Nearly a half century ago – that sure sounds like a long time, I’ll just say it was 49 years ago that I was part of unique family gathering. A gathering that was not my family, but one that I was invited to be part of for a day. It took place at Oak Hafer’s family farm out Proctor road.
It was December 1966, that I shared in a family tradition that was once much more common in the area, butchering day. Now, before you wonder why I called it both a family gathering and butchering day let me tell you about that cold day long ago.
A small Honda motorcycle was the way I got around back then. I rode it, spring, summer and fall. And yes, in the winter time also. It was on Christmas break when my friend Pete Day and I decided to take his uncles invitation to help out on butchering day. We traveled out Route 7 to where Limestone Road went up over the hills. We traveled along the narrow ridge road until we came to the home of a friend, Jay Dobbs. We decided if we ever wanted to feel our fingers again we should stop and pay him a visit before continuing on to his Pete’s uncle’s farm.
After a while, we began to feel all our fingers and toes once again. Luckily, they moved and I still had ten fingers and nine toes, just kidding. After warming ourselves we set off for Proctor by way of Newdale. We hoped we could make it before anything froze and fell off along the way. If you are wondering, we both still have all our fingers and toes today so you won’t have to wait in suspense if we lost them along the way.
Pete was lucky he didn’t lose any toes, he didn’t wear any socks while riding a motorcycle in late December. Truth was not wearing socks was cool in those days as long as the teachers didn’t catch you. We figured the teachers should worry more about what was in our heads and not on our feet. Teachers were smart enough to worry about both I learned later in life. Looking back 49 years, riding without socks in thirty degree weather, well that may not be the best way to be cool, no pun intended.
After a long cold ride, we arrived at the Hafer farm. Family members had already begun preparation for the day’s work. Butchering is best done when the weather is cold and the ground is frozen. It is also important the air has a cold crispness. If it does the meat will quickly begin to cool. Meat that has cooled properly will not spoil. It also becomes firm, making it easier to cut.
On that day, two pigs were going to meet their destiny, pork chops, sausage and Christmas Ham. Now, for those of you who think butchering is not a good thing, I am glad your sausage and pork chops grows on trees and harvested at the peak of freshness. For the rest of us, we know raising livestock is part of life. You may not want to know the details, but you know that hamburger you had for dinner last night once moooed in a field. It did not grooow in the field.
Butchering day had brought together the family to help with the job. Butchering your own livestock is hard work and needs lots of coordination to get done right and quickly. Family members often have a specific job to perform each year. Someone needs to drive the tractor and carefully lift the hog on the pig pole. Someone else needs to keep the knives sharp for those doing the butchering. And perhaps most important of all, is the person who puts the animal down. It has to be done quickly and correctly.
My job that day? Keep the fire going and get the water in the barrel boiling. In other words, don’t get in the way of those who know what they were doing. If you have ever been part of butchering hogs you know there are two ways to deal with the hide of the animals, scrapping and skinning. The fire I was tending, heated a barrel of water where the hog would be dipped to help loosen hair, so the skin could be scrapped clean.
Finally it’s time and everything is ready. Tables are set up. Knives cleaned and sharpened are laid out neatly on the table. Water in the barrel was steaming hot in the cold air. It was time, time the first hog was to be put down.
It only took a moment and it was done. After that it was like a well-choreographed dance routine. Everyone knew their jobs as they moved quickly to do their part in the task. Before long the hog was raised high on a pig pole behind a tractor. Slowly it was lowered into the hot water. Every few minutes it was raised and a test scrapping was done on the hide. Finally it was decided it was ready. The man on the tractor carefully raised the hog and moved it to where others could begin their work. Without a word the men got to the task of scraping hair from the steaming hide.
I tried my hand at scrapping, but I was too slow and did not do a good job. I turned the scrapping knife over to someone who knew what they were doing. The task need to be done quickly and cleanly. Something only experience could give after doing the task many times before. There was no lost time or motion. Each member of the family knew what they were doing and never missed a beat.
I never realized it at the time, but I was privileged to be part of the Hafer family’s tradition that year. A gathering of family members performing a job that provided meat to help sustain the family for another season.
It was not the last time I helped to butcher, but I remember that time because it was the first. I now realize it was more than butchering of an animal to provide food for a family. It was part of a time in our past when families came together in fellowship to work together performing an important job.
At days end the tools were cleaned and put away until the next time they were needed. The barrel of water was poured onto the ground, cooled and froze. Inside the house, family members laughed and enjoy each other’s company as they talked of the day and the hopes for the year to come.
With the work done and daylight heading towards the western horizon, Pete and I fired up our motorcycles and headed towards the warmth of home. That was a long time ago, but Pete and I still talk of that day. We remember the cold, his lack of socks and being part of the Hafer family gathering as I look back Through the Lens.