Hogs have long been an Appalachian staple
Hog Holler, Hog Branch, Hog Camp Branch, Hog Cane Branch, Hog-eye Branch, Hogback Gap, Hogback Holler, Hogback Knob, Hogback Ridge, Hogback Township, Hogback Mountain, and Hogback Valley. In addition there are six sites in Western North Carolina named Hogback Mountain. Proof enough, if anyone required it, that hogs are an essential part of the mountain landscape.
I’m not talking about the exotic European wild boar introduced at Hooper Bald in Graham County about 1910. (I’ve written about those critters and their ongoing environmental destruction elsewhere. If you’re interested in them, go to this address (www.smokymountainnews.com/issues/5_01/5_09_01/back_then.shtml.)
This time around we’re going to deal with the genuine old-time mountain hog in all his glory. By the time we conclude, you’ll know more about mountain hogs than you ever wanted to know.
In his excellent study Where There Are Mountains: An Environmental History of the Southern Appalachians (2000), Donald Edward Davis describes the history of hogs in the mountains. I have summarized Davis’ findings and added a few touches.
First there was Christopher Columbus, who brought hogs to Cuba in 1493. Then there was Hernando De Soto, that swashbuckling marauder, who brought 13 sows from Columbus’ original Cuban stock into the Tampa Bay area of Florida in 1539. By the time De Soto and his men arrived in the general area of the Smokies the following year, he was driving more than 300 swine across difficult terrain from one Indian village to next. This may seem to be an extraordinary precaution against not having pork to eat in a strange land, but it’s true.
Davis surmises that some of De Soto’s hogs probably escaped, but he also suspects that most were killed off by the wolves, mountain lions, and Indians. Instead of a few hogs escaping from De Soto and becoming the feral population of the mountains, as some maintain, Davis thinks most were derived subsequently from Spanish colonies to the south.
Traders coming up the Indian Path from Charleston and Savannah had established themselves and their animals, including hogs and cattle, in every major Cherokee village. The older Cherokee men and women didn’t approve of eating hog meat, but the younger members of the tribe thought it was just fine. Davis reports that, in time, the Cherokees as a whole preferred hog to cattle.
The early white settlers brought their own hogs. A prosperous farmstead here in the Smokies region in the 19th century might have displayed a log home, barn, blacksmith shop, springhouse, root cellar, corn crib, and chicken house. In all likelihood there would also have been a hog pen and a smokehouse, since pork was their primary meat.
Ed Trout’s Historic Buldings of the Smokies (1995) provides fascinating details regarding hogs pens and smoke houses. Again, I summarize with a few added touches.
The hogs ranged the woods communally most of the time so that their owners had to pay them little or no mind. In order to recognize which hog was whose when rounded up, each farmer’s animals were documented via distinctive ear marks; that is, various combinations of slits, notches, and holes cut into their ears while young. Rounding them up was part of the fun. Hog calling was a practical skill that some turned into an art form. Hog callings at Old Timers Day celebrations today are but a remnant of what once was a necessary skill.
Hogs were enticed into an awaiting pen in various ways. The most expedient method was to run a trail of corn up to and inside the opening. But Mark Hannah of Cataloochee Valley told Trout about another more sophisticated method.
“First, you catch a sow,” Hannah instructed, no doubt with a wink. After placing her in a pen with holes in the sides, he “would return to it and find pigs in there with their mother. We would close the holes in the pen and have them all caught up ready to mark their ears.”
Once inside the small pens, a hog was “topped off’ with corn or chestnuts. Not being able to move, it fattened up readily. Trout quotes one Cades Cove farmer who claimed to have “fattened his hogs ‘till their eyes swole shut and they couldn’t stand up.’”
Trout says that the hogs were “hit in the head with a hammer and bled” before being scalded, skinned and cut up. These killings usually took place in the fall (preferably “when the moon was waxing”) so that the meat wouldn’t spoil during the processing and curing. Hams, shoulders, side meat, and other delectable hog parts were hung in the smoke house for curing. A well-furnished smoke house would supply a family with meat for a year. It was such an important building that it was often the only one on the farmstead with a lock.
Through the years various hog-related stories and myths have inevitably arisen. Most have to do with the cleverness of hogs that have escaped to become legendary rascals. The most famous no doubt is Belial, a hog that Horace Kephart immortalized in Our Southern Highlanders (1913) after his friend Bob Barnett swore: “That Be-liar would cross hell on a rotten rail to get into my ‘tater patch!”
Then there was Olive Tilford Dargan, who moved to Swain County and wrote From My Highest Hill (1925). Part of her incentive in purchasing a particular plot of land west of Bryson City was the additional value attached to it of a “wild hog claim.” Dargan devotes an entire chapter to describing the difficulties of capturing even a single hog in the rugged mountain terrain. One of her neighbors who was capturing them for his own use remarks at the end of the chapter, “I reckon she’s got sense enough [now] to know that the woods full ‘o hogs ain’t wurth much to a woman.”
And then there is the ongoing argument among veteran hog connoisseurs as to whether the left ham or the right ham of a hog is the more tender and juicy. I’m a left ham proponent. This preference is based upon scientific observation. Watch carefully and you’ll observe that nine out of 10 hogs will lie down to rest on their right sides. This makes that side more fibrous and tough. Always ask the butcher at your local supermarket for pork cut from the left ham.
Editor’s note: This column first appeared in a January 2003 edition of The Smoky Mountain News.