Pigs played a large role in Penn­syl­va­nia Ger­man life

The Community Connection - - RELIGION - By Robert R. Wood

A note in the pub­li­ca­tion Amer­i­can Farmer, 1819, re­ports that an ex­hi­bi­tion at a fair showed a “pig with a wooden leg on the off side [left front] be­fore which ap­pears to walk with little lame­ness or in­con­ve­nience.”

This note re­minds me of the fol­low­ing story of years ago: “On ap­proach­ing a farm house, in the yard a ped­dler no­ticed a pig with a wooden back leg and couldn’t help ask­ing about it. ‘Why, that pig,’ the farmer said, ‘is a hero. One night the barn started to burn and that pig squealed and scratched at the house door un­til I got up, saw the fire and put it out. That pig’s spe­cial.’ ‘Well, why the wooden back leg?’ asked the ped­dler. ‘Oh my,’ said the farmer, ‘a heroic pig like that you don’t eat all at once.’”

In the early days around here, swine were close com­peti­tors to cat­tle as the most im­por­tant live­stock. In­deed, pork was al­ways more ex­pen­sive than beef. Peo­ple pre­ferred the fla­vor of pork, and it was much more ver­sa­tile than the stringy, tough beef that had to be ag­gres­sively boiled un­til it be­came some­what palat­able. Beef in those days usu­ally came from old, un­pro­duc­tive cows and bulls slaugh­tered on the farm by the lo­cal butcher. The butcher got a share of meat for his pay and the hide was stripped off and sold to the vil­lage tan­ner.

So im­por­tant to the early Penn­syl­va­nia Ger­man life was the pig that Richard Beam’s Penn­syl­va­nia Dutch Dic­tionary lists no fewer than 110 words or terms re­lat­ing to pigs, pig feed­ing and pig butcher­ing.

Pigs were brought to the Delaware Val­ley by the early Dutch and Swedish set­tlers and, of course, by the Ger­mans. They mul­ti­plied rapidly and re­quired little or no feed as they hap­pily for­aged in the wild. Pigs, like peo­ple, are om­ni­vores and will eat any­thing. Prin­ci­pally feed­ing on mast — acorns, beech­nuts, chest­nuts and roots — herds of swine soon went feral and be­came true denizens of the wild. Were it not for bears, wolves and moun­tain lions, herds of wild pigs would have com­pletely re­verted to the wild boar type of Europe from which they had de­vel­oped — lean, swift, and fierce — and would have pop­u­lated the wilder­ness like deer.

In the colo­nial era, each farmer’s pigs ran wild. Pig pens, sei schtall in the di­alect, didn’t be­came com­mon un­til the 19th cen­tury. At enor­mous la­bor, all fields were of ne­ces­sity fenced against pigs and other free rang­ing live­stock.

Ac­cord­ingly, an anec­dote in Fletcher’s Penn­syl­va­nia Agri­cul­ture … 16401840 quotes an English farmer who vis­ited here in 1798. He wrote, “The real Amer­i­can hog is what is termed a wood­hog; they are long in the leg, nar­row in the back, short in the body, flat on the sides, with a long snout, very rough in their hair, in make more like a fish called a perch than any­thing I can de­scribe. [As to fenc­ing] you may as well think of stop­ping a crow as these hogs. They will go a dis­tance from a fence, take a run, and leap through the rails three or four feet from the ground, turn­ing them­selves side­ways … It is cus­tom­ary to keep them in the woods in win­ter … and they must live on the roots of trees or some­thing of that sort. They are poor be­yond any crea­ture that I ever saw.”

On a more pos­i­tive note, a cen­tury ear­lier, another English­man, Gabriel Thomas, wrote of the area around Philadel­phia: “They have great stocks of Hogs kept in the woods … I saw a Hog kill’d about a year old which weighed two hun­dred weight; whose Flesh is much sweeter and even more lus­cious than that in Eng­land, be­cause they feed and fat­ten on the rich (though wild) Fruits, be­sides those fat­tened at home by Peaches, Cher­ries, and Ap­ples.”

After 1700, nearly ev­ery farmer raised swine. Of course, sort­ing out own­er­ship of “wood­hogs” was al­ways a prob­lem, and pig steal­ing was en­demic lead­ing to feuds and grudges be­tween neigh­bors. Laws re­quir­ing brand­ing were passed, which were some help. Some farm­ers took to call­ing their pigs home at night with corn and such, mak­ing them easy to pen come the end of Novem­ber, the pork season.

Into the 19th cen­tury, as the sup­ply of mast and wild food di­min­ished, it be­came cus­tom­ary to pen hogs be­fore butcher­ing to fat­ten them with corn but also pota­toes, beans, ap­ples, peaches or any­thing else. Even­tu­ally, ev­ery farm had a pig pen where hogs were con­fined and fed year-round.

When cream­eries de­vel­oped at the end of the 19th cen­tury, farm­ers brought home the skim milk, which was poured into the swill bar­rel by the pig pen. Skim milk, along with kitchen scraps and any­thing else vaguely ed­i­ble, was dumped into the bar­rel wherein it fer­mented and be­came foul; how­ever, the rank­ness re­pulsed the pigs not a whit, and buck­ets of swill were poured into the iron pig trough as needed.

De­pend­ing on the avail­abil­ity of feed, some farm­ers killed pigs when they were 1 year old, some waited un­til they were 2; but pigs were usu­ally slaugh­tered when they weighed in the neigh­bor­hood of 200 pounds, usu­ally at around 18 months of age.

The usual method of killing was to stun them with a blow to the head from a sledge ham­mer or the blunt end of an ax. Then the ar­ter­ies of the neck were cut so they would bleed out, which im­proved the meat. The meat of adult boars was said to be strong, so they were often cas­trated. Cas­tra­tion was bru­tal and by all ac­counts acutely painful, but it was a hard age and the an­i­mal’s pain was not a con­sid­er­a­tion.

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