(This section is drawn from my experiences helping in the annual butchering program at Conner Prairie. This program, called Butcherin’ Stuffin’ and Smokin”,” is, I believe one, that truly brought home to visitors one of the hardships faced by pioneers in their struggle to survive in a new land.)
4,000 hogs in Sugar Creek grunted through the mud and nosed for food, creating a near constant din of squeals and a pungent aroma that hung over the hills and valleys like a miasma. Farm families lived alongside the noise and the mess, but did not complain, at least not too much. As one old farmer would later reply when asked if the smell bothered him, “Not much, feller, it smells like money to me.” And indeed it would prove to be.
Pork was vital to farmers for two main reasons: to feed their families and to sell. Late fall, as the temperatures steadily dropped, was butchering season. After a long summer of fattening on corn and mast in the forests the hogs were ripe with meat. Without refrigeration, nature’s ice box was needed to cool and preserve the carcass. Butchering was often a community affair as neighbor gathered to help neighbor make ready for the long winter. The Goodmans Crews and
Butchering procedures varied slightly from place to place, but in the main followed the same pattern. On the appointed cold morning families gathered. While the women boiled water in huge iron pots and made ready the utensils, the men would separate the hogs to be butchered. Sometimes a gunshot between the eyes or blows from an axe or sledge stunned the animal first, but more a dual-edged knife was plunged into its throat. This also facilitated the bleeding out (blood could contaminate the meat during butchering) and cooling to begin.
The hogs were taken to the butchering site where a gallows type structure, huge iron kettles of steaming water and the crew awaited them. The carcass was plunged into the boiling water or it was poured over them to soften their hair. Men, women and children would then scrape the bristle-ly hair to reveal the pink flesh beneath it. The bristles were also of value as they could be sold to brush makers or used in plastering. Once that was done it was prepared to be hoisted up on the gallows or tripod. Cuts were made in the tendons of the hind legs, where a strong piece of wood, a yoke or gambrels was inserted and up it went. When it was sufficiently cooled (which might take 24 hours) the butchering began.
First to go was the head, which was severed and set aside for later use. The carcass was split open and the entrails removed. The women and children set to work. The stomach and intestines were placed in water to prepare them to be scraped of fat and be used as sausage casings. The heart and liver were doused in water and hung to cool. Fat was diced into smaller section to be later rendered into lard.
As soon as the carcass was considered cooled thoroughly, the “harvesting” of the meat began. Skilled hands cut away the shoulders, hams, and middles. Loins which would soon find their way into a lard filled skillet and prepared to feed the helpers, were cut from the back, spareribs came from the belly and bacon from the sides. Foods that seldom make their way to the modern dinner table were also consumed. The feet were pickled, the head and brains made into a jelly called souse or scrapple. Survival meant using every part of the hog they could, and what few scraps that remained were fed to the dogs. Pioneers even found use for the tail, which might find itself dropped down the back of an unsuspecting person as a joke. In rare cases when the stomach could not be used for casings, it was blown up like a balloon for the enjoyment of children.
To keep them in food for the long winter and summer ahead, settlers preserved the larger portions like hams, bacon and loin. These were “cured” in barrels of brine (an intricate method that required skill) or dry cured in salt.. Once cured the meat would be hung in a smokehouse, or on some occasions in the fireplace chimney. Hickory, maple and apple braches were lit and this process might take up to two days or more. The meat was then hung in the cool, dry smokehouse. When needed for the table someone was simply dispatched to the smokehouse to cut away what was needed. Sometimes, though, part of the meat had grown green and moldy. That had to be cut away to get to the cuts that were still preserved.The butchering season was mainly to provide food for themselves. Though some settlers did preserve extra hogs to sell, the real profit came when they sold to pork packers or butchers. And how did they get those little piggies to market
Movies and television, from Red River to Rawhide, have made the cattle drive one of the central images in the American mind gallery. But few realize that hog drives were a not uncommon sight in the Midwest. Farmers would herd those hog meant for market as well as they could and start a hog drive to the nearest pork packers. The residents of Macksville became used to hearing the oinks and squeals of a herd of hogs passing through town as the farmers attempted the keep hogs from roaming away and maintaining some semblance of order. No doubt after the herd drove through the Macksville gardeners moved onto the street to shovel the “fertilizer” left in their wake.
After slogging through the bottoms, the herders paid the two cent per hog fee to the ferryman and bridgekeepers to finally get to the market. Terre Haute was a major pork packing center. One of the larger ones in the Midwest for a time. Terre Haute’s first packing plant was opened in along the east bank of the Wabash in 1824 by Ben Gilman, who announced he was seeking $10,000.00 worth of “fat hogs.” Pork packing was such a profitable business that soon other packers set up shop along the Wabash. The river provided both the water that was needed and became an open sewer for the dregs and offal leftover from butchering. The river often flowed red with pig’s blood or grown from the “sewage” dumped by the pork plants.
Micajah Goodman, Jr. built a pork packing plant in southern in southern Sugar Creek Township in the 1840s. Located near the site of Cox’s Ferry, the plant required thousands of pounds of salt brought by four-horse teams from Chicago. Salted and placed in barrels the cargo was then loaded on flatboats headed to New Orleans.
Prices paid by packers varied over the years, but before the Civil War, the “hog cash crop” usually brought between three to five cents per hundred weight. It made for a nice “payday” for farm families. And though hogs were primarily a cash crop, the tradition of butchering seasoto supply the home needs continued into the 20th century. Some farmers in Sugar Creek and throughout Indiana were doing their own butchering well into the 1940s.