Butchering and Soap Making

Feature Story October 2006
Butchering and Soap Making
(written for the Folklore book by Mrs. Israel L. ..Gertrude.. Heim of Lincoln, Nebraska)
From 1885 to about 1935, butchering was one of the main fall and winter jobs.  Corn husking usually began about November first, and each family managed to butcher one hog and the meat was used fresh, unless the weather turned warm, in which case the hams and shoulders were put down in a mild pickle.  Men who husked corn developed strong appetites for plenty of substantial food that would last from early breakfast through the chores and the hard labor of husking, stooping and scooping of corn.  And pork and potatoes were often the back-bone of such meals.  But the “main butchering” as it was frequently referred to, was an event.
   We belonged to a butchering group that had worked together fifty years or more.   We didn’t belong to it quite that long, as we weren’t old enough.  Those who helped us butcher were the J.S. Heim, S.F. Heim, and the Thomas Wuster families.   For years the John L. Parriotts helped and occasionally we had cousin Sarah Ulmer.  When I say “us,” that means John J. and Rosina Heim as well as the Isreal Heim family.  When we butchered at the S.F. Heims, it was Isreal and myself, Joseph, Jonathan, and later Melvin Heim’s.  In the later years we usually ate the noon meal with Melvin.  When we butchered at the J. S. Heim home, the Martin Ulmers, Tom Wusters and Isreal and myself helped, and in the later years, when Jake, Isreal, Martin and Tom were no longer young, Berton Williamson and Nelson Ulmer helped.

   On all these farms, the general program was pretty much the same.  The women made preparations for a “butchering dinner,” that was really something.  You came to a table loaded down with the substantials.  That is, meat, potatoes, other vegetables, noodles, several salads, pie, cake and canned fruit.  When you have arisen not later than four o’clock done chores and been at place of butchering by daylight, and worked furiously all that time something to eat is wonderful.  About ten o’clock a halt was called and a lunch of sandwiches and coffee, and sometimes sweet cider, was served.  Then the real dinner was n the table by one-thirty and you may believe everyone did their full duty by the good things set before them.

   In addition to preparing this big meal, the housewife also had crocks for the liverwurst to wash and scald, and the tubs to clean and get ready to mix the sausage in.  The wash house had to be cleaned and got ready for this big yearly event, and since this butchering usually took most of the week, some extra preparation s concerning washing and ironing had  to be made, as in all families there were school children to be considered.
   The children of the various families considered butchering day a sort of field day and numerous schemes were resort to obtain permission to stay home and partake of the dinner and be underfoot.  Rosina and Elma, when old enough to be of real help, would stay home from school and help with both lunch and dinner and then wash the many dishes that accompanied a butchering dinner.  The children who didn’t stay home had a wonderful time “piecing” on the remains of roast chicken, roast beef, pie, cake, etc., left from the dinner.

  The men folks had to prepare fuel for the kettles, get out the hog hangers, clean the kettles, sharpen the knives and see that h the rifle was I good working order, so that the morning of the butchering every thing was in readiness.  Each man had his special job, and all were skilled at their work.

   At our house for the first twenty years, until the death of Grandma Rosina Heim, we butchered two hogs for the grandparents and four for our family, and the second day was about as hard and hectic as the first day.

   The butchering equipment consisted of:  first, a sled to transport the animal killed in the hog lot to the fire place where the water was being heated.  Here the scalding trough was set up.  This trough had to be large enough to hold the largest hog so it could be turned over, and not too big as it would call for more hot water than could be heated at one time. Scalding a hog called for considerable know-how, as it was easy to over-scald or under scald a hog.  Every man owned a round scraper as well as several butcher knives which were kept for this purpose only.  When the hog was scalded and scraped it was hung on two connected poles made especially for this purpose.  After all the hogs were dressed the cutting up began. This was done in the wash house.  The water to scald the hogs was heated in the big iron kettles over an outdoor fire place.  Posts were set and the kettles hung on the third post between the two upright posts.  Fuel for these fire places was gathered from lots and barn yards.  Fence posts and knotty limbs would be saved for this express purpose. 

After the hogs were dressed they were cut up, the hams and shoulders were hung up to cool, the sausage meat cut and ground, the lard cut and rendered in the big kettles out of doors, the liverwurst meat was cooked in the outdoor kettles also, and the last chore of the day was to pick the meat off the bones, grind and cook it.  This last job was a particular one; usually here men took turns stirring with a steel paddle made expressly for the purpose.  It was a strenuous chore as liverwurst at that stage burned very easily.  After cooking the liverwurst was dipped into gallon crocks and the housewife, using a tablespoon, dipped the grease off the top of the crock.  Later when the liverwurst had cooled, this grease was heated and poured over the top. Paper was then tied on the crock and it was put in the cellar or cave and generally was all use before real hot weather.

   After cooking, the lard was put through the lard press and then run into a final container; usually five or eight gallon stone crocks.  These were the years before the days of vegetable shortening and lard was our one cash product of the butchering.  And whoever tended the lard kettle had to know his or her business or the lard could be either over cooked or under cooked and the sale spoiled.

   Grinding sausage by hand was another strenuous chore, the men taking turns.   When the sausage meat was ground it was put in to wooden buts, seasoned and mixed by hand, then was let set until the next day, when the house wife started “frying down.”  Seasoning sausage was a particular job and we usually brought the seasoning whole, and ground it in an ancient coffee mill.  One year, by some mischance, all spice berries were mistaken for the pepper berries and our sausage had an unusual flavor which was unaccounted for until we discovered the mistake.  The seasoning wasn’t bad, just unusual.  While the grandparents lived, we always stuffed some of the sausage.  Mother and Father prepared the “skins”.  A special attachment was put on the lard press and the smooth round skins of sausage were coiled in a dish pan or tub.

   This stuffed sausage could be put into a mild pickle or fried, sometimes we did both.   Frying down a couple of tubs of sausage was really some job.  At first the fired patties were packed in gallon jars and covered with lard.  Later we put the patties in glass quart jars with a small amount of lard, then sealed and inverted the jars.  Sausage thus preserved would keep through warm weather if it wasn’t used.

   During the years we butchered six hogs, brother Jake usually came he second day to help, as the later years the grandparents lived, the years were telling on them…They both worked hard, but we needed the extra help for the second day. The third day Iareal usually spent preparing the pickle.  He weighed and measured all ingredients and kept the recipes, changing from year to year until he had an almost perfect; not to salty and just he right amount of smoke.  When the meat had been in the pickle the proper length of time, it was taken out and hung in the smoke house.  Isreal always used the smoke of green maple wood.  It took years of experience and certain know how to smoke the mat properly; bacon especially had to be watched carefully.  Of all the families where we helped with butchering, we cut and cured the most bacon.  Bacon, eggs and pancakes were a standard breakfast with us for years.

   After the meat was cooled and put in the pickle, the sausage was fried down and put in the cellar, the soap grease was collected and the yearly soap boiling took place.  Sometimes I had as many as three kettles of soap in various stages of boiling.  It kept one or two persons busy the day of the boiling.  Then the kettles were covered and the soap left to harden over night.  ‘The next day, using grandma’s old steak knife the soap was cut out and carried into the basement, and when it was all done you ached from top to toe.  Then you had those kettles to wash and put away.  Meanwhile the men folks were putting away the butchering tools. The lard press, the sausage grinder, the scalding trough, hog hanger, the butchering sled, all had to be returned to their storage place to be ready for another year.

   The term “pickle” used in the preceding paragraphs, refers to the salt brine into which the fresh butchered and thoroughly cooled meat was placed.  The salt had to penetrate into the meat thoroughly first, then it was hung in the smoke house and smoked the proper length of time.  Each piece was then wrapped in paper, placed in cloth sacks and stored in cellar, storeroom or attic until wanted by the “cook.”  Thus preserved the meat kept through even the heat of summer.