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Pigs

I tapped her nose to slow her down. Frankie stopped, snatched my stick, bit it in two. “Don’t tap on me” was a clear message.



FRANKIE WAS my very first pig, a white-belted Hampshire gilt I bought from Jim-Tom Warren. Frankie was my 4-H project that winter when I turned 13. She was a cute little critter, about half the size of my dog Jack—cute, except for that independent glint in her eye. I had built a board fence pen for Frankie in the pasture behind our house, built it myself, my first fencepost setting. It took Frankie almost three hours to demolish my fence. She appeared at our back door just in time for lunch. I spent the rest of the day rebuilding a corral while Frankie munched corn and watched me with a cynical eye.

I. Showtime

One of the 4-H requirements was to “show” my pig —show her in public, before a panel of judges. Young Frankie was in the gilt class at the Jefferson County 4-H Fair that summer. The protocol was supposed to be about the same as for models at a fashion show. Frankie was supposed to make the rounds of a sawdust-covered show-ring, presumably smiling at the judges.

The 4-H Pig Manual prescribed just how I was to “show” my Frankie. I could guide her around the ring by tapping her with a bamboo cane, I could use a “gate” (a light wooden shield, design included). Couldn’t touch her with hands or feet. No rope around her neck, either.

Frankie and I started training for the big show weeks before. Her pen was more or less square, but I figured that was close enough to a show ring. Peeled a maple sapling to make a guide stick. Talked at length to Frankie about proposed exercise.

Now, Frankie had been eating well these last five months. She weighed at least 150 pounds—a lot more than I weighed. She wasn’t fat at all, just lean, mean muscle. This once cute little piglet now sported a mouth like an alligator’s, equipped with four rows of gleaming white teeth. Her bright eyes now sported a malevolent look. Frankie was becoming formidable. My maple guide-stick lasted about a minute in our first training session. With my first tap on her right ham, Frankie’s curly tail dropped and she broke into an angry trot.

I tapped her nose to slow her down. Frankie stopped, snatched my stick, bit it in two. “Don’t tap on me” was a clear body-language message.

So, I built an official 4-H gate-guide. Pretty good carpentry, too; I just followed directions in the Manual. The gate was a trapezoid: two feet high, 3 feet bottom, 2 feet top. Handy handgrip. Frankie and I practiced with my fancy gate. Frankie was not that impressed, really, but went along with it without violence or even threat of violence. We went around and around in the pen, me guiding Frankie with that little wooden gate.

Finally came Show Day. Dad and I loaded a protesting, squealing Frankie into our Model A Ford pickup, drove to Mt. Vernon City Park, and unloaded Frankie into her holding pen. Lots of other pigs: Hampshires and Poland Chinas, Berkshires and Chester Whites, Yorkshires, Tamworths. Sows, boars, gilts, barrows. Big pigs. Little pigs. Fat pigs. Skinny pigs.

The boar show was first. Then barrows. Now gilts. Frankie and I were next to last in the gilt show. The boar show went smooth as silk; those older boys seemed to have trained their animals to perfection. Barrows sometimes a bit bewildered, but no attacks on the judges. The gilts ahead of us marched sedately around the ring.

Then came Frankie and I. Nothing sedate here. Frankie lunged onto the sawdust, stopped, tail raised on high, and glared red-eyed at the judges. My nudges with the gate brought forth a crescendo of grunts, then squeals. She finally broke into a trot, and so did my gate and I. We went around that show-ring not the required once only but three times. We got a white ribbon—probably for comic relief.

II. Mother Frankie

We built Frankie a palace, Dad and I, a palatial A-frame fit for a queen pig. We bred Frankie to one of Jim-Tom’s boars, and now in mid-March she was ready to farrow. I had studied the Book on arrival of little piglets, and so had Dad (our levels of pig experience were exactly the same), so now we were at ground zero. I prepped Frankie’s little house on the prairie, prepped for the grand event.

I put fresh straw on the wood floor. Hitched Ol’ Dan to the A-frame and skidded it to fresh pasture, close to the barn. Built a railing around the inside of the palace to protect the little piglets from Frankie’s bulk. Ran long extension cord from barn to a piglet-warming light bulb in the corner. And, finally, my trusty hand-gate. We were ready—Prairie Pig Hospital open for business.

Jim-Tom had predicted the date of big event, but Frankie hadn’t read the calendar. She showed no signs of approaching motherhood that Tuesday: no unusual irritability (just her usual red-eyed snarling), no excessive tail-twitching, no nest building.

Nothing Wednesday.

Nothing Thursday.

Nothing Thursday night.

Nothing at 3 o’clock Friday morning.

On my lst checkup Friday night, Frankie’s tail was twitchy. She was pawing the floor, tossing straw into a pile, oinking with intermittent panting. It was finally time.

Jim-Tom and the Manual had both warned me that a gilt could turn really mean when farrowing, so I rechecked my handgate—my only protection in that A-frame with Frankie. Plugged in the light and settled down to wait.

Frankie lay down on her side, gave one loud oink, and out popped a beautiful little white-belted piglet. I snatched it up, tucked it under the light in the corner, and managed to fend off the angry new mother with my handgate. We went through two more hours of this exercise, Frankie and I, with seven little piglets under the warmer. I cleaned up the mess, put in fresh straw, went home for a nap. Came back at dawn, and there were seven little piglets all in a row, nursing Mother Frankie.

III. Expansion

Dad caught a bit of pig fever with the arrival of Frankie’s piglets. He brought home Black Jewel, a pug-nosed Berkshire gilt. Got her from Harry Swift, Martie’s dad. We raised Jewel just as we had Frankie. We bred her to one of Jim-Tom’s white-belted Hampshires, and Jewel presented us with a big litter of white-belted, pug-nosed hybrids.

Frankie and Jewel were soon joined by three more gilts, and we were really in the pig business. listened to the National Hog-Calling Contest on WLS radio and practiced my own hog-call until it sounded good to me—and Frankie and Jewel would come running for lunch.

By the time our swine herd was up to 30 or 40, Dad decided it was time to automate. He constructed a couple of pig feeders, each with a dozen individual feed boxes. The old pear orchard had been abandoned long since, so Dad fenced this in, briars, poison ivy, snakes and all.

Came December 7, 1941, and Pearl Harbor, and Dad donned Navy blue. He left sixty pigs in the pear orchard. On a clear, cold night, we listened to the pear orchard pigs feeding. Each individual feed box had a hinged wooden cover— a heavy wooden cover. After grabbing a mouthful, a pig withdrew its snoot from box and the heavy cover flopped—Whack! Two dozen feed boxes flapping, all night long.

IV. Roundup

Pigs were ready to market at 200 to 250 pounds. In early March, Grandad says that Dad’s pigs are ready to harvest. Now these critters had spent their lives running wild in a 20-acre pear-briar-and-poison-ivy patch, with no contact with people. These were wild pigs. Wild, wild pigs.

We built a board fence corral and loading chute, got Harvey Bruce and his cattle truck, and half a dozen farm hands. We started at the far corner, pigs quite docilely driving before us until we got close to the corral, and then—alarm snorts!—and the whole herd of 50 pigs erupted, wheeled about and charged through our line. Granddad puffed big clouds of smoke from his pipe.

On our third try, we got 18 pigs into Harvey’s truck. Harvey says, “I’ve gotta go,” got in his cab and went. End of pig harvest for that day.

Yep, we did finally harvest the pigs, just few at a time, all but Ol’ Boar. Ol’ Boar was a good 500 pounds, and all mean. Ol’ Boar may still be rambling through the briars in the old pear orchard at Dix, looking for more snakes to eat.






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