THE HISTORIAN: Pigs and pig pens were everywhere

Pork in its many forms — fresh, salted, smoked and processed into sausages and scrapple — supplied the needs of the first New Hanover families. Any surplus could be bartered at the village store such as Brendlinger’s Store in Swamp. The pork that wasn’t sold locally by the storekeeper could be put down in barrels under brine and sent to the city for export. Salt pork was, from the earliest times, a major export from Philadelphia.

Pigs were every bit as important as cows in the early days of this area. In the local economy, pork was always more expensive than beef, and lard was a bit more expensive than pork. Lard was made at butchering time by boiling pig’s fat in large iron kettles. The connective tissue floated to the top of the boiling fat, was skimmed off and became “cracklings.” Scooped from the pot later and left to cool was creamy, white lard, the universal shortening for all baking and grease for frying. Lard makes everything taste right! Modern Crisco, a hydrogenated vegetable oil, is a poor substitute for this real thing.

As detailed last week, in the 18th century, there was so much mast in the primeval forest — chestnuts, acorns, beech nuts and succulent roots — that pigs were left to roam and forage on their own. These pigs were described as long, thin and semi-feral and provided little lard or meat when butchered.

However, entering into the 19th century, as the supply of wild mast diminished, hogs started to be penned and fed year-round. Pigs breed easily and have short gestation periods, generally known to be three months, three weeks and three days. Sows could manage two litters a year of about a dozen piglets each. Of course, pig pens, sei schtall in the dialect, were now built on most every farm and, too, in many a backyard in village and town.

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Most farmstead buildings, such as barns, summer kitchens, wagon sheds, privies and such, were built with a common understanding of what the finished structure should be and how it should look. Not so the pig pens. Probably because there was no common antecedent, of all the buildings on the farmstead, pig pens had the greatest diversity. At first they were little more than a roof with a few boards nailed onto posts to form sides, but by the mid-19th century, pig pens of every size, shape and material were found. Sometimes they were built against the barn or under the forebay. Some were timber framed, some stone, some little more than ramshackle sheds. Often they were located near the barnyard to keep the smells located at one place! At our farm and others, the privy was built by the corner of the pig pen nearest the house.

Later, some frame pig pens had a little second floor that served as the chicken house with a small door in the upper gable and a “chicken ladder” leading to the ground. Most of these pig pens had an outside door opening to a narrow walkway along the pens leading to the stairs, which went up to the chicken pen.

Selective breeding with choice European boars along with better feeding and improved management created 19th century pigs that were progressively larger and, just as importantly, fatter. Swine of mammoth size started to be shown at livestock shows and county fairs. In 1812, an animal was slaughtered that weighed 834 pounds dressed. Frequently, newspapers made note of locals butchering huge pigs. One 1924 note in the Lycoming Gazette and Bulletin describes a Poland-China barrow (castrated boar) that weighed 1,202 pounds when just 28 months old.

The old farm families formed a community of neighbors who were well aware of each other’s doings. Pride was taken in arrow straight rows in the fields, weed-free gardens and sleek, well fed livestock. In an article on pig pens in a 1970 Pennsylvania Folklife, Amos Long Jr. narrates the following reminiscence: “The writer recalls being told how his grandfather would compare his pigs with those of the neighborhood nearly every weekend to determine the progress they were making. Since it was my grandmother’s responsibility to feed the pigs, as it was the woman’s chore in many families, he would say, ‘Du gebsht selle sei may fooder, si woxa net wie si setta.’ (You must give those pigs more feed. They are not growing the way they should.) He was determined to be among those who had the nicest and largest pigs. Often grandmaw would say, ‘Wo is da pap widder?’ (Where is pop again?) The reply would be, ‘Draus im sei schtall mit de sei’ (Out in the pigsty with the pigs). He seemed to find spiritual delight in the pigsty with the pigs.”

Starting late in the 19th century and on into the 20th century, cheap land in the prairie states and the cheaper corn produced there made it possible to produce pork at half the cost of the local farms. This, in combination with refrigerated rail cars that could ship dressed pork east along with huge meat canning plants in Chicago and other places, led to a sharp decline in eastern pork production. Most farmers, though, continued to raise a few pigs for home use.