‘Heave ho, over you go’ – hog butchering day

Posted by | November 12, 2010

The scent of locust wood smoke and the sound of crackling fires permeated the early morning scene on hog butchering day.

Guided by the predawn glow of a flickering lantern, Daddy lit the kindling wood under the scalding tank. He fed the fire until the water almost reached the boiling point, then built more blazing fires to heat water in several tripod-mounted, big black cast-iron kettles. Every greasy task, and lots of cleanup, required a daylong supply.

Butchering Scene at Bulltown, WV, ca. 1908-1910

Butchering Scene at Bulltown, WV, ca. 1908-1910

The slaughter began around 7:00 AM as Daddy, Uncle Bill and Uncle Hartzell coaxed the first hog from the sty and shunted it into an open paddock. There one of my uncles stunned the animal with a .22-caliber rifle. They only needed a single shot aimed at a spot slightly above the eyes. Their aim was precise enough to immediately immobilize and topple the animal. My marksmanship, on the other hand, was so bad I couldn’t hit a bull in the ass with a scoop shovel.

The tussle to upend the critter began by grabbing all four feet and landing the porker in the belly-up position. Granddaddy clutched a curved sharp knife and slashed the left side of the pig’s throat. From there he reached deep inside and pierced the jugular vein, located about three inches from the jawbone.

A clean severing of that major vessel maximized the amount of blood the beating heart pumped free of the body before the onset of rigor mortis. Draining the circulatory system as much as possible was a precautionary step in securing a satisfactory curing and safe storage of hog meat under farm conditions.

George and Lee Grant, Joe Harris and Daddy dragged the limp body toward the scalding tank. Both uncles joined in for added heft. The team hoisted the four-hundred-pound hog to the adjoining platform, then stepped back from the smoke and took time to wipe sweat from their brows. “Heave ho, over you go!” sang Uncle Bill, affecting an oh-so-painful grimace as he put his shoulder to the carcass and pretended to single- handedly dunk the beast.

Daddy called out, “Bill, don’t get ahead of me! I need to check the temperature of the water.” Most farmers tested its warmth with their bare hands. Daddy was more precise, using an older model steam pipeline thermometer that had been discarded at the mill. He wasn’t about to take the chance of “setting” the hair if the water was much hotter than necessary. Conversely, too cool a temperature would result in an incomplete scald with the same effect, namely that the hair was not easily freed from its roots.

After assuring himself the water was 190 degrees, Daddy added a small shovelful of wood ashes to help clean the carcass.

The four-man team slowly lowered the hog, back first, into the tank using two seven-foot-long, twisted-link trace chains. George and Lee had their protective boots on and stood astride the top edge of the trough as they worked in tandem to dunk and rotate, while making sure to expose both sides of the limp body to the air a couple of times.

Lee noticed the hide rubbing against the chains began to show signs of bare skin. “Look’a there boys,” he said, “she’s a comin’.” At each end, Daddy and Joe made sure the hair around the extremities was also loosening.

Evidence of a good scald soon appeared — the bristles around the head and ears started to peel off easily. Granddaddy pulled on the tail and it came clean as a whistle. Then he rubbed the legs to see how well they were doing. Before long the rush was on to get the animal out of the tank and repositioned once again on the platform.

Everyone took a hand in working over the hog to remove the coarse hair and scrape the hide clean. “Don’t just stand there, Kenneth,” Bill barked, “get me another bucket of scalding water. There are a few stubborn hairs to be scraped off before we have a bare carcass.”

Daddy had a notched, homemade gambrel stick in his hand. “Hartzell, when you finish teasing out the hamstrings on both hind legs, help me insert this between the exposed tendons,” he said. I watched as they slid this butcher’s device into place.

The butchering crew had previously erected a horizontal scaffolding pole held up by a stout set of A-frames, made from slender tree trunks. There they suspended the newly scalded and scraped animal, with the head dangling about a foot off the ground.

Granddaddy Ambrose, the adroit butcher and meat cutter, readied himself for the evisceration process by donning a white apron. First he removed the pig’s head, then dashed more hot water over the carcass, using his newly sharpened butcher knife to shave any remaining spots that were not completely clean. This procedure was repeated as necessary until the smooth and pinkish skin was free of hair and bristles.

The pearly-white carcass was now ready to gut.

–from ‘The Day is Far Spent,’ by Kenneth A. Tabler, Montani Publishing, 2006

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