A Hog Claim

Gene Fletcher

© Copyright 2015 by Gene Fletcher

Jonathan Kemper on Unsplash
Photo by Jonathan Kemper on Unsplash

Our family hog claim was scattered over thousands of acres of wilderness. The hogs were mostly razorbacks, descendants from the hogs brought to Florida by the Spanish invaders. They were generally black in color with some occasional differences.

Some were "listed," meaning that the hog had a five to eight inch streak of white hair across the back and running down the shoulder.

Some had really wicked teeth that we called "tushes" protruding from the upper and lower jaws to look like a pair of crossed swords.

Almost all of them had a thick stand of stiff bristled hair that ran the full length of the body down the backbone. The hog's backbone was raised above the rest of the body thus looking like a razor and providing the reason for the term razorback.

Living a wild and free life in the woods had its dangers. Wildcats were a constant danger to young pigs, especially when the sow left them alone to search for food. The hog's teeth were an effective weapon in the defense of the pigs. There were rare reports of panthers feeding on the hogs but I suspect that most of the panthers had long since been driven away by the late 1940's and early 1950's when I worked the hogs with my father.

Our hogs ran wild on the open range and foraged for themselves like other wild animals. At the time, the open range was available to anyone who wanted to put their hogs and cattle out to graze. As best I can understand it, the law at the time required the owner of land to fence his land to keep other people's animals off his land. If the landowner did not fence his land, anyone could and did use it for grazing. Our hogs ranged mainly on the land that belonged to the timber companies that owned most of the land in Dixie County.

(About 85% of Dixie County was owned and managed by companies involved in the timber industry.) Most of the original stand of yellow pine and cypress had been cut years ago. In the early 50's, the companies were just beginning to clear vast tracts of "cut-over" timberland and plant row upon row of slash pines. Like many parts of Florida, industry brought dramatic changes to the land. The giant bulldozers that cleared the land were not known for their gentle touch. When they were finished, the wilderness that I enjoyed as a boy ceased to exist. The landscape has changed so much that all of the landmarks that I recognized are gone and I can easily get lost in the woodland where I helped my father work our hog claim.

The population of Dixie County in the early 50's was quite small and the wood range was vast. When we went hog hunting in the wilderness to the West of the family farm, it was not uncommon to hunt all day without meeting another soul. In some respects, I treasure this memory of solitude in the wilderness above all other memories of growing up in Dixie County. At that time, you could stand still in the woods and hear only silence, occasionally interrupted by the sounds of nature. The cry of a bird or the sound of an acorn dropping to the ground was all that could be heard. Years later, when I became a resident of towns, large or small, I was surprised at how noisy they were, especially at night.

Other people had hogs running wild in the same area so our hog claim was mixed with others in the area. One of the largest hog claims belonged to Madison Fletcher, my Fathers' uncle, the youngest brother of my grandfather, William Rete Fletcher. My father and I occasionally encountered Uncle Madison and his hired man when we were working our hogs. Uncle Madison had a Jeep with a four-wheel drive, a rare piece of equipment in those days. Madison looked old and sinister to me and he was grossly overweight. He always caused the little Jeep to sag on one side. Because of his weight, he rarely got out of the Jeep and when he did, he walked with the help of a walking cane in each hand.

There was some long standing differences between Uncle Madison and my father. Most of these that could be traced back to the death of "Grand Ma Fletcher" in 1937. She was the widow of George Washington Fletcher (1848 to 1914) and thus Uncle  Madison's mother and my father's grandmother. In addition to Uncle Madison and my grandfather, William Rete Fletcher, there were five other children who had a claim on her · estate. Despite my father's attempts to keep the ranch/farm together, most of them sold their share to Uncle Madison. The ultimate result of all the trades was a split between them with my father getting less than one-half of the land.

Before I move on, one last comment on Uncle Madison. He was a registered Republican in what was then known as the Solid (read Democratic) South. In the late forties and early fifties, being a Republican was unheard of in Dixie County. I jokingly tell people that I was 18 years old before I discovered that Damn Republican was two words. In the schoolyard, calling someone a Republican would guarantee a fight. It was the equivalent of calling someone an S.O.B. I don't think that political philosophy had much to do with his choice. I think Madison was just trying to be contrary. It was just one more way that he found to irritate and embarrass his family.

All of our hogs were "marked" to show that they belonged to my father. All hogs were "marked" by cutting designs in the hog's ears. Each mark was registered with the appropriate local legal authorities. Once you registered your mark, no one else could use it. All hogs bearing your mark were yours. An unmarked hog was basically up for  grabs. You mark it and it is yours.

Our mark was fairly simple. In the right ear, we cut "crop under half crop". A crop would be made by cutting the top of the ear off leaving an ear with a straight top where it would normally be pointed. Then the ear would be cut in half down to approximately one-half of length of the ear. Finally a crop to the right making a straight line from the middle of the ear to the edge of the ear completed the right ear.

In the left ear, we cut "swallow fork". This cut would be a simple "V" cut into the ear to replace the normally pointed part of the ear.

Some of the other marks that I remember are:  

Split--the ear would be split down the middle about one-half way through the ear.

Crop Split--the ear would have the top cut with a straight line thus removing the tip of the ear and then split down the middle of the ear to about one-half of the length of the ear.

Over bit--a small notch cut from the top side of the ear nearest the head.

Under bit--a small notch cut from the bottom side of the ear nearest the head.

2 Over bits - 2 small notches cut from the top side of the ear nearest the head.

2 Under bits -2 small notches cut from the bottom side of the ear nearest the head.

Two splits -two parallel cuts running about one-half the length of the ear.

As you can see, the number of ear marks available could supply a large number of owners.

Normally, the animals would be marked when they were very young and still at their mothers side. The males were castrated at the same time. My father performed this surgery with his pocketknife that he had honed to a surgical edge using a whetstone. He would sharpen the knife until he could shave the hair off his arm with it. When the marking and cutting was done, the cuts were treated to prevent screwworms.

Changing the earmarks on hogs was not an unknown practice. If caught, you were considered to be and actually were a thief. Your treatment by law enforcement was not always harsh but it was at the very least, unpleasant. Many marks were easy to change. For example, our hogs had a "swallow fork" in the left ear. The simple addition of an "under bit" made the hog "belong" to someone else.

I don't recall hog theft being a serious problem. In retrospect, I suspect that the low theft rate was in large part due to the time and attention that my father gave to his hog claim.

We were in the woods checking on the hogs on a regular basis. The farm community, known as the first district, because it was voting district number one in Dixie County, was small and we knew everybody. It was difficult for anyone to move around in our area without my father and others knowing about it. One of my fondest memories of my father is seeing him looking carefully at the car tracks in a dirt road out in the wilderness behind our farm. After a minute or so, he said, ''that's a strange car track". I wonder what they're doing back here?"

We followed the tracks for several miles until we found the vehicle in question. The driver turned out to be an outsider (not native to Dixie County) who was known by my father. As we visited with them for a few minutes, they said they were out scouting for some good huntin' grounds to hunt on when the season opened. My father was satisfied with that, so we drove off to continue working the hogs.

Until they were eradicated in the late fifties or early sixties, screw worms were a constant threat to all livestock and wild animals in Florida. The adult was a fly that deposited eggs on or in an open cut. The eggs hatched into larvae that moved into the cut where they fed on live flesh. The mature larvae would drop out of the wound, fall to the ground and emerge as a fly to repeat the cycle.

My father worked on the program that ultimately wiped out the pest. Scientists discovered that the female flies only mated once in a lifetime. They sterilized vast numbers of male flies and released them to mate. Eventually, but not before they had killed a lot of animals, the screwworm fly vanished from Florida.

Until they were eliminated, the only way to combat the pest was to treat all cuts with a salve or liquid that killed the worms and the eggs. In order to treat the hog, you had to catch him. We would catch the hogs, mark and cut (castrate) them, treat them for screw worms and release them. Two weeks later we would catch them again to apply a follow-up treatment for the worms.

We "worked" the hogs one or two times a week. As a rule, we would go for a drive after school and look for our hogs. I learned to drive when my legs were long enough for my feet to reach the brake and clutch pedals. I am not sure how old I was. My guess is nine or ten years old. When we worked the hogs, I would drive the truck and my father would ride shotgun to look for the hogs. (My brother was three and one half years younger than I was so he stayed home.) The drive was great fun when I was just learning to drive. Later, it was a drag because my father insisted that we drive as slowly as possible. I often poked along the dirt road in first gear at two miles per hour for what seemed to be eternity.

Despite the vast area of our hog claim, we could find most of our hogs without much trouble. There were water holes to check. There were food sources to check and you could always look for "sign." The woods hogs foraged for their food and left large patches of ground that were "rooted-up. " This "sign" was easy to follow. My father could look at it and tell if it was fresh and the animals were still nearby. I never got very good at reading signs. I watched him do some of it by noticing how distinct the footprint was and similar techniques. My father was a hunter and woodsman, and he could see things that had been disturbed and use this information to track game. On these drives, he looked for hog sign. Quite by accident, we would occasionally see the tracks of other animals. When they were turkey tracks or deer tracks, we paid special attention.

The pickup truck, a three-quarter-ton Chevy, was stocked with the things we might need to "work" the hogs. In addition to one or two guns, including at least one rifle, we had salve and liquid screw worm treatment, ropes and a cane pole, an ax, a "come-along" (a device used to pull the truck out of a bog) and a jug of water. We always packed dry corn, sometimes shelled and sometimes on the cob, to feed the hogs. We tried to feed them once a week to keep them accustomed to seeing the truck and us.

The corn was a treat for the hogs. They would learn to recognize our truck and come running after us. For those who did not see the truck, my father would call to them. He had his unique trademark call that cannot be accurately described on paper. The call was "ooooooooowwwwww,ooooooooowwwwww,ooooooooowwwwwpigggggg."

His call would echo through the woods. No one called exactly the way he did.. I tried many times to duplicate the call and failed each time.

When we found hogs that were fairly tame, we would stop the truck and call to attract as many hogs as possible. Some of them became so tame that we could distract them with the corn and quietly come up behind them and catch them by one or both hind legs.

Others were tame enough to come for the corn but too wild to catch by hand. These hogs and pigs were usually roped. My father's technique for roping hogs involved the cane pole that was always stuck in the back of the truck. The body of the truck was about 18 inches high. The sides had a sort of lip on them that slanted up and out for about 4 inches and then curled under forming a cylinder the length of the truck body on both sides. The cane pole was stuck in this cylinder, butt end first.

The pole was the same type that many of us used for fishing in the lakes and rivers in the area. It was twelve to fifteen feet long and it tapered from a base of about an inch in diameter to a very small tip at the other end. We used a 1/4 inch cord with a loop at the end. The cord was draped around the pole in a sort of spiral. The loop was draped across the tip of the pole to form a loop large enough for the selected animal to walk through.

We would scatter corn in an open space to give us room to maneuver the pole. When the hogs began to eat the corn, they had their snouts to the ground and their eyes focused to find the corn.

We would hold the pole to reach out into and over the bunch of hogs. We would drop the pole down until part of the loop rested on the ground in front of the hog we were after. The hog would walk thought the loop so that the loop was around his neck. I never mastered the next step but I saw my father do it hundreds of times. He would simultaneously pull the pole with one hand thus disentangling the pole from the rope. With the other hand, he would jerk the rope so that it tightened around the body of the hog. As the hog jumped in reaction to the rope, the loop might catch him around the neck but more often it would slip down the body of the hog and tighten securely around one or both hind feet. This entire maneuver happened in the blink of an eye. It was successful about nine times out of ten.

If the catch was successful, you had a wild hog on the end of your rope. The hog was usually rather unhappy about the process and expressed this displeasure with an ear splitting variety of squeals and frantic tugs on the rope. If the "catch" was a pig or a  shoat (teen-age hog), the rope was simply pulled until the catch could be picked up. If the catch was too large to pick up, someone would follow the rope down to the hog's foot and grab both hind legs. When you have both hind legs secured in this way, the hog cannot turn far enough around to either side to bite you. Some of the full-grown hogs that we caught weighed 200 pounds or more. When the catch was that large, one guy would hold the hind feet while two guys, one on either side of the hog, reached down and took one of the hog's ears in one hand. The other hand reached under the hog just behind the front legs. When each grabbed the others arm to form a sort of sling, the hog could be lifted and carried safely to the truck without fear of a hog bite.

An additional hazard in the catching process was the possibility that the other hogs might decide to come to the aide of the one that had been caught. This rarely happened, but when it did, life got really complicated. You were faced with an unappetizing dilemma. Do you release the "catch" and defend yourself against the other hogs, thus risking an attack from the "catch" or do you hold the "catch" and risk a bite from his friends. I don't recall any time when we released a "catch" under these circumstances. The primary explanation for this daring action was not our bravery. It was our dog.

Over the years that I helped work the hogs, we had several highly trained "catch dogs." My personal favorite was a male black and tan, bulldog/mongrel mix named Terry, after Terry and the Pirates in the comics. When one of our dogs had a litter of pups, I was given the honor of first pick and the other pups were given to neighbors. Terry was my choice. On our farm, everyone worked. There were no non-working pets. So, Terry was part pet and part work dog. A good (well trained) catch dog responded to command and was totally fearless. These dogs, weighing 30 or 40 pounds, would pursue and literally catch a full-grown hog or steer, usually by the ear or nose. They would release their catch on command. Many dogs were trained to release when they heard a cow whip pop. We rarely used cow whips. So, our dogs were trained to release on voice command. Down!

If the hogs around us appeared to be a threat, we would call the dog from the truck. The dog would hold the hogs at bay until we got the other hog loaded into the truck. We tried to avoid using the dogs to catch any animal because of the screwworm problem. A dog bite made a wound that attracted the flies and required treatment at the time of the bite and two weeks later.

The hogs that could not be caught by hand or with a rope were caught with the help of the  catch dogs. A well-trained catch-dog was a very valuable animal. Working from voice commands, they would, in the words of my father, "catch anything that walks." Normally, the target hog was running away rather than walking. The dog usually stayed in the truck because he tended to disturb the hogs and make them skittish. When we needed him, one of us would call. "Come here Terry" and he would jump out of the truck, ready for some action. His first move would be to "bay" at the hogs. By this I mean that he would bark at them and jump or dodge around them to distract them.

Believe me, a baying (barking) dog can keep several hogs busy. The more aggressive hogs would make a run at Terry. His "duck and dodge" routine usually kept them off balance long enough for us to get a hog loaded. When there was a grown hog to be caught, the command was "catch him" accompanied by a finger pointed at the targeted hog. In most cases, the target hog was easy for Terry to identify because he was separated from the bunch. Once in a great while, Terry would go for the wrong hog. We would shout to him, down, down. In most cases it worked.

Once you shouted, "Catch him" and pointed out the target, you need to be prepared to react quickly. Catch dogs are very fast. They would go bounding after the hog. In 99 cases out of 100, the hog would see them coming and run like crazy away from the dogs. This chase would almost always head for the woods where the undergrowth would give the hog some place to hide. Our job was to follow the chase, on foot, as quickly and closely as possible. The dog would chase the hog until the hog tired from running and turned to fight. When the hog turned to fight, the dog would "bay him up" with the bark, jump, duck and dodge routine. Hopefully, this would keep the hog in place until my father or I arrived.

Now comes the tricky part. While the dog "bays him up", one of us would come around behind the hog and grab him by his hind legs. This is a maneuver that must be done with the utmost skill and speed. One wrong move and you are faced with 200 pounds of angry wild hog. All of this happens in a fleeting moment in the midst of the noise and confusion of the chase. It is exciting and dangerous. When I think back about these wild chases through the woods and palmetto scrub, the danger of snakes, stump holes, cat claw vines and other assorted hazards seems to be overwhelming. At the time, the danger never occurred to me. I was having too much fun.

Once you had the hog by the hind legs, you had to call off the dogs. If the chase had been especially exciting, the dogs were hard to call off. They were excited and their blood was up. You had to control the dogs while holding the hog. And if all went well, one or two men would come to help you load the hog. It was not a good idea to let the  hog go unless you enjoyed dealing with the business end of an extremely hostile hog.

Our truck was fitted with a custom-made (by my father) pen for hauling hogs and other livestock. It was made from treated pine lumber. The corner posts and support posts were 2 by 4's and the slats were 1 by 4's spaced about 2 inches apart. The pen was tall enough to stand about a foot above the cab of the truck. The back panel was on hinges and served as a gate. So, the trick was to have the three who are holding a very irritated hog to open the rear gate on the truck, and toss the hog in and slam the gate quickly before the hog can turn and escape or fight. This means the three of you must move quickly as a team so that the entire process is one fluid motion that ends with the slamming of the gate.

The truck body was higher than the cab and I was young and foolish. These two facts caused me to destroy the truck body when I was about 12 or 13 years of age. We were planting tobacco in the spring. We were working at the 520-acre farm that was about 2 miles from the 160 acre "Home Place". My dad sent me back to the home place to bring some tool that was needed. As I got in the truck, he said, "Don't forget to watch that low-hanging limb and drive around it." I took off in the truck. I completely forgot my instructions.  I drove under the low-hanging limb so that the limb caught the top of the wooden body that stuck up above the truck's cab. The result was a disaster. The limb was entangled in the wooden body so that it pulled the body up and out of the truck, breaking it, in a heart beat, into many pieces of worthless wood. True to his style, my father never scolded me about this mistake. He went into town for a new supply of lumber, and we built a new body.

We also built portable hog pens that we used to trap hogs. The hog pens were built in the same fashion as the pen for the truck body. The only significant difference was that the portable pen had a trap door. The trap door was activated by a device that consisted of a cord tied to the top of the trap door and run up and over a rod that was about 8 or 10 feet above the ground. The cord, with a stick tied at the end, was stretched down into the pen where it was held in place by stakes in the ground. We would scatter shelled corn outside the pen and make a trail of com into the pen and around the stick that was holding the cord that held the trap door up. When the hog rooted the stick to get to the corn, the stick would be pushed up from the stakes and released. The trap door would fall by its own weight, and the hog would be trapped.

We caught lots of hogs in trap pens. However, some were too smart to fall for the trap.

Occasionally a hog would eat the com right up to the door and stop without eating one grain inside the pen. This was proof that hogs are plenty smart. I suspect that it also shows why they can survive in the wilderness and thrive on the food that was available to them in the wild.

The fall acorn crop fattened our hogs. If there was a "good crop," the hogs would fatten quickly and be like money in the bank. I remember going hog hunting to gather hogs to take to the livestock auction in Gainesville, Florida. Sometimes we would gather full­ grown hogs. Other times, we would gather shoats, teenage hogs. I don't know why we would pick one or the other. I also don't know why we "rounded up cattle" and "gathered" hogs but that is what we did.

In our preparations for a trip to the livestock market, we would make several trips to catch the hogs to be sold. When we returned from these trips, we would unload the hogs into a hog pen near the cattle pen and stable. There was a "loading chute" (ramp) so that the truck could be backed up to it for unloading the hogs. We would feed and water the hogs each day until we had assembled a "load". Early on Monday morning, we loaded the hogs up the ramp into the truck for the ride to the market. The market was first come, first served. My father liked to get there early in the theory that the first prices were the best prices.

Once in a great while, I was allowed to skip school and go to the market. It was great fun for me. Gainesville, some 50 miles to the east, was a much bigger town than anything in Dixie County and it had larger, more varied stores.

The livestock auction had a bit of a country fair, carnival-like atmosphere. We saw some people we knew. We ate at a restaurant, a rare occasion. We saw the excitement of the auction that was primarily hogs and cattle but occasionally had horses, goats, and other animals for sale.

The hogs were kept in separate pens according to ownership. Each bunch was weighed and identified by breed or lack thereof. They were brought into the auction ring, one bunch at a time. The owner was allowed to "no sale" the lot if he thought the price was too low. This rarely happened because you still had to pay the house the auction fee for the sale. Most of the hogs were gentle enough to move through the system easily. For those that were less cooperative, there were whips and battery­ operated cattle prods. In the center of the auction ring, there was a sort of post with steps on it so that the hog handler could climb out of harm's way if the hogs turned on him.

The auctioneer had his own unique patter or chant with a singsong rhythm that I could  not duplicate. The ring and most of the pens were open air under a tin roof. It was a remarkable odor that drifted about on a summer afternoon when the temperature rose above 90 degrees and a shower pounded the tin roof. You soon had the air filled with the smell of humidity-laden sweat from man and beast and various types of very wet manure. In addition, most of the buyers and sellers alike used tobacco. Some smoked while others dipped or chewed. The sweet smell of fine cigars tended to be overcome by the dippers and chewers who spat in many directions.

The buyers were all pre-registered, so they were well known to the auctioneer. They made bids with subtle hand gestures that I could hardly see. It was years later before I discovered that there was no danger that I might make some innocent move with my hand and buy unwanted livestock. But back then, that concern made me keep pretty still while I watched the auction.

If you stayed at the auction until your hogs were sold, you could get a check for the proceeds less the fees to the auction house. If you did not collect your check by closing time, they sent it to you by mail. In any case, you got your money fairly fast. My father always said that a hog claim was like money in the bank. Unlike cattle, hogs were a good "fast investment" to turn around for cash and there was very little capital investment involved.

In the late 40's and early 50's, the charge for school lunches at Old Town Elementary School was 15 cents per day. Normally, my parents would give me a dollar on Monday morning to be used to buy a weekly lunch ticket for 75 cents and ice cream for 5 cents per day. Ice cream was only available to those students who ate all of their lunch and had the 5 cents needed for the purchase price. Most of the students would comply with the first requirement but many could not afford the 5 cents. On one particular Monday morning, my parents searched the entire house and could not find two dollars, one for me and one for my brother. My mother gave my brother and me 15 cents each and sent us off to school. On that same Monday morning, my father took a load of hogs to Gainesville to cash in some of his "money in the bank."

In the fall of each year, my father would gather about 20 hogs that were "good and fat" and pen them up in a feed lot. We would feed them com for about a month or so to get the woodsy taste out of the meat before we had our annual hog killing. The timing for the hog killing depended on the weather. A killing frost was needed to reduce the supply of flies and other insects that are attracted to the event. This rule has caused my family  to use the expression, "It is cold enough to kill hogs." Anyone who had worked in a hog killing would immediately know that this means a really cold day.

Hog killings were important in insuring a good supply of pork through the winter, and they were important as social events as well. Typically, we would invite several families to "come help us kill hogs." These friends and neighbors would arrive early and stay late on the appointed day. There was no cash compensation, but each worker was given a share of the fresh pork to take home. There was an unstated agreement that you would be invited over when they killed hogs so that you would have a share of the fresh pork.

The duties of the day were basically allocated according to gender. The men did the killing, cleaning and gutting. The women cut the meat, cleaned the chitllins, and prepared the sausage meat, the lard meat, and the meat for hog-head cheese.

Early in the morning, we would fill the sugar kettle with water and build a fire under it to have hot water ready to scald the dead hogs for cleaning. We would have breakfast just as the sun came up. Well fed, we went to the hog pen to start the killing. My father shot a hog directly between the eyes with a .22 rifle. The hog would drop in his tracks without a sound. Immediately, my father would cut the hog's throat to bleed him.

Blood would come gushing out of the hog's neck as the heart took its last few beats. Some of our neighbors would use a container to catch the blood to be used in blood puddin'. My family did not prepare blood puddin'. When the bleeding stopped, the hog was rolled onto a sled and pulled by a small tractor to the sugar kettle. By this time the water is hot. The secret to the cleaning process is to have the water as hot as possible without getting it so hot that it began to cook the skin. If the water was too hot, the hair will "set," meaning the hair will not come off. If the water was not hot enough, the hair would not come off.  After testing the temperature, the hog is dunked into the water headfirst. Holding the hind legs, the handler gently rolls the hog around until the entire body has been soaked. A patch of hair is normally tested to see if it can be pulled out.   When the hair begins to come out, the hog is done. He is pulled out of the sugar kettle onto a table. Two people begin to wash and clean the hog. They used butcher knives to scrape the skin and pull the hair out. Cans of water are repeatedly poured over the hog as the scraping continues until the hogs skin, head and feet are squeaky clean. Hogs that came to the cleaning table black and dirty left the table with fair, almost human-colored skin.

Before the hog was moved, a stick would be inserted in the hind legs just above the  ankle. A cut would be made behind the Achilles tendon. The pointed ends of the stick were inserted into these cuts thus holding the hind legs apart and in a fixed position. The hog was then hung upside down by the stick hung on a support post. Now we were ready to gut the hog. This is an especially tricky process filled with hazards that could ruin the meat. The first step was to insert a corncob in the hog's anus. I suspect that the reason for this is obvious. If the hog was a male and most that were killed for meat were males, the penis was cut off and fed to the dogs. When you start to cut the hog open, you start by cutting a circle around the anus followed by a cut down the center of the belly of the hog until you reach the rib cage. If you know the anatomy of the animal, you make the cuts so as to avoid puncturing the urinary bladder or the small intestine.

We removed the innards and held a number 3 washtub to catch them. My family did not eat chittlins , but there was always a volunteer who took them and cleaned them. At our house, it was usually Luler (Lula) Thomas.

The first step in the
intestine cleaning process is to dig a hole 4 or 5 feet deep. The contents of the intestines are dumped into the hole.   Water is poured through the intestine several times to flush them out. The intestine is then turned wrong side out by using a smooth stick to push one end back through to the other end in the same way you might turn your socks wrong side out. The final step is to scrape each intestine until it was totally clean. Luler would dip the gut in a bucket of clear water and then place it on a board and scrape. She repeated this process until it passed her inspection. The smell that accompanied this operation cannot be easily described. Let's just say it would easily turn your stomach.

Some people used the small intestine for casing for the sausage but we bought dry casing that came packed in salt. We soaked the casing over night to soften them. I don't remember what the bought casing was made of but my hunch is that they were hog intestines, too.

After the intestines were removed, the lungs, liver and heart were extracted. Here again, you could make a mess. If the gall bladder was punctured, it made an awful mess. For some strange reason, the livers were often discolored so that we did not eat them. In most cases, we gave the Lungs (called lights by the locals) and heart away.

Now it was time to dismember the hog. The head was cut off and given to someone for extra cleaning before it was put in a pot to boil. Ultimately, the head would form the basis for hog-head cheese. A handsaw was used to cut the breastbone and separate the rib cage. The shoulders came off next, followed by the removal of the backbone, the  side meat (bacon) and the hams. During this entire process, globs of fat were trimmed from various sides of the interior of the carcass and each ham, shoulder and side of bacon was trimmed of some of its fat. Our hogs were fattened in a pen for at least eight weeks because they were "woods hogs" with a "woodsy" flavor to the meat. Two months of grain feed not only removed the woodsy flavor, it also got the hogs very fat.

The fat was tossed into number 3 washtubs for use later in the day. When the last hog was scalded, the sugar kettle was thoroughly cleaned in preparation for cooking the fat down into lard and cracklins. Cracklins are the remains of the meat and fat after the oil has been cooked out of them.

The cook-off often lasted late into the night because it was one of the last chores of the day_and it could be done with the light from a lantern or flashlight. When the cracklins were cooked down and crisp, they were skimmed up with a strainer and the remaining oil or lard was dipped up and poured through a cloth to strain out the remaining bits of cracklins. The lard was stored in five-gallon lard cans for future use. The cracklins had a number of uses such as adding flavor to our farm vegetables but my favorite was to use them to make cracklin cornbread. Cracklin cornbread is simply cornbread that has had cracklins mixed in before it was baked. It is simply wonderful when it is served with mustard greens and fried pork chops the day after a hog killing. The longer we kept the cracklins the more they dried out so that over time they had to be soaked in water overnight to soften them for use in the cornbread.

While one team cooked off the cracklins, others were working on the sausage. Most of the meat in the sausage had been trimmed and separated as the hog was cut into hams, shoulders, and side meat. Nothing was wasted. All of the meat went into the major cuts, cracklins, sausage or hog-head cheese. My father liked his sausage on the lean side so we mixed in very little fat. When the tub of sausage meat was ready, it was run through a hand operated meat grinder, twice for good measure. The next step was critical.

There is much debate in hog killing circles on the question of how much seasoning to add to the mixture. Opinions ranged from "none" to the father of six who said, "Put plenty of red pepper in it to keep the young'uns from eatin it all up". My father was in the mid-range of the seasoning scale with some sage but not to much. The mixed sausage was then stuffed into casings using the same hand operated grinder with the blades replaced with a corkscrew device to push the sausage into the casing. Once the sausage links were stuffed, we draped them over a tobacco stick and hung them in the smokehouse.

One of the first chores that I can remember being assigned was to be keeper of the smokehouse fire. My father was very particular about the fire. He followed the rules that he had learned as a boy. The most important rule was to have a smoldering fire that did not have a flame. If there was a flame, the sausage would cook, not cure in the smoke. You have no idea how hard it is to keep a fire going all the time without having a flame. I remember going into the smokehouse to check the fire and feeling the bite of the smoke in my eye and smelling that wonderful smoked meat smell. The air inside the smokehouse would be thick with smoke, and the fire would be down to embers. I could find the fire by listening to the occasional hiss of oil dripping from the sausage on to the
coals. My father always poked a small hole in bottom loop of each sausage link to allow the oil to drip out as it cured. He used a thorn from the same wild orange tree that his grandma Fletcher had used long ago.

In the meantime, the hoghead cheese (also called souse) was in the works. The hoghead cheese contained all that remained of the hog. The heads, minus the jowls, which were saved for New Years Day, were soaked in warm water and scraped until they were completely cleaned. The feet were cleaned in the same fashion. Any other scraps that had not gone into the cracklins or the sausage finally went into the hoghead cheese. The heads and feet were boiled in kettles until the flesh easily slipped off the bone. This "meat" included a lot of fat and cartilage. After a through mixing, the meat would be run through the same grinder that had been used for the sausage and mixed with seasoning according to the maker's taste. My father followed the moderate seasoning rule when he mixed the meat. He would be up to his elbows in the mixing tub and would occasionally stop to taste his mixture. After a taste, he would add a touch of something and go back to the mixing. When he was satisfied with the taste and consistency of the mix, the final product was poured into flour sacks and tied securely.

We hung the sack in the smokehouse where it would drip oil and settle, from the force of gravity, into a congealed loaf. I don't remember how long we waited for the hog head cheese to settle but when it was done, we pealed the flour sack off and sliced it in cuts that were the thickness of thick bacon slices. As usual in the rural South, we fried it in the lard that we had recently rendered down. We also served it cold in a sandwich.

There was no reason to fry it because the ingredients had been cooked before they went into the mix. It was fried to serve it hot.

It was usually late at night when all of these tasks were completed and the day was done. The folks who had come over to "help out" were tired and ready to go home with their "fresh pork." The fresh pork consisted of backbone (great with rice), back strap (the large part of a pork chop), uncured sausage, lights, liver and pork chops.

When, fifty years later, I tell these stories, many people recoil at the killing and blood I have described. I don't recall the day being horrible. It was a great day because it was a break in the monotony that comes with farm life. We changed the routine, had friends over, worked cheerfully together and enjoyed the fresh pork at the end of the day.

A good day for a hog killing was cool with full sunshine and a cloudless, clear North Florida sky. When you are ten years old, you share in the excitement but not in the harder work. Life is good.

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