A Pig Tale

On her farm in Danvers, ELIZABETH R. CHOATEand her late husband, the publisher of the Boston HERALD-TRAVELER,maintained a wide assortment of domestic animals with whose habits they became increasingly familiar. This is the second of a series of papers to be continued into the winter.


WHEN my husband Bob and I first began living at our farm in Danvers, we decided to buy a prize Berkshire sow. Having located a blue-ribbon winner at a blue-chip price, we set off in our farm truck to fetch her. Our hopes were high as we rattled along the road to New Bedford, and when we reached the pig farm some seventy miles away, we were delighted with this handsome black mountain that was to be our very own. There was plenty of help on hand to load Sunshine onto our truck, and we started for home well satisfied.

Immediately things began to go poorly. We had a flat tire, it started to pour rain, and Sunshine voiced her resentment by emitting loud snorts from the rear of the truck. By the time we got home it was pitch-dark, our hired man had left for the day, and we were left alone to unload our five-hundred-pound treasure into the mud outside our pig house. Luckily, Sunshine was in a crate, so we were able to slide her off the truck with the help of a heavy rope and a pair of stout oak planks. By the time we had herded her into her stall, she was not happy, and neither were we. However, a hot mash for her and some supper for us improved tempers all around.

Three months later Sunshine prepared to present us with a litter of blue-ribbon offspring. Bob and I were all agog over this event; we bedded her down with fine straw and took over the accouchement ourselves. To our dismay, the closer Sunshine came to farrowing, the crosser she became. She ramped around her pen acting very ugly. But this was nothing compared with the way she behaved as soon as her first piglet was born, for then she turned into a quarter ton of raging fury. She chased Bob around the pen, snapping and barking until he wisely got out of there without benefit of the gate, just up and over the fence.

She became more and more ill-humored, and displayed no maternal instincts at all. She squashed every baby and didn’t seem to care. It gradually dawned on us that we had been had, or at least we had failed to remember the warning caveat emptor. The old-timers told us that the whole fiasco had been our own fault because we had not poured warm oil into Sunshine’s ears at the beginning of the birthing, but I bet that they are still laughing down in New Bedford at how they unloaded that little ray of light on us.

Bob and I were unhappy with Sunshine; we both liked pigs, but this one was not a nice character. Disposition in pigs is very important, because a big mean one like Sunshine can be really dangerous. All books on pigs describe the ideal temperament as quiet, gentle, and easily handled, while they rate the cross, vicious, or wild individual as highly undesirable. According to the official standard of excellence of the Berkshire, there was no doubt of Sunshine’s pulchritude; she was practically flawless in conformation. We soon sold her to a man who longed to show her at county fairs and win grand-champion ribbons with her. We tried to warn him that she had a nasty nature, but he was so dazzled by her beauty that he could not believe us. Eventually she did win a lot of prizes, but we never inquired how many piglets she raised for him. Maybe he filled her ears with warm oil and she calmed down in middle age.

After the Sunshine debacle we collected three amiable pigs rather at random. I have always preferred the lard type rather than the bacon or lean breeds, so the first one we bought was a cherryred Duroc Jersey called Rosie, who ended up by weighing around four hundred pounds. The second one was Violet, a black and white-belted Hampshire. She was somewhat more athletic in build and never grew to be as heavy as Rosie; nevertheless, she was a strikingly handsome pig. The third one was Daisy, who was an extravagance on our part. She was an elegant pedigreed Chester White, with a fine coat and intelligent face. Her legs and feet were strong, her tail nicely curled, and she was as smooth in conformation as one would wish to see. When we bought her she was just a young gilt, but later she grew to enormous proportions. We never weighed her, but she must have tipped the scales at more than five hundred pounds.

These girls were everything that well-behaved pigs ought to be; they gave us trouble only once, when they all disappeared from their yard. It isn’t easy to lose three big pigs like that without a trace, but we hunted everywhere and found no signs of them. We grew nervous, because most of our neighbors were market gardeners, and we had visions of what Rosie, Daisy, and Violet could do to a field of carrots or the like in a very short time. We also had an idea of what it could cost us in damages. We jumped into our car and visited everybody around us to warn them that the girls were on the loose. No one had seen them.

My little Sealyham, Maria, was not an idle barker, so that evening when she sat in our driveway yap-yapping, we went out to investigate. There, under a row of apple trees, lay Rosie, Daisy, and Violet, comfortably bedded down in a planting of pale blue German iris. The trees had just been sprayed with arsenate of lead, and the ground was covered with the little green apples of the June drop. This situation appalled us, for no matter how we urged them, the girls just lay there grunting amid the flowers.

Bob finally fetched our kitchen pail and rattled it in front of their recumbent snouts. To our relief, Violet staggered to her feet, followed unsteadily by Rosie and Daisy. We managed to push them back to their pen with the pail serving as a bellwether on ahead, and nailed the gate firmly shut for the night. Although they must have been full of a fearsome combination of arsenic and green apples, they seemed perfectly spry the next day.

Later we found the trail of their afternoon jaunt. It was small wonder that we had not been able to trace them in a hurry, for they had skirted the fields, crossed a swamp, and arrived through the woods at the orchard, where they had given up from sheer exhaustion.

ONE evening as he drove home from work, Bob was puzzled to find the traffic backed up in both lanes of the street outside our gate, with a loud honking of horns going on. Since he couldn’t see what the matter was up ahead, he got out and walked along to reconnoiter. There, in the middle of the road, was Daisy, all five hundred pounds of her. She was pretty confused by the noise of the horns, but it took Bob no time to get her off the street and back to her pen, all the while being cheered on by the drivers of the long lines of cars, who stayed to see the fun. Bob had a kindly way with animals and always made a habit of giving our pigs a handout of grain as he called, “Here, girls,”so when she heard his voice, Daisy trotted obediently along behind him, to the amazement of his audience.

Pigs are thought to be obstinate, which indeed they are at times, and the old saying, “as stubborn as a pig on ice,”is based more on fact than fancy. It has been my experience that they are uncooperative only when they are apprehensive or frightened, and that they are prone to go into reverse when their suspicions are aroused. A very simple solution, when time is pressing, is to put a basket over their faces, and back them up instead of trying to drive them forward. Bob had no basket in his car that evening, but when he got home he was pleased and amused by his success as a swineherd.

We raised several litters of thrifty piglets from these three girls. It was our custom to “hire in" a huge and well-mannered boar from Walter Murphy, who was then the Pig King of Massachusetts. Mr. Murphy was a charming man; his dark hair was set off by brilliant blue eyes, and his face seemed to be hewn from white marble. He was always immaculately dressed. He wore an oldfashioned stock about his neck and carried a short crook, which is the traditional trademark of the pig master.

I think that Mr. Murphy was both amused and annoyed by me. A look of amazement lit up his otherwise impassive face the first time I backed up our farm truck and took off single-handed with “Murph,”as we called the boar, riding comfortably in the back. The thing that annoyed Mr. Murphy was that I kept telling him if he would only put sunlamps over his piglets, they would grow twice as fast on the same amount of food. It also irritated him to be told that my own piglets of the same age were double the size of those in his piggery.

Since those days things are different, and pigs, in a way, have come into their own. Be it only for market, it has been proved by science that they thrive better under sanitary, comfortable conditions. No matter how short their life, at least it is more pleasant for them than it was thirty years ago. Pigs prefer to eat good clean grain and growing things, and the fact that they can survive on garbage is really nothing against them, for, after all, is not garbage but a compote of the food that we ourselves eat? Also, it is nothing against a pig that it can live in a filthy sty, when it is essentially a clean creature, really one of the neatest of barnyard animals. It will keep its bed clean and, if given the proper space, reserve just one corner of its pen to soil, which is more than can be said for many other animals.

I once met a man who had a big pig farm in Florida, and I was not surprised when he told me that his pigs loved a shower. He said that he had rigged up a regular overhead spray for them and turned the water on every day at noon. His pigs waited, solemnly queued up, for their turn at a bath. Rosie, Daisy, and Violet always came running when I turned on the hose; they put their faces up to be washed and squealed with delight as I rinsed them from head to foot. We gave them a place for a mud wallow, where they enjoyed themselves mightily. After all, mud baths have been used by mankind throughout the ages, why not by the lowly pig?

Early in 1942, after the United States had entered World War II, Rosie, Daisy, and Violet were all pregnant, thanks to “Murph.” By May, Rosie had produced ten little ones, and Violet was nursing the same number of lusty offspring, but Daisy was, as yet, great with child. Suddenly our hired man of ten years’ standing departed from our employ. I cannot say that I blamed him for wanting to double his wages elsewhere, but he left me with what might be called a Pig Pickle on my hands.

With no possibility of finding a replacement, there was nothing for me to do but roll up my sleeves and take over. It was lucky that all our pigs were fond of me, for each outweighed me by three hundred pounds. Violet was always so hungry that, without meaning to do it, she bashed me about quite a bit when I fed her. She never meant to hurt; it was just her nature to be rough. Rosie had a more reasonable temperament and did not give me much trouble. However, it was my favorite, Daisy, who worried me. Although she was as mild as May and we had established a firm trust in one another, shades of Sunshine plagued my mind. What if she acted up the same way? She grew heavier every day, and there I was, alone to deliver her of her litter. I braced myself as her time drew near, for I knew that she and I would have to make do together.

I fixed her a comfortable bed, which she appreciated, and in a corner of her roomy pen, I arranged a big basket, with an electric heater suspended above it, to receive the newly born. Day by day I watched her carefully, grooming and petting her more than usual. Of course she started to give birth in the night, as do most animals; fortunately we had electricity in the pig house, so that I had a bright, dependable light instead of the uncertain beam of a lantern.

My good Daisy began having babies thick and fast. As each little one was born I rubbed a squeal into it and put it into the warm basket to dry off while Daisy produced the next one. After about the sixth, she rested and became drowsy, so I stroked her and said. “Come on, old lady, let’s go.” She gave me a soft guttural yes, rolled her large clear eyes in my direction, and popped another baby. This went on until the basket was overflowing and dawn had begun to dim the artificial light in the pen; by then Daisy had twelve little ones. She heaved herself to her feet and announced that she had finished her job. I ran to prepare a warm bran gruel, which she drank hungrily. As I brought the babies to her, she flopped down on her soft bed, grunting with fatigue, and lay out so that I might line them up along her clean breasts to nurse. No animal could possibly have been gentler or more grateful for the comfort that I had given her than was my Daisy. Little pigs are born as tough as gristle and are up on their feet almost instantly, but as the weather was cool, I left the heater suspended like a hover above them, and they basked in its warmth and grew like weeds.

Taking care of thirty-five pigs posed a challenge to me. I studied the correct feeding of both mothers and children. In fact, I took Harris on the Pig to bed with me and pored over the good advice contained therein late into the night. Mr. Harris was to me as Dr. Spock is to the new mother. There were times when I grew discouraged because the sacks of grain, bales of bedding, and buckets of mash were heavy. However, after straining the muscles in my arms, I learned to do things piecemeal and divided my loads into smaller units. This system took more time, but I was able to do the job easily after that. I despaired only once, when one rainy morning I slipped and fell full length in the yard. It was lucky that there was nobody around to see me as I lay there in the mud, for I gave way to a fit of angry tears while all thirtyfive pigs gathered around and stared at me in consternation.

When they were weaned, my crop of little pigs was in great demand. Customers came from miles around, and I found myself doing a thriving business in porkers. Later on I sold Rosie and Violet as extra good brood matrons, and when the last deal was closed, I drew a sigh of accomplishment and settled back to rest my bones from so much heavy work.

Daisy’s children had been unremarkable except for one, which I kept for myself. Eleven of them had straight coats and gave promise of being good grade hogs. But Henry was the odd pup. He had a beautiful curly coat like white astrakhan and was blockier than the others. He took to following me around like a dog, and as might have been expected, Henry and I became close friends.

Daisy watched approvingly when I began teaching Henry to do tricks; perhaps she also had realized that he was a very clever pig. To my delight Henry turned out to be an infant prodigy. It took him no time at all to learn real circus stunts. He enjoyed going through his routine and was eager to be taught more. He sat down on command; gave me first the right and then the left hoof. He sat up, looking for all the world like a piggy bank. He jumped through a hoop with no trouble, and climbed up and down a small stile that I concocted for him.

When his daily lesson was over, he knew that he would be rewarded with a treat and a bottle of beer. Young pigs can suck from a bottle very well if they so choose, and Henry did choose to drink his beer with gusto.

Of course Daisy and I praised him, but his mother’s approach rather differed from mine. She emitted some loud grunts of approval while she gave him an affectionate nudge with her snout that lifted him right off his feet. For my part, I groomed his curls with a dandy brush and scratched his ears. Henry was pleased by these attentions and accepted both forms of encouragement with equal gratitude.

I was so proud of Henry that I wanted to show off his talents and felt disappointed when I ran into a curiously indifferent audience. I did realize that the amiable Daisy could never be welcomed into our house, but I really had hoped Henry might be allowed to do his act in our front hall. After meeting with some cold rebuffs from my household I decided that Daisy and I had better just enjoy our own show in the pigpen. The only trouble with this situation was that Henry kept growing bigger and bigger, as every good pig should do, and to my dismay he became so ungainly that he was not able to do his tricks any longer.

I was so attached to Daisy and Henry that we kept them for years. For their benefit I maintained two pails in my kitchen, one for coffee grounds, lobster shells, and the things that pigs shun. The other was reserved for vegetables, fruit, and delicacies from our table. My housekeeping went to pieces, because I did not mind in the least sneakinggood leftovers into the “Pig Pail.”I became utterly carefree and was never bothered by little dabs of this and that in my icebox; I gave them without conscience to Daisy and Henry.

When I finally had to part with my two friends, I vowed that I would never again get tangled up with any more pigs. Even today I am sorely tempted when I see a nice bright little one looking at me expectantly, but I force myself to turn my head the other way, because I know that my attitude toward pigs just isn’t practical.