There was a place in the midwest where at
sundown you could hear the quail cry "bob-white"
as they scuttled for shelter under brush
in the fence-rows; where neighbors sat down
together at church suppers regardless of race
or creed, and where on May 30th Decoration Day
was celebrated as the most important day of
the year. In that place, in the early part of
the Twentieth Century an exciting performance
called butchering took place twice each year.
It occurred in autumn around threshing time,
and again in winter when temperatures dropped
to zero or below. This major event provided
horror along with excietment for the children,
while parents formulated plans and executed
them to provide meat for the family table.
One morning not long after Christmas Papa
would ease his chair closer to the breakfast
table and toss out a gentle reminder to the
lady of the house. While pouring golden maple
syrup over a stack of buckwheat pancakes, he
would remark, "You all out of pork sausage
Clara?" He knew very well that Mamma was just
recovering from the busy holiday season and
would shudder at the suggestion of refurbishing
the meat supply.
Winter butchering usually took place in early
January. The slaughter included one young
steer or heifer and two or three Poland China
or Chester White hogs weighing 250 to 300 pounds
each. That amount of fresh meat would take
care of the family needs and feed the hired
hand. Some of it would be cured, made into
sausage, or fried down and preserved in stone
jars. With no refrigeration other than the
cool basement storeroom, the meat had to be
consumed before spring. After that time the
old hens provided meat for soup, stew or other
As soon as the young chickens
were ready for the frying pan they became
number one on the meat menu for Sunday dinner.
The old saying "Chicken Every Sunday" certainly
held true in our home.
second butchering in August provided
fresh meat to feed threshing, silo filling and
cornhusking crews. The supply was stretched
to carry through to the end of the year with
the addition of poultry.
One or two smoked
hams were reserved to be baked and served with
the traditional Thanksgiving turkey and Christmas
There was a great deal of work to be done
the week before butchering. Mamma invited
relatives and neighbor ladies to assist in the
mammoth undertaking. Grandma was the star of
the show. With her years of experience she
took charge of operations in the kitchen area.
She was of German descent; an expert in the
field of seasoning and tasting, and only in
later years did she reluctantly pass her secret
formulas on to other family members.
Grandma arrived early in
the week carrying her little
brown, imitation alligator
leather bag. Naomi and I
urged her to open it immediately.
Neatly wrapped inside the folded calico
apron were small packets of fragrant spices and seasonings
grown in her herb garden. Thyme, sage, marjoram, parsley, and
basil had been harvested the previous year,
cut, tied up in bunches and hung over the fireplace
to dry. She loved to keep us in suspense.
"Now did I forget some-
thing?" she would
ask while searching down in the bottom of her
satchel. At last, with a pretended look of
surprise flooding her pleasant face, she came
up with the treasure we were expecting - several
strands of sweet, sparkling rock candy.
We began to nibble it from the end of the
with a stack string. Its sweet taste and smell remain one
of the most pleasant of memories of those semi-
annual visits of our maternal grandmother. In
gratitude for the special treat we would run
errands, try to bridle our curiosity, and
"keep out of the way."
Papa and the hired hands carefully laid plans
for butchering day. The large black iron kettle
was hung on a trivit, ready to be fired
with a stack of wood piled nearby. Wooden barrels were filled with water pumped and carried from the well. It took a lot of hot water to
scald and cleanse the hogs. Sawhorses were set up to hold the
barrels at a proper slant for scalding. Strong oak stakes,
called single-trees, were ready to spread the legs of the carcass before hoisting it up on bars placed across branches of a tree in the
Our parents, knowing we had followed the
growth of the piglets from shoats to present
maturity, sheltered us from the horror of the
slaughter. We never witnesses the roping, stabbing, scalding and scraping of the hog carcass, or the beef butchering. Papa would
ask, "Will you girls please run up to Uncle Adolph' s and bring back two extra wooden pails?" He kindly made excuses to remove us from the horrible performance.
In later years we learned that a cup of lye
was thrown into the kettle of boiling water, the barrels filled and the hog immersed into the tilted barrel, head first and then the
other end. This scalding process loosened the hair and made the work easier for the men who used round metal scrapers with wooden handles to shave the skin. Then the joints of the hog's rear legs were slit, a single-tree inserted, and the hog hoisted on the wooden
Only an experienced man could tackle the
next maneuver. First the carcass was carefully cut open, entrails removed, liver and heart separated and placed in pails of cold water.
Entrails were emptied, scrubbed, scraped, turned inside out, scraped again, washed and soaked in salt water. Later these casings
would be stuffed with a variety of fillings for sausage.
After a carcass was properly "cooled out," a man with a trained and steady hand would
proceed with the trimming. The snow white leaf lard was carved out of the kidney niche and laid in large dripping pans. Most of the
fat was trimmed and would be rendered for lard.
The expert then carved out hams, shoulders,
slabs for bacon, side pork, loins and spareribs.
Neck bones, liver, the heart and all
excess trimmings would be cut up and cooked
for sausage fillings. The head meat and tongue
were used for a special favorite head cheese,
and the feet for another specialty - pickled
pigs feet. Leaner cuts of trimmings would be
combined with parts of beef to make several
kinds of summer sausage.
Butchering beef was a much simpler task.
The best 800 to 1,000 pound steer or heifer
would be selected for the family food supply
and fed a diet to produce prime or choice meat.
The beef carcass was hung on the overhead beams
of the corncrib after being dressed out. The
hide was then stripped off, salted, rolled up
and tied, ready to be sold for a few dollars
to the local junk man who collected them and
sold them to a tannery.
Special strips of beef were trimmed out of
the carcass to make dried beef, and all the
tallow was tossed into a scrap barrel to be
used later for making soap. The beef was
quartered and hung most of the winter in the
cold. Nearby, on a sturdy sawbuck table, lay
a sharp butcherknife and the meat saw used to
slice off beefsteak or roasts as required for
Meanwhile, in the kitchen all hands were
assigned a special duty. Some women diced up
leaf lard and rendered it in large dripping
pans in a controlled oven. It was the only
lard Mamma ever used to make her delicious pie
crust. Other lard was kettle rendered on the
stove top; a dangerous and greasy job. It was
then strained and the balance placed in the
lard press to extract every last drop, leaving
only a crust of cracklings on the bottom of
the press. Nothing was ever discarded - even
the cracklings were made into cookies or fried
with eggs for breakfast. The lard was stored
in stone crocks ranging in size from 2 to 20
gallons and kept on the cellar floor.
Another group of women, including Grandma,
ground and mixed the fillings for a variety of
sausage. It was put in a huge washtub, seasoned, mixed, tasted and then placed in
the stuffing machine which fed it into casings.
The ends were tied up and it was either cooked
or, as in the case of summer sausage, carried
out and hung in the smokehouse.
Some of the
fresh meat was made into patties, fried and
placed in stone crocks, preserved only by a
covering of hot melted lard.
More work followed for the women. Hams,
bacon sides and dried beef were cured in a
special brine for a specific time, then wrapped
in cheese cloth and hung up in the smokehouse.
After several days the greater part of the
work was completed. Utensils and floors were
cleaned and scrubbed, and both men and women
settled back to a normal routine.
The smokehouse was one
of the most important
buildings on the farm.
Located at a safe, convenient distance from
the kitchen of the
house, it was built of
masonry using native
stone or brick, and had a heavy wooden door
usually facing south. The large chimney of
the same masonry construction rose well above
the roof of the structure.
This building had strong overhead beams on
which meats and sausage were hung over a fire.
It was Papa's duty to light the fire each
morning during the smoking process. The fire
was carefully laid on the ground floor using
wood shavings, hickory wood, and chips. A
bucket of sawdust always stood nearby to smother
the flames and control the fire. Soon the
tangy odor of meat and smoke filled our nostrils
as we ran back and forth performing our
daily duty of filling woodboxes.
As children we enjoyed the task of going
out to the smokehouse to bring a ham or a
length of sausage to be sliced for company
supper. When opening the door of the dark,
windowless building we were met with a pungent
odor. It permeated every fiber of our
clothing while tempting our appetites for a
sandwich of thinly sliced ham and home baked
bread. Papa often remarked that a full smokehouse
was like money in the bank for the farmer and his family.
The coming of rural electrification changed
the methods of days gone by. Electric fences
replaced the hedge-rows where the quail once
found shelter; television began to entertain
people instead of church suppers, and Decoration
Day, now called Memorial Day, lost much
of its glamour, and, with modern refrigeration it
was no longer necessary for the farm family
to do home butchering.
The Family Home
Today, when I ride through the old country
neighborhood, the sight of the crumbling walls
of the old smokehouse takes me back to a time
when life was simple. If I close my eyes, I
can almost smell that sweet aroma of smoked
ham and sausage and fondly remember how it
was in those "Days of Yesteryear."
"Green, Green Grass Of Home"