods of meat supply. They now usually send one hog or beef at a time and have it slaughtered and processed for the deep-freeze or locker, and enjoy fresh meat the year ‘round. In the old days, it was necessary to have the hogs ready, choose a cold winter day, and lay in a large supply of meat.
When the big butchering day came in January or February, only enough fresh meat could be kept to last through the balance of the cold weather. The rest of it had to be cured to keep through the hot summer and into fall. The farm-cured meat had a special flavor all its own, and I know of no store or supermarket grocery today where it is duplicated.
It was a large job, this turning a farm into a miniature packing plant, and it required lots of good help. To get it, farmers exchanged with neighbors, as they did threshing or other work.
There was a certain excitement too, hanging in the air, starting with the shooting of the hogs. A good shot with a rifle was needed here, for a hog’s vulnerable spot is only about the size of a silver dollar, between and a little above the eyes. A bullet inside this circle will easily bring him down, but one outside, and you have a wounded hog wild with fright! And this means a delay at the scalding barrel.
A Butchering Day Still Remembered
My wife’s father, CAL GUMP, was going to butcher the next day. He invited the same neighbors he usually exchanged help with – his brother, MARION GUMP and wife, LOA; WILLIAM (BILL) MARTIN and wife, CLARA; and ELBRIDGE (EB) TUCKER and housekeeper, MRS. LAURA MERCER. Besides Cal, there would be two sons, RUSSELL and FOREST (PETE) and myself, making a total of seven men and six women on hand, counting two daughters – my wife, Clara, and a younger daughter, MARTHA.
My father-in-law intended to butcher six hogs saved out of a litter, and they weighed about 210 pounds apiece.
A large butchering job on a farm took practically three days. One to get ready, one to butcher, one day to put things back where they belonged and it was a cardinal sin not to be completely ready. Clara and I went up the night before to be able to help in the early morning activity.
Cal and the boys had done all they could in advance of the butchering. They’d brought dry wood from the woods for fuel, cut a green pole to hang the two large kettles on, and brought two backlogs for the fire. They’d cleared away the snow and had the kettles hanging on the pole, supported by barrels. The kettles were full of water with the kindling and wood under the kettles and ready for a match. An extra barrel of water stood nearby.
For scalding, another barrel was placed at an angle, with the bottom braced against the wagon shed and the top against a farm sled. The sled was blocked up to the right height and covered with plank for a platform. The barrel was chained to the sled, weighted with timber and made secure. The gambrels were brought out of storage and another pole extended from the shed to hang the hogs on. The outer end was supported by uprights chained together.
The knives were sharpened, and everything was ready – as ready as can be – for the big day.
The household came awake at four o’clock the next morning. The fire had to be started early, for the water must be boiling by daylight. Cal would take care of this by himself, while the boys and I fed the stock at the barn. Then, it was back to the house for a hearty breakfast, and next, to milk the cows, feed the chickens, and turn out all the stock. We couldn’t be bothered with chores, once the butchering got under-way.
Cold and Quiet With Stars Alight
The stars were out in the early morning; it was cold and quiet, and it looked like a good day was chosen. UNCLE MARION came first, hurrying out of the morning gloom and carrying a rifle. He liked to needle the boys, and the first questions was, “Got the water boiling, boys?”
“Yep!” was Pete’s quick reply. “Been boiling for two hours!” It was a slight exagger-ation.
“Chore’s all done?”
“Yep! Ain’t gathered the eggs, but that’s because they ain’t laid yet!”
Marion laughed and gave up. “I guess then we’re ready as soon as I can see to shoot.”
BILL MARTIN and EB TUCKER came soon and we went to the hog pen when it was decided it was light enough. All except Cal; he’d stay with the job of handling the water.
Before it was daylight, a complication came up. My wife’s youngest brother, WALTER, didn’t want to go to school. “Do I have to go today, Dad?” he asked.
They had been through this before, and Cal, taking the easy way out said, “Go ask Eb.”
So Walt ran handily to EB TUCKER. “Do I have to go to school, Eb?”
Eb had no children of his own, but was a keen student of them. “No”, he said with eyes twinkling, “You’ll learn more right here today, so you have to stay home! But you will have to be our errand boy!”
“All right”, Walt agreed.
The men saw to it that Walt was kept busy. All day it was, “Walt, hand me that knife; Fetch the axe, Walt; Get me that meat saw, Walt.” They just about ran Walt’s legs off, but he stayed manfully on the job.
Some people might say, “What a cruel thing, to shoot them poor hogs!” That’s right, it was cruel. All killing is cruel! But in nature’s set up, man is a meat eater. All insects and animals prey on each other. Then man preys on them all! The meat on display at all stores and supermarkets must be killed by someone and I believe even the most sophisticated lady-shopper would soon be ready to do it herself if suddenly cut off from all other source of meat supply. And animals slaughtered on farms actually get a break over the ones going to market. They are spared the long, rough journey to a stockyard and some slaughterhouse many miles away.
A good farmer does not kill wantonly; he’s like an Indian and kills because he needs meat. So we started to butcher.
Uncle Marion was a good shot and soon dropped a hog. Russell and I rolled the animal on its back for Bill to stick. The Gump family made no use of the blood, so it drained out on the ground. By the time the second hog was shot and stuck, the first one was ready for the scalding barrel. Pete came with a hook and it was dragged to the sled platform.
Cal took two shovels of ashes from the fire and put them in the barrel. It would “break” the water and cause the hair to slip better. Hot water was dipped from the kettles and put in the scalding barrel, then tempered with a half bucket of cold water. My father-in-law owned the hogs and was “boss” for the day, but these older men needed little directing. They knew what to do and we younger ones respected them and took their orders willingly. Eb Tucker stood by the barrel and directed the scalding.
“Now, you young muscle men,” he said, “Right in and right out.” Russell and I slid the hog down into the barrel and out. “We don’t want to set the hair,” Eb said. “This cold air is as important as the hot water. Now, in again, and a little longer this time.”
We dropped the hog in again, turning it in the water. Three times in the barrel and the hair was slipping good, even on the legs. “That’s enough,” Eb said, “turn the hog, put a gambrel in the hind legs, and we’ll scald the other end.”
This was done and anyone could see it was a good scald as lots of the hair was coming off in the barrel. We then dragged the carcass to the far end of the sled, where Bill and Eb complete scraping off the hair. Marion and Pete brought another hog, and we soon had two scalded, cleaned, and hung up. Cal had water boiling again, and we went to the pen for more hogs, except Eb who would open the carcasses and complete the dressing.
By 9:30 all six hogs were hanging on the pole, completely dressed out. The heads were sitting upright in the snow, the hearts and livers in a basket, and the entrails sent to the house. The men didn’t appear to hurry, but with every effort counting, the work moved right along. Each hanging carcass had been scraped after an application of hot water, then scraped again after another dousing of cold water. This was the “finish,” and it gave a professional look to the butchering – white and clean, right down to the feet!
While we were taking a break here to sharpen the knives again, Marion asked, “Cal, did you get any oil for my gun?” “My knife needs some too, “ Russell said, laughing and holding it up.
Cal reached into the corncrib, bringing out a bottle, and it was passed around. “I thought of everything,” he said, “and a nip of wine goes good on a job like this!”
We then moved to another table inside the wagon shed and started cutting up heads. When completed, the ears and tongues were in a basket, the fat would go into lard, and the lean into either mincemeat or sausage. The teeth, eyes, and snouts were thrown away. Then came the cutting up of the carcasses.
The hogs were split down the center, and one man would work on half a hog. He sawed off the legs, cut through the ribs and took off the backbone for pork chops. Then he took out the ribs, cut off the ham and shoulder, trimmed them, and trimmed the sidemeat and cut it into squares. All meat, where the cutting trimming was completed was taken to the smokehouse and gotten out of the way. The remaining piles of lard and sausage meat were growing fast, as the work of cutting up the hogs progressed.
The invited neighbor women had come long ago, and had a fire going in the summer kitchen. When the hogs were being dressed, the entrails were being caught in tubs and delivered to the women. They took over the task of trimming fat off the entrails, and the cleaning of the small intestines to be used in sausage stuffing. This wasn’t a pleasant job, but one that greatly improved the sausage. My wife’s mother, ICY GUMP, would return the favor when she helped the neighbors butcher.
Known as a fine cook and one who loved to feed people, she was free today with the help of the two daughters, to put her best talent to the task of preparing the bountiful dinner to be served the workers promptly at 11:30. This was where the big butchering day became partly social. For what is better than sitting down to a splendid dinner in the jolly company of family and friends!
After dinner, we sat around talking and smoking, but not for long. The task of butchering was progressing well and we must not let up. There was still lard and sausage meat to be cut – the sausage into strips for the grinder, and the lard into small cubes for the kettles and the press.
The girls came out to help, and this work was soon done. Cal and Eb intended to render the lard, while the rest of us ground sausage.
There was an important change here. In those days farms were without electric power, and turning the sausage grinder by hand was a tough job, indeed. There was an innovation that was sweeping the farm belt like a blizzard. An automobile could supply the power!! We young folks had heard of it and were anxious to try it out. My father-in-law was for progress, and quickly gave his consent. While we made the setup, Mrs. Gump came out to supervise the seasoning of the sausage.
The meat was strung out in a long line in the center of the table, and she chose Bill to handle the salt and pepper. Her recipe was: One handful of salt for each hog and one extra for the sausage, and about two thirds as much pepper. The meat was mixed then until some seasoning was in each piece. It would be thoroughly mixed going through the grinder.
We had the car ready. The left rear wheel was raised by a jack, with the other wheels securely blocked. The grinder, bolted to a five foot plank, was set on blocks so the hub of the grinder was in line with the wheel hub. A heavy twine string went around a tire and angled back to the grinder handle. When the wheel turned, the handle must follow. Two people sat on the plank, holding it in place, and fed the meat into the grinder. The girls wanted to try it, and we carried the meat to them. Pete sat in the driver’s seat and ran the car, and it was amazing how the meat zipped through the speeded up grinder. It was all so simple. The sausage was ground finer too, and hand turning was all over for us.
Cal and Eb had the lard about ready to render. This cooking of the lard is a job for experts. All the older folks there that day were gone now, and Pete too, but we younger ones learned much from them. They’d started with a small amount of fat in the kettles and a small fire. They now had a large fire and both kettles full of hot lard and brown cracklins. The press would separate the cracklins from the lard.
The lard must be cooked enough or it wouldn’t keep, yet too much fire would scorch it. They could tell too by the stirring paddle that it was done. They pulled their fire and it was run through the press and the cans of melted lard set in the snow to cool.
The lard press was also the sausage stuffer, and we moved into the summer kitchen for this job. The women handled putting the casings on the spile and taking the stuffed sausage as it came from the press. The girls, anxious to learn, proved very capable at this. Only one man was required to turn the press and we took turns at it.
When the sausage was all stuffed, carried in baskets to the smokehouse, and the tools all washed, it was three o’clock and time to think about going home. Mrs. Gump had a neatly wrapped gift package of sausage for each departing family. I don’t imagine the large meat packers ever thought of adopting this practice!
The big butchering job was completed, and I’ve heard people say they enjoyed this phase of farming more than any other. There’s one thing certain about it – we could slaughter those hogs, and cut them all up, but we never could again put them back together again.
Footnote: For a real delicacy: when rendering lard, tie a string to a piece of tenderloin, throw the meat in with the lard and leave the string hang out over the kettle. When the lard is cooked, pull the tenderloin out, salt it, and have a morsel fit for a king!