In the winter of 1968 my grandmother Agnes sent me a letter from the farm. She knew about the menagerie of animals Alex and I had at our house in Menlo Park, California – ducks, chickens, roosters, and cats. So at the end of her letter she warned us not to go so far as to get pigs.
“Don’t you and Alex get any ideas even though I know from experience that baby pigs make great pets. Dr. Flaherty the veterinarian brought me one once. – Grandma”
People say that pigs are intelligent, and writers have immortalized ones with human characteristics – the sweet and radiant Wilbur in “Charlotte’s Web,” the three pig brothers and their nemesis the Big Bad Wolf, the politically symbolic animals in Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” the pig in the nursery rhyme, “Tom, Tom the piper’s son, stole a pig and away he run,” (said to be not actually a pig but some kind of meat pie).
One of my favorite literary porcine images comes from Gertrude Stein in her book, “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.” Writing in the voice of her longtime companion Alice, she says:
“Gertrude Stein had always liked little pigs and she always said that in her old age she expected to wander up and down the hills of Assisi with a little black pig.”
I don’t know if there were little black pigs on the farm, but in the days before supermarkets and cars and refrigeration, animals provided more than entertainment for the Hall family. My great-grandmother Lydia writes in her journals about the birth to death cycle of the farm pigs.
Thursday, February 12, 1914 – “Cold. Thermometer 8 ½ degrees below zero. Down to zero nearly all day. Pigs eleven in all came during the afternoon and evening. All were brought into the kitchen by the stove. All lively and doing well.” – Lydia Jane Hall
Saturday, March 21, 1914 – “Someone stole one of the little pigs last night, so it seems that thieves are about us.” – Lydia Jane Hall
Sunday, August 30, 1914 – “Ellsworth brought in a sick pig – died in the night – he thinks from eating sweet corn.” – Lydia Jane Hall
Wednesday, December 9 – 1914 – “Ellsworth and Andrew butchered two pigs in morning. I took the fat off the intestines. Agnes helped me. One pig weighed three hundred – the other two hundred.” – Lydia Jane Hall
People and their animals lived in close contact on the farms of the early twentieth century, and I suppose it didn’t pay to be sentimental about the future of a pig. But my mother never could stand the butchering and hid under her bed covers until it was over. My cousin Skip told me that even when he was growing up my grandparents sometimes kept pigs in the back pantry, the room you passed through on your way from the back yard to the kitchen. In this photo of my mother and her brother and sister, you can see behind them the door to the back pantry.
The pigs of my own childhood were kept far from the house. Grandma Hall gave us baskets of stale bread to feed them. We pushed the crusts one piece at a time through the slats of the pen. I loved the sounds they made as they ate our offerings, and can’t forget their unique smell, but I wish I could have seen those other little pigs on a long ago winter night staying warm and cozy next to the big black kitchen stove.
On Wednesday: Outbuildings #4 – The Chicken Coop