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The following blog was written by Marv Waschke, the current owner and seller of the beautiful homestead: 5438 Waschke Rd, located in Bellingham, WA. He describes the tradition of hog butchering on the farm, and his family member’s roles as well as his own experience through the process. You can read our blog about the history of how this homestead came to be in his family, see photos of the property, & read more of Marv's blogs on his website. To watch a video "walk-through" tour of this property, click here.
Last week’s blog featured the old pear tree planted by my great grandfather, Gottlieb. The old tree and some welcome cool rain in Whatcom County reminds me of a several day fall affair that took place each year under the old pear tree— hog butchering. Usually in October or early November rather than September, hog butchering was both a job and a gathering of relatives and friends. The hog scrapers used for butchering were stored by hanging them in crotches in branches of the pear tree. The scrapers eventually were surrounded by the tree and grew into the trunk. They are still there, left from the last hog butchered on the farm in the mid-nineteen fifties.
The pear tree was close to the hog barn where Grandpa raised his pigs. See it in the real estate photo here. It is the building to the left of the barn. You can see the pear tree in the photo. If you look at the picture of the pear tree in last week’s blog, Remembering the Orchard, you can just see the remains of the old scalding trough.
Hog butchering was a fall event in many cultures, including the north central Europe from which my great grandparents emigrated. The Waschkes must have carried the tradition of the community event over from Germany.
My grandfather, Gus, was at the center of the event, which occurred after the temperature began dipping into the lower forties overnight, cool enough that meat could be cooled without refrigeration before it began to spoil and early enough that cured bacon, ham, and sausage would be ready for the holidays.
Pigs were fed on kitchen scraps, cull or spoiled fruit and vegetables, and skim milk, all by-products that Gus could not sell to his customers in Bellingham. Before refrigeration was common, whole milk was an unsaleable because it spoiled quickly. Dairy farmers any distance from markets sold only cream or butter. My grandparents, like most dairy farmers in the area, had a hand-cranked centrifugal cream separator. When electricity arrived, my grandpa attached an electric motor. He filled out the pigs’ diet when necessary with oats, wheat, corn, and barley he grew in the fields, but their critical role was to use the nutrients that could not be sold otherwise.
My dad, Ted, told me that when he was a kid, Deer Creek used to be choked with spawning salmon in the fall. Grandpa would sometimes take a wheel barrow and pitch fork to the creek and return with a load of salmon to feed to the pigs. The wasting flesh of spawning salmon from the creek was not fit for humans, but the pigs did not mind. Feeding spawning salmon was a bit risky because pigs slaughtered too soon after feeding on salmon tasted fishy. That meant only the earliest runs supplied hog salmon.
My dad used to say that pigs eat almost anything, but their fussy digestion will slow their growth if their fodder disagrees with them. My grandpa, Gus, cooked the pigs’ rations to improve its digestability. Every few days Grandpa would cook up a batch of mash, a sloppy porridge of whatever was available, heated until the texture began to smooth out and become more digestible. Skim milk was often the liquid, but after refrigeration arrived, water was more common.
Hog mash was usually unappetizing, to say the least, but I remember fishing a cooked potato out of a batch of mash and eating it. The mash was just rough cull potatoes boiled in plain water with lots of dirt mixed in, which made an interesting seasoning. I could not have been more than five years old and I thought the potato was pretty good.
The scalding trough
Grandpa built a heated trough that he used both for cooking mash and scalding for butchering. The trough was about eight feet long and three feet wide. It was made from heavy galvanized sheet metal bent into an elongated U. The ends of the U were thick fine-grained first-growth cedar slabs that looked as if Grandpa had split them out with a froe and shaped them with an axe and draw knife. The sheet metal was nailed to the wooden ends and the joints sealed with tar. The trough sat on top of a concrete firebox with a low brick chimney for a draft at one end and an opening for stoking the fire at the other.
A few years ago, I demolished the old firebox. Dad had already salvaged the sheet metal of the trough to seal off a corner of a calf pen against the winter northeaster. The chimney bricks were held together with lime and sand mortar (no cement) and had fallen in a heap. The firebox itself was in fair shape. When I broke it up with the front loader on the tractor, I discovered that Grandpa had reinforced the fire box with steel water pipe, which held the concrete together in the heat from the fire.
On hog butchering day, Grandpa would fill the trough about half full of water and start a fire under it. Then butchering would begin. Pigs were scalded and scraped immediately after they were killed to remove the stiff and inedible bristles while preserving the skin which gives flavor to bacon and ham and breaks down into collagen that gives the characteristic taste and texture to many pork dishes.
Like most kids, I was a blood-thirsty little guy and I took in the butchering process with relish, but I won’t go into it here. My grandpa could kill and butcher a hog without flinching, but I saw him treat those same hogs with tenderness as he took care of them. He would suffer himself before he would allow the animals in his care to be hurt. Slaughtering was a fact for homesteaders and kindness and compassion in the face of gory necessity is both contradictory and endearing.
The organ meats and innards were divided up among the neighbors who helped with the slaughter. All together, there were often more than a dozen relatives and neighbors helping with butchering and sharing in the bounty.
The first day of hog butchering ended with the hog carcasses suspended head down from branches of the old pear tree. They hung on gambrels, wooden crosspieces with sharp iron hooks that secured the animal’s rear ankles, They were left hanging over night to cool before the next step. I’ll write about that some other time.
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