Hawg-killin’ Day

by Don Erwin

I recall it like it was just last week. It was early Saturday morning in November 1949 on the farm in southeastern Kansas. We had had had our first sprinkling of snow, and I was in my upstairs bedroom snuggled under several of my Mom’s quilts. About 5:00 AM I dreamily heard some clanging in the kitchen below. It sounded like Dad starting a fire in the big upright wood stove, but I just rolled over with the thought that since it was Saturday, and the corn and soy bean crops were in, I would be able to sleep in. My little dog Duke, asleep under the covers with me, heard the noise as well, and began to excitedly lick my face. He seemed to know that this was not just an ordinary Saturday.

“Get up boy, it’s hawg-killin’ day!” my Dad yelled up the stairs.

I had been to the late movie in town with my buddy Jim Lour the evening before, and it took a few moments to come fully awake. Then I remembered…it was time to butcher Mom’s pig. Dad liked pork, and although at this stage in his life he was not raising any livestock on the farm to sell, we did raise one pig annually for our own consumption. Actually Mom raised the pig. Dad would buy a young piglet in mid-summer, usually about a month old and weighing about thirty pounds. Mom would then feed it kitchen scraps and leftovers, plus corn from our own harvest, and after about four months or so it would weigh somewhere between 350 to 400 pounds.

“Get a move on boy!” I was fully awake now. I knew from experience that I didn’t want my father to come up the stairs to personally get me out of bed.

Dad liked to butcher during the late fall. We, like most farm folks at that time, did not own our own freezer to keep our fresh meat in, and would instead rent a “locker” in a cold storage facility in town. Dad not only slaughtered the animal, as most of our neighbors did, but he also cut up and packaged the meat as well, and this was obviously better done in cool weather.

Butchering a 300 to 400 pound hog on the farm, however, is not a one-person job. My brother Clifford and his family lived a few miles north of us, and he and his boys would come over; Clifford to help Dad, and the boys—aged ten and twelve—to observe and experience the manly art of hawg-killin’. Of course it was traditional to share half of the liver and a sizable hunk of pork with Clifford, and in turn he shared when Dad and I helped slaughter his annual yearling-steer.

Now the first thing you have to have for a hawg-killin’ is a good fire. There are two reasons for that. First, without one your volunteer help may get the shivers and go home, but the primary one is that it is necessary to have a lot of scalding water to make it easier to give the hawg a “shave.” And that was where I came in. Well before Clifford and my nephews were to arrive I had to start the fire under the fifty-five gallon oil drum that Dad and I had prepared the previous afternoon. We had collected a number of flat rocks from down by the creek, and had stacked them so that the barrel was a foot or so off the ground. We then filled the barrel about three-quarters full with water. We had also gathered a sizable amount of wood to fuel the fire. It was well-seasoned hardwood that we had cut the year before from our own hedge rows.
Dad had instructed me – in great detail – on how to properly place the kindling and wood in order to get the hottest fire, and by the time Clifford and his boys arrived about 6:00 AM the fire was going strong. But since the water was not yet boiling we took time out to eat a hearty breakfast that Mom had prepared. Since I was the “fire boy” I made a couple of trips during breakfast to the barrel to add wood and to see if the water was boiling. By the time Dad and Clifford had finished their second cup of coffee I was able to announce, “It’s beginnin’ to bubble.”

Next was the big event. All of us men-folk repaired to the hog pen, but Mom – even though it was “her pig,” decided to stay in the kitchen. We boys, on the other hand, couldn’t understand why she would want to miss the most important part of the butcherin’ process. Now Dad, while not unfamiliar with guns, did not own one himself, but he had given me a Model 34 Remington bolt action .22 rifle when I was ten, and this was what was to be used to dispatch the hawg.

One should understand that there are two primary things to remember when you are getting ready to shoot a swine. First, that hawg, when ready to butcher, is a whopping big animal, and if you don’t hit it square between the eyes the bullet can just daze it long enough for you to climb into the pen with your butcher knife. If he happens to wake up just as you’re getting ready to slit his throat you could be in a heap of trouble. Should you get caught up side of the head with one of those flailing hooves you might come out worse than the hawg. And the second thing to remember is that your he-man-me-hunter reputation will suffer greatly if it takes a second or third round to dispatch the animal. But as it turned out Dad’s aim was flawless.

It really starts to get messy after the well-placed round is finally squeezed off. The porker starts to squeal and squall until it sounds like several freight locomotives blowing their steam whistles all at once. At the same time the hooves of old hawg are slinging hog-waller mud in all directions. If the .22 round has been well placed, however, this lasts only a few seconds. When old hawg finally quieted down Dad cautiously got into the hog pen with his eight-inch-bladed knife and slit the still-quivering animal’s throat.

Next the carcass of the four-hundred-pound hawg had to be moved from the hawg pen to the barrel. Dad did it the easy way by using a two-wheeled A-frame behind his little Case tractor. Old hawg was hoisted by his rear hooves with a block and tackle attached to the A-frame, and Dad then backed the A-frame to a point that had the porker dangling above the boiling water. He was dipped in the boiling water for a predetermined amount of time, and then the A-frame was moved forward and the carcass lowered so that the front hooves just touched the ground. Dad and Clifford then proceed to shave the carcass. Actually, the hawg bristle is scrapped off quite easily with butcher-knife blades. They started from the top, which was the animal’s backside, and worked down. Sometimes there is a tough spot that requires a second dipping.

It was then about 9:00 AM, and time for the actual butchering. Dad drove the tractor and the A-frame, with old hawg still suspended, over a previously dug hole in the corner of thecornfield behind the barn. Hawg was then eviscerated (gutted for you hunter types), and the result – except for the liver, but with the head – was buried by the three of us boys. Back in the yard old hawg was lowered to a shop table covered with a clean piece of oilcloth, and Dad and Clifford proceeded to cut the carcass up into the various major cuts. The bacon sections and the hams Dad had cured later in town, but the rest they cut into pork chops, pork steaks, spareribs, and pork loin. As the various cuts were finished the meat was wrapped in butcher paper in two to four pound packages, ready to be transported to the locker. By dinner time (lunch time for you city folks) the task was completed, and Mom had prepared the traditional liver and onions meal. We sat down to eat, as Duke happily chewed on a fresh bone outside.
And that’s how it was done at hawg-killin’ time down on the farm.