Christmas nearly always means a wonderful time for children, but like some other holidays, it also means it is a special time for those of us who enjoy “pigging out.”
It is that time of the year when we tend to eat more than we should because there is so much to choose from. From ham to prime rib, and from apple pies to ice cream, most southern West Virginians nowadays tend to enjoy festive meals during most holidays. After all, there is Kroger, almighty Walmart and numerous other conglomerations stocked with plenty of goods — all transported here from, well, somewhere.
Naturally, it wasn’t always this easy in our Appalachian hills. Here’s a story from my youth that many people can identify with and, hopefully, others can appreciate.
The sound of John Wes Evans’ pickup truck coming through the coal camp alley was unmistakable. As children, we had heard that vehicle’s sound for all of our young lives, and the accompanying smell of “slop” was unmistakable.
The man stopped at nearly every house in just about every coal camp on Mud Fork, usually twice a week. As far as we children were concerned, he was the most popular man around, even though none of us knew who he really was or where he came from. All we knew was that when he saw us, from his hands would come what seemed like “tons” of bubble gum. He tossed it on the ground wherever we happened to be — playing in an alley or a yard.
We would always scamper to retrieve the Double Bubble gum, regardless of whatever else we happened to be doing. He was our weekly Santa Claus. John Wes, of course, had to be careful where he threw the gum, otherwise he could have accidentally run over an overly excited youngster darting after the “blow gum,” as we liked to call it. Though the sugary sweet was just a penny a piece at the nearby Island Creek Company store, pennies were once not easy to come by, especially if the coal mines were shut down or the men were on strike.
In nearly every yard, there was a five-gallon “slop bucket” hanging from a telephone pole, fence post or some other structure. You see, leftover food of any kind was disposed of by coal camp families by dumping it into the “slop bucket,” which always had a lid on it to keep flies and other insects from gathering, especially in summertime.
John Wes Evans would empty each bucket — from yard to yard — into several 50-gallon drums he had in the back of his truck. John Wes, as everybody called him, had numerous hogs to feed at his home near the mouth of Ellis Hollow on Mud Fork. One might say, he got the slop, we got the bubble gum, and everybody was happy. Of course, he also eventually got the pork.
Originally, when coal camps were started, miners and their families were discouraged from having vegetable gardens or doing such things as raising their own chickens, cattle or hogs — the purpose being to make families purchase canned goods, etc., from the company store using company script. For the miners’ families, in whatever the hollow may have been in Logan County and much of southern West Virginia, the company store was the Walmart/Kroger of today.
By the time I was about 10 years old, things had changed. Some people by then had hog pens located on the sides of mountains, and some raised gardens on those same steep hillsides. Usually, but not always in Logan County, leases were obtained from “land” companies in order for families to plant a garden or even build a hog pen. My great-uncle Albert, who had lost a leg and some fingers in a coal mining accident several years earlier, along with my grandfather Amos had purchased a pig and raised it to its then current “hog size.”
There was a time — long before coal mining — when mountaineers simply let their hogs run wild in the hills to rummage for themselves (remember the Hatfield-McCoy hog trial). After all, hogs will eat just about anything, including coal, which they consider as a delicacy.
By the time late fall or wintertime arrived, the mountaineer would round up his hogs and butcher them, usually preserving the meat in a “smokehouse” by smoking and then salting the pork before hanging it up in the usually crude structure. The meat would help sustain a family at least through the winter and spring; thus, a hog was a valuable commodity for any Appalachian family. The following account has to do with when families and neighbors shared the meat.
It was a bitter cold and ugly winter morning when I was awakened by the sound of gunshots, the noise echoing from one hillside to another. I knew it was too early in the day for any of the locals to be competing in the nearby “bottom” shooting competition like my father and others usually did on Sunday afternoons, normally with shotguns. The muffled sound of voices in the distance told this “kid” that something was different about the morning’s noise. I heard one more crackle of a loud gunshot, and there was then silence. Up from the bed I came, realizing something interesting was going on in the coal camp neighborhood.
I was kept from the murderous scene, but it turns out that the 500-pound hog had proven difficult to kill. Several of the neighbors had fired pistols directly into the head of the hog.
A sledgehammer had been slammed between the razorback’s eyes — still, he would not fall. The hog’s life would mercifully come to an end when a larger caliber weapon was used, or so I was told. After butchering, which took up the entire day, several families in the neighborhood — some who assisted in the butchering process — then would receive fresh meat for Christmastime.
Now, here’s a story the reader should not believe, but hopefully enjoy. Just don’t take it too seriously.
It seems a “city slicker” newspaper reporter was sent to Logan County in the early 1960s to report upon the numerous political wrongdoings that supposedly had transpired in our fair county. The first place the eager-beaver reporter went was the Chapmanville area where he interviewed a man and his wife whose children were at play in the grassy yard. The reporter could not help but notice a pig that lumbered down from the stairway of the two-story frame home. The pig appeared to have a wooden peg leg.
As the swine limped by, the newspaper man queried, “Was that a peg-legged pig I just saw?”
Answering yes, the gentleman began to explain. “He is a special pig. Believe it or not, he saved my youngins’ lives when we had a fire a few months back. The house caught fire; the kids were all upstairs, and the flames were blazing,” the man said proudly. “You know, that pig went upstairs and dragged every one of those kids outside of the house one by one, and each by their shirt tail.”
“That’s wonderful,” said the reporter, perhaps envisioning another country story for his newspaper. “Is that how he lost his leg?”
“Heck no,” the man replied. “We have just not had the heart to kill him all at once. So, we’re just eating him one ham at a time.”