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Butchering In The Red River Valley's PioneerDays


Janet Clow


In the Red River Valley there were many cattle,

But to butcher them in pioneer days was quite a battle.

Between man and beast, and often winter in full stride

Man prevailed and got both, the meat and the hide.


Now pigs were about the same, only not so hard,

The worst part about them was rendering the lard.

Even the intestines were washed and turned inside out

Because everything was used but the squeal and the snout. (1)


Today, in the Red River Valley most of us take preparedmeat for granted. It wasn't so in our grandparents pioneer days. When freshmeat was needed it took a lot of time and effort to get it.

In the early 1900's when the Red River Valley was beingsettled, many of the people were farmers who had their own cattle and pigs.Most of their meat was acquired from these animals. Of course, they stillshot wild animals and game in the winter, but it wasn't enough to feed thelarge families, which were prominent in those days.

There were no slaughter houses so farmers had to do theirown butchering. If their sons weren't old enough to help, the neighborswere called over to give a hand. The helpful neighbor was always rewardedwith a small portion of the fresh meat. There was a lot of preparation theday before "butchering day." Arrangements had to be made withthe neighbor if he was needed. If the farmer was going to butcher pigs,a barrel of water had to be ready so it could be heated first thing nextmorning. This was usually done by building bricks so that a 50 gallon barrelof water could set on it and a fire could be built inside the brick structureunder the barrel.

The farmers got up early in the morning, but on butcheringday they got up even earlier.First a fire was lit under the barrel of water,then the morning chores of milking and feeding the stock were done. At theappointed time they went to the pig pen and shot the pig with a 22 rifle.The aim was to shoot it in the head midway between the eyes and slightlyabove them. Then they jumped in the pen and stuck the pig with a sharp knifeas soon as possible. A 6" skinning knife was pushed in the throat oneinch between the ribs and cut downward toward the backbone then forwardtoward the head. This was done so it would bleed well. Next, the skin wasopened at the center of the hind leg Just above the foot, and the tendonswere pulled forward. The hocks of the gambel, were inserted until thesehooks engaged both tendons. A single tree was used as a gambel in thosedays. The pig was hoisted into the air about ten feet by pulling the rope,that was fastened to the other side of the single tree, over a pole thathad been placed between the crotches of two trees that had been placed closetogether. A couple of strong men could do this because it went through apulley that was set up as a block and tackle. It was then moved to the centerof the pole so it hung directly above the barrel of scalding water, to whichwood ashes had been added to help loosen the hair. The pig was lowered intothis water by the same block and tackle, It was dunked into the water severaltimes, only leaving it in the water five minutes. The water was kept asclose to 145 degrees as possible by adding water from a boiler that waskept hot on the wood stove in the house. They scraped the hair off as fastas possible with a six inch curved skinning knife. After the hair was scrapedoff, the dirt was washed off by rinsing the carcass with warm water. Theythen inserted the knife where they had struck it and cut up through thefull length of the breastbone in the center and then started at the otherend and cut down through the hams. Sometime the saw was used to divide thepelvic bone. They cut down the median line of the belly until this cut joinedthe split breastbone. The intestines rolled out and hung there by theirown attachments. The bung was taken out by cutting it free from the fatof the back and kidneys, and discarded. The intestines were pushed downslowly but firmly until they loosened from the back. The heart and lungswere removed and the entire offal was pulled out of the carcass. The gulletwas cut free. The carcass was washed and rinsed in cold water, and the leaffat was pulled out. Next, the head was cut off. The split carcass was lefthanging for 24 hours. If the butchering was done during hot weather it wastaken down and hung in the ice house.

The internal organs were taken care of as soon as possible.The liver was out free and the gall bladder removed. The small upper endof the bladder was lifted with the thumb and finger and the bladder peeledout. The heart was cut through the auricles. The tongue was removed at itsbase. All three parts were promptly washed in clean water. The caul fatwas separated from the stomach with the hands. The small intestines wereremoved from the raffle fat by pulling the fat in one direction and theintestines in the opposite direction. This fat was saved for lard. It wasthoroughly washed and chilled in cold water. It was then hung up to drainand dry before being rendered.

The head was brought in and washed. It was soaked overnightin salt water. All the meat that could be, was taken off and broiled untiltender in salt water. Usually onions were added. Then it was set aside tocool. When the fat had floated to the top and hardened, it was easily removedand the meat was taken out and chopped or ground. The ground meat was seasonedand mixed with enough of the soup (the water in which the meat was cooked)to make the mass soft without being sloppy. This mixture was again returnedto the kettle and just brought to a boil. It was poured into small loafpans. Then it was put in a cool place to store. The head cheese could besliced easily and just fit on a slice of bread to make a sandwich.

The tongue was taken in as soon as possible and washedin cold water. Then boiling water was poured over it and it was peeled likean orange. Only two layers were taken off. Next, it was set aside to cool.When cold, it was put into a pan of slightly salted water and brought toa boil and simmered slowly for 3 to 4 hours. Spices, such as, bay leaves,whole cloves, nutmeg, black pepper, and root ginger were added to the water.When tender, the water was drained off and another layer of skin was peeledoff. It was pressed into a mold, such as, a loaf pan because it too wasused for sandwiches as well as a cold snack.

The liver was washed and rinsed in cold water and put ina crock or pan and set in the cellar to cool. This was the first of themeat to be eaten as they had no way of keeping it for very long. Generallyit was divided between the farmer and his helpers. The liver was eaten fortwo or three meals a day until it was all used up.

The heart was also cleaned in cold water and used up assoon as possible, but unlike liver, it was often stuffed and roasted aswell as being fried.

The German people made liver sausage. For the liver sausage,they boiled the meaty parts of the head, the heart, the kidney, and theliver. After the meat was cook, it was ground, seasoned, and pout into largecasings. The sausage, (size of bologna) were dipped in ice water and storedin a cold place - usually in a granary. The sausage was served cold.

As much of the intestines to be needed for casings forthe sausage was brought in and washed in warm water. A fresh smooth willowstick was gotten and bent in two and pushed into the intestines thereforecleaning out the goop from the inside as well as turning the casings. Whilethey were inside out they were scraped and washed and then turned again.A layer of skin was also removed from the outside. The willow stick wasinserted again and hung up to dry. The sausage that went into the casingswas made from the trimmings but if the family was very fond of sausage,the shoulder, bacon strip, and the loins were used. It was made of one-thirdfat to two-thirds lean meat. The meat was generally ground on a choppingblock, but some used a grinder. The chopping block did a better job. Theblock was round and about two and a half feet in diameter. There were foursharp blades on a steel structure above a round hardwood block which hadgears running around it. This block had two handles on the block to makethe block go around. When the meat was chopped a little, the block was turnedto get at all of the meat and chop it until it was chopped to the desiredfineness wanted. The ground meat was then flavored to taste with salt, pepper,sage, nutmeg, or sugar. It was put in the lard press which also served asa sausage stuffer because it had a tube leading from the bottom. The cleanedcasing was stretched over the tube so that when the meat was pressed downit was pressed into the casing. The casings had been cut into the desiredlength which was usually about 18" and tied by just twisting the casings.

The next morning after butchering, the two halves of thehog were brought in and laid on the table, one at a time. The three ribshoulder was removed by sawing between the third and fourth rib. A longham was cut off just behind the rise in the pelvic arch and the right anglesto the direction of the hind leg. The short ham was cut through the secondvertebra behind the rise. The thick loin was cut from the thin bacon stripjust below the curve in the backbone at the shoulder end and at the edgeof the tenderloin muscle at the ham end. The middle was laid skin side downand was sawed across the ribs. The back fat was cut from the loin by cuttingdown the side of the loin. There were three kinds of chops cut from thepork loin; those from the shoulder end, the center cuts, and chops fromthe ham end. The trimmed three rib shoulder was divided into a shoulderbutt, a picnic, and a plate, (the plate was cut up for lard or cured assalt pork with the fat back). The roast and other pieces were cut to suitthe size of the family. All the lean trimmings were saved for sausage.

Rendering the lard was a distasteful job, but it had tobe done. The leaf fat, back fat, and fat trimmings were cooked together.The skin was generally removed from the fat and the fat was cut into smallpieces before being pout into the kettle. This was usually done on the choppingblock but sometimes it was ground. It was often put in the oven at a lowtemperature to start it melting. Then it was put on top of the stove andcooked being stirred frequently. Care had to be taken to prevent small particlesof cracklings (the browned lard) from sticking to and scorching the bottomof the kettle. When they are nearly done, they will sink to the bottom.Lard had to be cooked sufficiently or it wouldn't keep very well. They allowedthe rendered lard to cool slightly before emptying the kettle. It was thenpoured through two thicknesses of cheese cloth or a cloth sugar sack intotwo or four quart crocks. It was stirred occasionally to mix air in andmake it whiter. The cracklings which didn't go through the cheese clothwere put into the lard press and pressed out into the tube and caught inthe kettle. This liquid was put back on the stove and heated through andstrained into the cheesecloth again. When cool, the lard was put down inthe cellar or the coldest place available.

Often the hams, bacon, and loins were cured and sometimessmoked so they would keep better, especially during the summer months. Amixture of salt and brown sugar were rubbed into these pieces and on theham a knife was inserted down along the bone and this mixture pushed in.They were left to drain in a cool place for three or four days. Next, theywere put in a brine (water with enough salt in it to float an egg) and leftto cure for two or three weeks. They were usually put in a large crock withenough water to cover the meat. A large plate with a weight on it wouldbe placed on top of the crock to hold the pieces under the water. Duringhot weather a mold would sometimes form on top. This was skinned off orelse a new brine was made and put over them. If any of these pieces wereto be smoked they were taken out after the curing process was completedand hung to dry for a few days.

Even the pigs feet were used. They made pickled pigs feetout of them. The toes and claws were removed. The tissue between the toeswas trimmed out and all hair and dirt removed. The cleaned, chilled feetwere put in the same kind of brine as the hams. They too were left for twoor three weeks and then cooked slowly in fresh water until tender. The chilled,cooked feet were then thoroughly chilled and packed in cold, strong vinegarup to three or four weeks.

The cattle also were penned off so they couldn't eat for24 hours before being butchered, but were given all the fresh water theycould drink. The animal was tied near the place where it was to be dressed.The front two feet were tied together and tied to a tree. There was alsoa rope around the neck and the head was tied securely in a position so thefarmer could stun the animal by a blow on the forehead with an axe or sledge.He then stuck the animal in the neck with a sticking knife so it would bleedwell. They started skinning the head first with a six inch curved knife.It was skinned around the face and down the neck. The head was taken off.The hide was split and skinned off, also the legs and thighs. The skin wassplit down the middle of the belly from the brisket to the tail and skinnedback until the side was well started. The abdominal cavity was opened bycutting down the middle of the belly. They cut through the brisket to thebreastbone and sawed through the breastbone. The pelvic bone was split.The caul fat removed. An incision was made between the large tendons andthe hock and a spreader inserted. The carcass was hoisted at least 12 feetfrom the ground with the aid of a block and tackle onto the limb of a tree,until the tail was even with the skinner's waist. Then they finished skinningoff the hide by starting at the tail, skinning the rump and hind quarters,and then down over the back by pulling and skinning with the knife untilit was all off.

Next, they loosened the rectum and small intestines andlet them drop over the paunch to permit sawing. They removed the liver andcut the gall bladder from it. They took out the heart, lungs and gullet.Then they divided the carcass into halves by sawing down the center of thebackbone. The carcass was washed and wiped dry with a cloth. The beef carcasswas left to hand overnight after it was drawn up as far as it could be tokeep it from dogs and wild animals. The next morning they cut the carcassin two cross ways. They brought the fore quarters in and laid them on thetable and cut it into sections of the plate, prime ribs, brisket, shank,chuck, and neck. These were then cut into roast, steaks, and stewing meatto meet the size of the family. Next, the hind quarter was brought in andlaid on the table. They removed the kidneys and fat. The hind quarter wascut into flank, loin, rump, round, and shank. These also were cut into piecedto suite the family's needs.

The tongue and the heart from the beef were handled thesame as the pigs.

The fat of the beef was not rendered like the lard fromthe pig, but nevertheless it was used. The suet was used for puddings andmince meat pies. The other fat was put on the roast and used in variousways in cooking.

The surplus beef was pickled. The poorer parts such asplate rump, and chuck were used. It was cut into five or six inch squares.Then it was put into a stone or wooden barrel. They packed the cuts of meatas closely as possible, making a layer 5 to 6 inches thick. Then they addedalternate layers of salt and meat putting plenty of salt on the top layer.They let this stand overnight. The next morning they added sugar, bakingsoda, and saltpeter in lukewarm water. Enough water was added so the brinecovered the meat. A board was put on tom of the meat with a weight on itto keep the meat down in the brine. This was left on for about a month tokeep cool.

The better part of the pickled beef was sometimes madeinto fried beef. After being removed from the pickle the meat was smokedand hung in a dry place or near the kitchen stove. It could be used anytimeafter smoking, but the longer it hung the dryer it became. The beef wassmoked in the same manner as the hams.

Because the farmers had difficulty keeping meat duringthe summer many of them canned their beef. They processed the canned beefin the oven because there were no pressure cookers in those days. Mixedground beef and pork were formed into meatballs and canned also, which madea delicious dish. Both the canned meat and the meat balls made their owngravy. During harvest this made a hearty meal for the threshers.

Besides the toil and hardships endured while butchering,there were also some times with very strange experiences.

Mr.Kneeshaw will never forgot the incident that happened.He had often heard his neighbors speak of their little English neighborand how he did things different than they did. The day he was called onto help this little Englishman, he was pretty excited and glad he couldlearn another way to butcher pigs. The Englishman had built a fire witha layer of brush and a layer of stones, alternately until he had a largepile. The brush was lit and burned until it was just down to ashes. He instructedthem to carry the stones and put them in a barrel of cold water to heatit. Mr. Kneeshaw couldn't understand why he hadn't built the fire nearerthe barrel. He grabbed one of the large hot stones with a shovel and ranas fast as he could to the barrel, as he thought the hotter the stone thefaster the water would get hot. He dropped the stone in and as he startedback he heard an explosion behind him. The stone had blown right out theside of the brand new barrel. Then he understood why the fire was builtat a distance from the barrel. It was so the stones could cool a littlebefore being dropped in. Mr. Kneeshaw never tried to heat water in a barrelwith hot rocks again.

Another incident that happened to him was the time he wascalled to help another neighbor. He usually helped with the killing butthis morning he was a little late. When he got there, he went right to thebarn and started shooting pigs. He shot one when the neighbor called andsaid, "We've already shot the pig we want to butcher!" The strangepart about it was the pig he shot didn't die as he hadn't hit any vitalparts. After that, he always asked which animals were to be killed.

Many unusual incidents happened to Mrs. Symington too.The one she remembers the most is one of the times she had made head cheese.She had put most of it in a mold but there was a little left over so sheput it in a cereal dish. One of the hired men came in and saw it on thetable and thought it was cereal and ate it. As head cheese is very richand fatty that poor man was very sick all night.

Another happening is the time they butchered a calf. Theyhad it strung up and partly skinned when its mother came out of the barnand came over to it. She said it actually looked like the cow was cryingand it wouldn't eat for two or three days.

Since the farmers of the Red River Valley still raise cattlewe may always have good, fresh meat on our tables, but looking back at thehardships our grandparents endured while getting their meat, maybe we takeprepared meat so much for granted.

When "Butchering Day" came to an end,

Everybody was happy, especially the men.

Even the women were pleased with themselves

It meant meat in the barrel and packed on their shelves.


The first few days the family only ate liver,

Most of the kids took only a sliver.

Next came the steaks and roasts and such,

It was hard to believe there could be so much.


Finally they ran out of fresh meat to eat,

It wasn't so good but they still weren't beat.

They had salted and dried pieces stored away,

Just waiting for that rainy day.


When the meat in the barrel continued to run lower,

Everyone had wished they had eaten it a little slower.

For they knew the work to bring in meat by the pound

Another "Butchering Day" was soon coming around.




Kern, Walter (Mr.and Mrs.) Pembina, North Dakota. Interview,January 8, 1972.

Kneeshaw, Percy (Mr.and Mrs.) Pembina, North Dakota. Interview,January 8, 1972.

Roberts, Martha N.B. Humboldt, Minnesota. Interview, January20, 1972.

Symington, Ida Hughes Neche, North Dakota. Interview, December18, 1972.

Symington, Lyle Neche, North Dakota. Interview, December18, 1972.



bina, North Dakota. Interview,January 8, 1972.

Roberts, Martha N.B. Humboldt, Minnesota. Interview, January20, 1972.

Symington, Ida Hughes Neche, North Dakota. Interview, December18, 1972.

Symington, Lyle Neche, North Dakota. Interview, December18, 1972.