By Millard Winslow
The first day of a hog killing has to be on a cold January morning. The first assignment goes to someone starting a good fire under the scalding vat. (This is a large pot that will hold an entire hog). Water in the vat has to maintain a temperature just a little less than boiling. Soap powder and cedar branches are placed in the hot water and the cedar branches are removed just before the whole dead hog is placed on the metal rack that is submerged in the vat. The hog is constantly repositioned by someone moving it around on the rack with a hoe. This process continues until the hog hair begins to turn loose. The hog is removed from the vat, placed on a sawhorse table and everyone begins to scrape the loose hair off the hog’s skin. After all hair is removed, the hog is hung up-side-down on a gallows and rewashed. The hog is gutted and a corn cob is placed in its mouth and a small board is wedged between its ribs to hold him apart. After completely gutting the hog, it is thoroughly rewashed and ready to cool down until tomorrow when meat preparation begins. (picture of hog killing)
Early on the second day, a small fire for hot water is started, all knives, an ax and a meat hand saw are sharpened, and a sawhorse table and a large canvas tarp are made available. The first cleaned hog is placed on the table and his head is removed. Then the 2 hams, 2 shoulders and 2 sides are cut out and placed skin down on the tarp and saltpeter is sprinkled on the exposed bones of the meat (this helps draw out the blood when curing the meat). The remainder of the hog is taken to the house where the meat is cut into pork chops, tenderloins, spare ribs, sausage meat, lard and a pig tail.
After all the hogs have been cut up, a salting process begins in the smokehouse. First, each ham is heavily salted and placed skin down in the salt box with another layer of salt added on top. After all the hams are prepared, the shoulders, the sides, the jowls, and the heads are salted the same way.
In approximately two weeks. All the meat in the salt box is inspected and resalted. This process is repeated around the fourth week. Then between the fifth and sixth week, all the meat is washed with warm borax water. A wire is inserted in the hock end of each ham and shoulder for hanging. While the meat is wet, a solution of black pepper and borax is heavily sprinkled on each piece and they are individually hung without touching in the smokehouse.
On a wet day, a small fire consisting of oak, hickory, persimmon, and apple wood is started in a small fire barrel inside the smokehouse. A metal plate with a few holes is placed over the fire barrel to allow only the smoke to escape. The smoking process can vary between one to two weeks and is dependent on the attendant’s availability and cold weather conditions. The meat is ready to cook when it turns a golden brown. The smoked meat can remain in the smokehouse until used and is available for months without refrigeration.
Editor’s note: Although Millard did not mention making cracklings that was an important task for this young man during hog killing time. When you eat pig skins from the local grocery store then you are really eating cracklings. When the skin is removed from parts of the hog that is not being cured it is cut into small squares and placed in boiling water to render (removing all the fat) and after lots of stirring with a wooden paddle the skins will float to the surface to be skimmed off and placed on a tarp to cool. Once all the skins have been removed the pot is emptied of water and the residue from the fat is left to dry. It is with this rendered fat that soap was made. There is an old saying that during hog killing time the only thing that is not used is the squeal.
Governor Godwin made reference to spinach and how out of necessity he ate it but he always told his mother he needed vinegar on it. In 1928 with the building of the bridges across the James River and Nansemond River, trucks took over movement of the vegetable. Getting products to market was made easier by trucks that could move between the small villages, plantations, and farms to the ports of Norfolk, Portsmouth, and Newport News in a timely manner. Thus a “vegetable farm” became known as a “truck farm”. Many of the farmers bought their own trucks to move the products as they were harvested rather than having to wait for a commercial vehicle. Tractors replaced mules and harvesting equipment improved the removal of vegetables from the ground for shipment. That progress continues today.
Peanuts were grown on a limited basis in the late 1800s as hog feed and for some home use. However, in 1898 a group of men in Suffolk set up the Suffolk Peanut Company for peanut processing. Before the turn of the century Suffolk became known as the “Worlds Largest Peanut Market” and the local radio station would ultimately use the call letters WLPM. Peanut production across the GCH area took off to such an extent that each farmer was given an allotment of acreage for the growing of peanuts to control the market and price. The peanut was the ultimate demise of the truck farm. With the establishment of Planters Peanut Company in Suffolk by Amadeo Obici peanuts became the best cash crop around. Corn, soybeans and cotton were still produced in a rotation to keep the land from being depleted of its natural nutrients. Over the years we have watched peanut production decline and cotton and soybeans increase due market demands. (pic of peanut picking)
Within the farming community of the GCH area there are several names that come to mind in the 1900s especially in the latter part of the century. The Barlow family has farmed “Cotton Plains” for a number of years and been in the news time and again. There have been headlines such as “Barlow’s Outstanding Farm Family honored at Harvest Festival V”. This award is given in recognition of achievements in agriculture. November 1999 in the Port Folio by Jan Callaghan “The Good Earth” she wrote that running a family farm is not just a job. It’s a way of life—but one that’s becoming increasingly difficult to sustain. The talk is about the dwindling number of farmers from surrounding counties while the GCH area has the same problem. Federal subsidies were welcomed and prices for their products soared in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Then the overseas market collapsed and exports plummeted. Prices dropped dramatically and farmers had lots of products but no one to sell to. Now because of this they were unable to pay their loans or buy seeds. Farmers have always seen the ups and downs but still a few hang on like the Barlows. In 2007 the Barlows took on an extra task to help support the family income and help locals get fresh produce from the farm. They started a Community Supported Agriculture program (CSA) and had 40 members who paid upfront to get a weekly basket of fruits and vegetables during the growing season. Everyone seemed happy with each year’s products. (pic of this farm)
Al Glasscock had an 88 acre farm with 50 acres of that under cultivation right in the heart of the village of Chuckatuck. Having worked in the coal mines of West Virginia Al was no stranger to hard work and that continued while he did very well in the farming business. He even built a couple of grain stowage bins that allowed him to buy, dry and hold products until a better price could be gotten. One of his able bodied assistants was Theodore Allen who worked for Al for 27 years making $2.50 per day however he had an open ticket at the Gwaltney store for food which was a real asset. During hog killing time each year Al would give Theodore a hog for his own use.
Many farmers like Bill Saunders III worked hard for several years only to find that it was just too difficult to make ends meet every year. He also had a potentially serious accident when his shirt sleeve was caught in a silage cutter shaft, ripping his shirt off and winding his belt very tight around his stomach to the point he was having severe problems breathing. The equipment operator, Mr. Bud Towns, realized the problem and secured the machine. A knife was used to cut Bill’s belt in two and then the rest of his clothes were removed from the shaft. Only a few bruises and scratches were the results but it could have been catastrophic. Several years later Bill moved on to other ventures leaving farming behind. He made a comment to the Daily Press in their July 3rd 1977 issue that “The modern farmer must not only be an accountant, manager, mechanic, carpenter, chemist and efficient expert, he must also be an aerialist”. In 2010 when you talk to a modern farmer now he can add to the list of tasks being a computer expert. If you ask Bill about a dairy farm in conjunction with a crop farm he will be the first to tell you that there are not enough hours in the day to get it all done. Those cows are going to be milked twice a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. And, yes, a dairy farm does smell, but Mrs. Edna Saunders, Bill’s mother, would respond with “It smells like money”. (pic of Bill on trailer)
(Lynn need other names to put in here and add to the list. Some suggestions please) I would suggest a paragraph about the Oliver family of Longview – Jesse bought farm in 1934, farmed with his sons Norman and Vernon. Since their deaths the operation is managed by Norman’s son Jimmy (449-8899) and Vernon’s son, J. V. as Oliver Farms. I can get info if you wish.
Farming is not all work and no play as epitomized by Bobby Byrum of the Oakland area. Not only did he farm many acres of land each year but he participated in tractor pulls with his powerful tractor “Country Roads” (picture here from farming folder). In 1982 Bobby Byrum was the “Puller of the Year” and “Mechanic of the Year”. He ultimately developed a portion of his farm as a borrow pit allowing removal of the dirt for highway construction projects.
The young people of the GCH area who grew up on a farm and those who worked part time realized just how hard farming can be. Some farm families have held on for generations like the Barlow’s while others have leased their land to big time farmers. Others have sold out to developers and now houses stand where crops once grew to support the family and the country.
There will be more detail on farms and families in “The Village of —-” aspect of this writing when specific dates and people will be addressed. This should give you a much better perspective of how the communities were developed in the early years and how they have changed.