I’ll admit—when I was a kid growing up on a Midwest farm, I never once said, “I wanna grow up to be a hog herder.” Cowboys were cool–TV shows like Bonanza kept us tuned in, and when we kids played in the pasture, we could imagine huge cattle drives where we fought against bandits, raging rivers, and coiled rattlesnakes.
Ironically, by the time I was ten or twelve I did perform hog herding. We shifted our pigs occasionally from hog lot to pasture or from our barn to my uncle’s hog house down the road. I learned several lessons: pigs are clever, they don’t fear farm dogs, and the sows can be aggressively protective of their young. One more thing—they move at their own speed (slow) unless they are escaping (fast) or until they reach a bridge (full stop). Sometimes we spread straw across the bridge on our lane—apparently Granny called it the “Hail Mary Bridge” because she said a prayer when our herd approached it. Prayers or not, I recall learning a few swear words on that bridge.
The pigs are gone, but my folks still live on that farm, and Dad recently reminded me of those times. He is a walking wiki-history of farm days past. Here are some of his observations:
-My grandfather and some of his neighbors once trailed 150 Hampshires 28 miles across open prairie and the frozen Iowa River. They covered the river ice with straw to provide a skid-free surface for the puzzled pigs.
-Gramps hated driving hogs to the town market or train depot. The pigs would get spooked by city sounds and kids with slingshots. Women terrified the pigs by waving their aprons to keep them away from their flower beds.
-Epic hog drives took days and required wagons loaded with food for drovers and livestock. Apparently a few drives were more than 100 miles long—especially when they took herds to Chicago’s Union Stockyards. Some drovers moved the pigs at night when it was cooler and there were fewer distractions.
-Uncle Berry had what it took to be a successful hog drover: patience. He’d talk in a soothing way or whistle to the pigs. “It’s better to outsmart a hog than to outrun him,” Berry said. “Too much cussin’ and pokin’ will get his head on the wrong end every time.”
-One spring day, a stubborn sow snorted past our scoop shovels and escaped to a forty-acre cornfield where she hid out and eventually farrowed eight pigs. That fall after the corn was harvested, neighbors helped us with a roundup and wild-hog hunt. That was some of the best roast pork I’ve ever tasted.
Dad speaks fondly of the old farming days, but I remember some tense times for us all when we tried to relocate stubborn hogs. They didn’t act much like pigs with personality—Wilbur from Charlotte’s Web or Babe from the movies. I think ours were influenced more by Orwell’s Animal Farm: “Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy.”
dan gogerty–guest comments from Rex Gogerty; (top pic from wilsonquarterly.com; bottom pic from pbs.twimg.com)