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Down South: A Legend Lost In Time, The Smokehouse

By Tom Poland

web posted June 24, 2016
                                                          south, tom
                                                          polandDOWN SOUTH –  From it “came the sweetest smoke a man was ever to smell.” The late Harry Crews wrote that as he recalled his Uncle Alton’s smokehouse deep in South Georgia, down Bacon County way.

I remember Granddad Walker’s smokehouse. It sat just beyond his well next to a crabapple tree. It was dark in appearance, inside and out, and the fragrances seeping from it made you crave a ham biscuit. Shafts of light slanted from the roof and motes of dust sparkled like stars in the light. We kids didn’t venture in there much. It was a bit foreboding but what great meals came from it.

Memories of smokehouses connect me to simpler, if tougher, times. As I drive the backroads I look for smokehouses. I’ve not seen many and the most I see are in North Carolina around the Apex Durham region. Up there, new housing developments encroach into farmland but miraculously smokehouses have been spared here and there. And not just smokehouses but farm outbuildings. It’s important, in my view, to preserve old farm buildings. Not only do they add a quaint touch to the land, they remind us that people didn’t always depend on grocery stores for their needs. We’re nowhere as self-sufficient today.

I have long been on the lookout for a smokehouse I could get close enough to photograph. I found one of a fancy nature over on the South Carolina coast near Georgetown. Pictured here is the smokehouse at Hobcaw Barony where Bernard Baruch, advisor to seven presidents lived. Granddad’s smokehouse sat on rocks. Baruch’s sits on a brick foundation. Both served their purpose.

Note the heavy door with the stout framing. Cured hams represented a huge investment in money and labor so it should come as no surprise that locked smokehouse doors were built strong and sturdy to prevent forcible entry and thievery. In a real sense, smokehouses were equivalent to today’s refrigerators and freezers. You stored food in them for you, not thieves ... nor invading troops.

Granddad Walker wrote a letter to the Wilkes Reporter many years ago. In that letter he shared a smokehouse memory from the Civil War. Union forces were to come through his granddad’s area. Knowing this, his granddad and some field hands took two dozen hogs from the smokehouse, leaving just one ham in it. They went down to the creek and dammed it. Beneath the dam they dug out the sand and hid the hogs there. They then broke the dam and let the creek cover the hogs.
When Union soldiers went to raid his smokehouse they saw just that one ham in it. Said one soldier, “Leave it be. This poor devil just has one hog to make it through the winter with.”

Smokehouse memories ... they belong to a class of memories that include country stores, outhouses (yes, outhouses), and gristmills. So, what happened to the old smokehouses of yesteryear? Most have been torn down by later generations who have no need to cure meat. A lot have succumbed to the elements. They went into the earth from whence they came. Some get in the way of progress when new home developments invade the countryside. Thankfully, some smokehouses end up having their dense-grained longleaf pine salvaged by men like Edwin and Lowell Dowd, a father-son team in Prosperity, South Carolina. They own Dixie Heart Pine, and they will custom build you “furniture with a past and a future.”

When someone tells them they have an old building with blackened wood the Dowds know that beneath that weathered wood is red and yellow longleaf pine. The Dowds often make tables from such wood. So, wood that once cured hams can provide a setting for holiday dinners that feature ham and more. In a real sense these old smokehouses live on.

The smokehouse belonged to a time when people were far more self-sufficient than we are. I’d like to think that a few will be preserved so the younger set and those yet to come can see how folks used to live. Granted, Mr. Baruch’s smokehouse was fancy but it did the same thing Granddad Walker’s did. Preserve meat and provide a sugary fragrance mixed with the smell of meat and smoke, “the sweetest smoke a man was ever to smell.”

Smokehouse at Hobcaw Barony in Georgetown   Photo by Tom Poland

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