Folks across the Southeast recall stories and memories of the American guinea hog, a rare and important heritage livestock breed native to the Southern United States.
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I get frequent emails from new Guinea Hog breeders wanting to know where they can find information about the breed. Up until now, they really couldn’t. I saw the need for this information because I needed it myself.
The Guinea Hog is a rare heritage livestock breed. It’s much smaller than those raised for commercial production, but it’s still a productive working breed that’s livestock, not a pet.
There was a time when North America produced hundreds of varieties of apples, squash, and tomatoes. Many families and communities had a variety that they passed down through saved seeds year after year. Likewise, there was a wide variety of livestock breeds, each adapted to a local community.
Like climate change, rare breeds such as the Guinea Hog are at a tipping point that can go either way. What we do at this juncture in time is important. Individual breeders make the decisions, with the needs of the specific breed in mind. Each individual animal, as well as the overall herd, holds unique genetic information. Once lost, it can’t be recovered. Additionally, The American Guinea Hog Association registers hogs to preserve the breed.
When I discovered that there were no books written about the American Guinea Hog, it seemed natural to learn as much as I could about the breed’s history. I tracked down every lead and asked question after question. One interview led to another.
The following stories illustrate how valuable the Guinea Hog was to families throughout history, how it kept the families fed during the cold winters, and how neighbors came together to help each other in the process.
Billy Frank Brown, born in 1942 in Poplarville, Mississippi, has raised landrace livestock breeds his whole life. He lives on the family homestead, Sebron Ladner Place, which was first settled by his grandfather in 1811. These breeds, native to and adapted to the land, include Pineywoods cattle, Pine Tacky horses, Gulf Coast Native sheep, and local hogs. The animals were notched or branded to identify ownership. After that, with the exception of horses, they were allowed to run in the woods. Billy Frank told me that he and other neighbors earmarked their pigs, and those marks were respected. If someone came across a sow that had a bunch of unmarked pigs, they’d mark them accordingly with the right person’s mark, instead of taking any unmarked pigs for themselves.
Billy Frank also told me about butchering time at Cowpen Creek. It was a community affair.
“We cooked with the lard. … They say, you know, it ain’t good for you, but my mama lived to be 94, and she ate salt meat every day. Every morning she was going to have some salt meat – bacon, you know.
“Lard makes good biscuits. My wife makes biscuits with it, and I cook out about a gallon every spring of the year. We use it all year long. We used to make sausage and cook it and store it in the lard to hold during the summer. They didn’t have refrigerators back in those days.”
I was fascinated with Billy Frank’s story about covering sausages with lard to keep at room temperature with no refrigeration in the Deep South. My mother grew up in Illinois in the 1930s. A few months before she passed away, she told me a story from years ago about how the neighbors came over to help her father process a hog. My mother’s job was to pour the lard over the sausages. Then the covered meat was stored in a hole in the ground.
Billy Frank continued: “You cook meat, your meatballs and your sausage balls, and they’d just keep in that lard, you see, in the pantry. You had to put it in quart jars and just pour it in there and save it, you know?
“Usually from the smokehouse, you’d smoke sausage. They didn’t last long. They’d keep them and the bacon on the rack in the smokehouse. We ate them up fast. Usually, we didn’t have much pork during the summer. We’d have a hog killing in the coldest day of the year, like Thanksgiving or Christmas. Kill about eight hogs and smoke the meat, you know. And it’d last until up in the spring of the year.
“Everybody and his brother came and helped. They’d go to other people and other places and do the same thing at their place. You’d have a big hog killing. That was in the 1950s. Then they started coming out with these deep freezers, you know. The people started putting their meat in the deep freezer. I can remember we didn’t have a deep freezer until sometime close to 1960.”
Don Bundrick, born in 1954, grew up in Rabun County, Georgia. On a visit to my farm to see my Guinea Hogs, he recalled how farmers raised their hogs in the 1960s:
“The farmers turned the hogs pretty much loose in the woods, especially those that had bottomland with acorns. Even when I was a grown man, my uncle would turn them [loose] into a cypress bottom. I asked what they were eating, and he said, ‘Pretty much whatever they can find.’ … And they’re very creative in their browsing habits. I remember that after turning them loose all summer, people would round them up in fall and winter.
“In Rabun County, they were raised in the woods and driven across the river into South Carolina, where they were traded for vegetables. The next county had huge vegetable production until it transitioned to apples. I remember talking to some of the old-timers. They told me that as children and young men, they drove hogs across the river and down at the very end of the Chattooga River into South Carolina, where they would trade.”
Don also shared memories of butchering time in the 1950s and 1960s: “Groups of families butchered together to make it easier. Generally, the hog was shot in the head, dragged over to a big syrup cauldron, and scalded and scraped to get the hair off. Then, I remember they hung [the carcasses] in the trees. The women took over then, with their sharp knives. They would render everything on that hog. Everything. My grandmother was famous for her sausage. There was a rumor that … people would come over and get her [sausage] recipe for their business. That is a sore subject for some of them.”
Hogs Around the Home
Noah Maloy’s family has lived in Jefferson County, Florida, since the early-to-mid 1800s. His grandma’s grandfather was born there, and the property has been in his family for generations.
“Growing up,” he told me, “we didn’t have electricity, and we didn’t have indoor plumbing or anything like that. So that’s the way I grew up until the late 1960s. What we had, as part of making ends meet, was our hogs and our hog claim. A ‘hog claim’ means that you have a registered mark that you put in your hog’s ear. The mark is registered at the courthouse. Then what happens is, you pay taxes on the amount of hogs that you claim you have. If you claim that you have 25 hogs, then you pay taxes on that. And people always had more than they claimed they had. The way it worked for us is that our hogs mainly went between the St. Marks River and the Wacissa River. And the cows too.
“In the early days, and before I was born, in that part of Jefferson County, you didn’t have any roads or any highways. What you had were old railroad beds, and you had kind of like pig-trail roads that went through the place. They didn’t just have Guinea Hogs. A lot of what we had were called ‘Pineyrooters’ (or ‘Pineywoods Rooters’). They had a little bit different body type than the Guinea Hogs.
“They would run wild, and a lot of them would stay around home. Out at the old corn crib where the barn was, you could go out there, and there was a hole cut in the door. There was a chain that went through it, and you hung it on a nail. That was the latch for the door. You would go out there, and you could rattle that chain in the evenings, and the hogs would come out of the woods and come up there. And you would throw them some corn. By doing that, they kept coming back.
“The Guinea Hogs are really good grazers. I remember the older people calling them either ‘small-boned’ or ‘big-boned Guinea.’ I don’t know how you got one or the other. Maybe they were just distinct body types. I don’t know.
“I was pretty young back then when my grandpa was living. I grew up in a time when he was like 86 years old. But from the time I was little, I remember him going out and getting his horse. He would fill his saddlebags full of corn, and he would go out in the woods. At certain spots where the hogs were, he would throw out corn. And when I was growing up, I would go out on horses too. I would catch hogs and cut (castrate) the boar hogs and mark them. The older people would cut the tail off a barrow (a hog castrated before maturity) so you’d know he wasn’t a boar hog. A lot of the older people talked about Guinea Hogs. They were easily kept up. You didn’t do much with a hog.”
James Priest, born in 1934, had a long career at Lockheed Martin Corp. When he retired, he continued to keep a 4-acre organic garden in Georgia. He was still maintaining it at age 79, but he slowed down a bit after a traffic accident. James hadn’t seen a Guinea Hog in more than 40 years until he met one at a friend’s house in 2015. By 1954, they were just that uncommon.
James became head of the household at an early age. He was only 14 years old when his father passed away. He supported the family by selling Guinea Hog feeders, raising rabbits, growing out bull calves, and working at a dairy farm when he wasn’t in school. He remembered hog butchering.
“When it came butchering time,” James explained, “we would go from house to house and start butchering each other’s hogs. We would butcher about twice a year. We had all of the provisions when it came to butchering them. I was just a kid when my daddy was living. We butchered them all by ourselves at our house. But when he passed away, I had help from other people in the community at butchering time.
“I had a smokehouse. My daddy had one too, and we used to keep it full. It was huge, I guess about a 16-by-16-foot smokehouse. Our hams and shoulders were salted down. They stayed in the salt for so long, and back then you would cover them up with salt. Then you would take them out of the salt, wash them off, and hang them up. A time or two, in my daddy’s later years, we did sugar-cure a couple of times.
“My mother took and made pressed meat, souse meat, out of the head. That’s good stuff. We had a family that lived pretty close to us. Him and his wife would always come and help us butcher, just to get the feet, ears, and anything else. They were such a good couple and good workers, you know. … Great neighbors.
“We kept the lard. We’d cook it out. My mother would trim the fat meat off, and we would cook that stuff out and can it in ½-gallon cans. And there would be crackling. We’d make crackling bread. … You put it in the cornbread and cook it. It’s a little greasy, but good. We’d grind the sausage, and my mama would can it in a jug and set it up on the shelf upside down to let the lard seal the sausage off and keep it fresh. So when we wanted sausage, we would go and get a can.”
Something Butchered, Something Blue
Freddie Brinson, born in 1950, lives about 50 miles south of Augusta, Georgia. He spent 31 years teaching history and had served on his local school board for seven years when we spoke in 2015. He talked with me about the blue Guinea Hogs the family owned and about butchering time.
“When I was growing up, we slaughtered the hogs at home, and almost everything that could be used was used. It was kept. But I can still smell the hog. … I can still smell that smell from the hot water being poured on to get the hair loose and scrape the hair off. We did it when I was very young, but my parents had been doing it for years, all the way back to that little blue Guinea Hog sow in the 1930s. That was the first one they had after they got married and started raising a family. We always slaughtered in the fall.
“It was common for families to have a smokehouse. [All the meat] was pretty much processed and then put in there. It’d hang for a long time. The meat tasted so different. … Even after it cured, it had a fresher taste than meat today. Just a completely different taste.”
“Well, you know, it don’t take too much to feed them. We built a big pasture for them in a wooded area where they could get acorns and run in the woods. And we just kept raising them. We bought a couple, and we just started keeping some of the females ’til we had probably 60 or 70 of them.”
– James Priest
“As time progressed, by the time I got to my late teens, I had my own little blue Guinea Hog sow. We had stopped butchering at home at that time. We took them to the butcher. We have a local slaughterhouse here. But we stopped doing that in my late teens, right before I started college. I remember that we would load them up and take them to be slaughtered.”
Excerpted from the award-winning book Saving the Guinea Hogs: The Recovery of an American Homestead Breed by Cathy R. Payne (Rose Garden Press). Learn more at Guinea Hog Books, and get in touch by emailing GuineaHogBooks@Gmail.com.
Pick Your Pigs: In this episode of the “Mother Earth News and Friends” podcast, Cathy Payne and Jeannette Beranger join us to discuss the perfect heritage pig breeds to bring onto your farmstead. Listen at Heritage Pigs.