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Ellenor Merriken was still brand new to Federalsburg, Md. when her husband’s mother (aka “Grandma”) called and told her to come on over and pitch in–it was hog-killing time. That longstanding Christmastime tradition on the Delmarva Peninsula worked something like an Amish barn-raising–neighbors would gather to pitch in and help while also enjoying a day of fellowship.

This was new to Ellenor. She had found her way to the Eastern Shore of Maryland only as an adult. She’d grown up mostly in Alberta, Canada, which is where she’d met and married a man named LeRoy Merriken. He just so happened to be a Caroline County native, and they moved with their children back to his home turf in the 1930s.

Western Canada had hog-killing days, too, but they worked differently. Out there the ritual had been regarded as men’s work, no ladies allowed. On this day Ellenor found out that’s not the way things worked in her new Eastern Shore home. Below is an excerpt from Herring Hill, Ellenor’s memoir about her days on the Eastern Shore.

December was hog-killing month and Grampy had four huge ones ready. Most of the neighbors had hogs, too, and each vied with the other for the honor of having the biggest hogs at killing time. 

The average would weigh between four and five hundred pounds. The neighbors helped each other willingly and considered it a real outing to get together to do up the meat. When it came their turn to kill, Grandma sent for me to come and help.

I was glad for the opportunity to be of some help and anxious to meet some of the neighbors. So I hurried down right after breakfast. Everybody was there ahead of me, hustling around to get things in readiness. Five men were already busy scalding and scraping off the bristles on the two biggest hogs while as many women were busy in the kitchen working on kettles, lard cans, and sausage grinder and stuffer.

All had to be pearly clean. The big iron, as well as the huge iron pot to cook the lard in, had to be clean and ready. 

I was not used to such a great fuss over the killing of a hog. We raised close to 100 head a year for market in Alberta, but butchered only one at a time for family use. … [In Alberta,] We considered it strictly a man’s job.

… All of a sudden I heard a commotion outside the kitchen and before I could turn around here came two men lugging a wash tub of entrails which they emptied right on the large kitchen table and the women set to work with much zest and conversation. 

Grandma handed me a knife and told me to start working on the gut fat. Before long. I felt need of some fresh air and out I went, and right then and there my breakfast and I dissolved the partnership 

Hog Killing Scene with Sausage Stuffing Implement, Meat Grinder, and Sausage Crock from Wisconsin Historical Society

Hog-killing scene from a Midwestern kitchen

Grandma was real disgusted with me and ordered me to help with the cooking instead, which was more in my line. It was fascinating, however, to watch the women enjoying themselves scraping gut fat and cutting long strips of fat from the hide. 

Others were cutting these into chunks ready for the big lard melting pot. This took place over a wood fire. I finally got in the spirit of the thing by helping to cut up the meat for sausages.

Each one seemed to be expert at certain tasks, and one [woman] was considered the official scrapple maker. Scrapple consists of the tail end of everything not suitable for anything else. Heads, feet, kidneys, tails, and all the other scraps of meat are boiled together, then ground up, adding enough of the liquid the meat was boiled to boiled in to make a soft mush.

She kept tasting and adding more salt and spices from time to time, until it was considered just right, then gradually poured in enough cornmeal until the mixture was thick enough so the wooden paddle she used for stirring would stand straight up in the mush by itself.

LeRoy and Ellenor Merriken wedding photo

LeRoy and Ellenor Merriken wedding photo

When it was pronounced ready, all available pans were brought out, filled, and set aside to cool, later to be sliced and fried for breakfast as needed.

After much scraping and turning and soaking in salt water, the casings turned out pure white and we proceeded to fill them with one hundred and fifty pounds of ground sausage meat. This was done by attaching a long tin tube called a stuffer to the meat grinder.

Yards and yards of link sausage kept coming out of the stuffer until the big tub couldn’t hold it all.

About this time the lard in the big kettle outside was ready to be strained into several fifty-pound cans. The lard press was brought into action to squeeze the fat from the brown pieces of pork. This was called cracklings and emerged in round flat cakes after every bit of lard was squeezed out. This was considered a delicacy when added to cornbread or hominy.

There appeared to be enough pork chops, tenderloin, and bacon to feed a regiment, not to mention the huge hams and shoulders to be sugar-cured and later encased in cotton bags, then hung in the smokehouse to be enjoyed all year. 

It was quite an experience for me and a wonderful accomplishment for the rest in such a short time. They all seem so pleased with the result of their efforts and ready for the next hog killing.

–posted by Jim Duffy in December 2023 for Whimbrel Creations LLC/Secrets of the Eastern Shore. Thank you for reading!

LeRoy Merriken in his Canadian cowboy days

LeRoy Merriken in his Canadian cowboy days

NOTE #1: In the photo here that shows all the women working in the kitchen, you can make out the sausage-stuffing implement, the meat grinder, and the sausage crock. That photo is in the collection of the Wisconsin Historical Society. The photo that shows a man standing over a scalding pot is from a page titled “A Midwest Immigrant Chronicle” on the website German America. The photos of Eleanor and LeRoy Merriken were posted to the internet by family and loved ones visiting their obituary notices.

• NOTE #2: Herring Hill was published in 1969. I got my copy of while visiting the Federalsburg Historical Society & Museum.

NOTE #3: The title of the book is a reference to the historic home where Ellenor and LeRoy lived. My understanding is that it stands today just a little ways north of town. Here is the National Register listing for the property.

NOTE #4: LeRoy and Ellenor operated Merriken’s Feed Store for 25 years. Ellenor was a member of the Caroline County Farm Bureau, the Association of Country Women of the World, and the Homemakers Club. She was also an active member of the Federalsburg Senior Citizens Center. Ellenor died in 1990, at age 89.

One Comment

  • Mary Wilson says:

    Thankyou for bringing back the memories of hog killing. My grandparents raised and sold hogs on a farm on bethel road just north of Willard’s,Maryland. I was allowed to watch but not get in the way.

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