When English settlers established Jamestown, they also set up a holding facility for their cattle on the south side of the James River at Hog Island.
Inspired by the process Native Americans used to preserve meat, ham quickly became a Virginia tradition — and a delicacy the world over.
The Isle of Wight Museum in Smithfield recently held its annual Hammy Birthday event to celebrate Pembroke genius Decatur Gwaltney Jr. and his legendary Pet Ham.
There were gifts for Pet Ham from Gwaltney and cakes for museum guests. PD Gwaltney Jr., played by museum volunteer Albert Burckard, was on hand to greet admirers. The QuaDruba Tuba Quartet provided lively, period-inspired music for the special occasion.
PD Gwaltney Jr. – and his father – were both shrewd businessmen and marketing geniuses. Together they practically put Smithfield “on the map”. They made the city world famous by promoting peanuts and pork products.
“Gwaltney was a marketing genius. We like to think we continue in that same tradition today – and in the days leading up to Twitter and Instagram,” said Jennifer England, director of the Isle of Wight museum. “He would bring his preserved product to trade shows. His father before him was also a marketing genius. He brought the peanut to the World’s Fair and Expo. They were able to use their products as hooks that really got people excited and interested in what they were doing for a living. »
When an old ham was discovered at the Gwaltney facility, PD Gwaltney Jr. – perhaps inspired by the spirit of PT Barnum – had a brass collar and tag made for it. Gwaltney had even assured him. He nicknamed it his “Pet Ham” and took it with him to trade shows to generate attention and interest in Gwaltney products.
Gwaltney’s promotional efforts were successful. People were curious about his Pet Ham – and interested in his wares.
“His Pet Ham was insured. He had a collar. It was at Ripley’s,” England said. “People still come to see it today after 120 years. We love it.
PD Gwaltney Jr. was born in 1876 and died in 1936. He became known as the “Ham King of Smithfield”. His father was known as the “Peanut King”.
By August 17, 1921, Smithfield had become the largest peanut export facility in the world. Then all the three- and four-story wooden peanut processing buildings on Wharf Hill burned down.
The peanut industry has recovered in Suffolk. Smithfield became known as the birthplace of Smithfield ham – and quickly distinguished itself as the capital of ham.
“Gwaltney’s contribution was that he made Smithfield world famous. He took his pet ham – Hammy – around the world to various locations,” said museum volunteer interpreter Albert Burckard. “What he has done is place orders for ham – for his products – around the world. Of course, once the ships arrived at Smithfield, they could buy hams from a number of other producers and processors. It really put Smithfield on the map in terms of associating Smithfield ham with Smithfield.
For a ham to be legally called a “genuine Smithfield ham,” it must be produced within the city limits of Smithfield, Burckard said.
“A Virginia ham is normally sugar cured. A Smithfield ham is salted or smoked,” he said. “PD Gwaltney Jr. was the most famous associate at Smithfield, but there were so many others – Joyner, Luter – who had smaller factories.”
When Smithfield ham was first made famous, local farmers allowed their pigs to root in peanut fields after harvest. The pigs ate the remains of the groundnut harvest. It added a nutty flavor to the hams.
“Real Smithfield ham – back then – was peanut-fed and salted or smoked,” Burckard said. “They don’t let the pigs look for peanuts anymore. There is a process that somehow gives the hams that special flavor. It is a strong and salty flavor.
Sandy Ricks read a congratulatory letter from U.S. Senator Mark Warner’s office to guests gathered in honor of Hammy’s 120th birthday.
“We thought it was a great achievement. We were – not only – happy to get the letter here, but we were able to come,” Ricks said. ” It was fabulous. I had never been here in this museum before. I think it’s amazing.
The QuaDruba Tuba Quartet provided special arrangements of ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz’, ‘Baby Face’ and ‘The Wabash Cannonball’ during the gala festivities. The quartet was founded by Smithfield resident Dru Stowe. The band plays tubas and euphoniums, a tenor version of the tuba family.
“We tried to find music from the early 1900s that was lighthearted and celebratory to go with the whole era of the museum here,” Stowe said. “We love having the chance to let people hear the sound of our band. They rarely hear the rich, pleasant sounds of the quartet. We are all ex-members of a military band. This is a great opportunity for us to become the ambassadors of the instruments.
Dee Campbell, museum docent and Smithfield resident, greeted museum visitors, helping to serve slices of Hammy’s birthday cake to event guests. She summed up the program enthusiastically.
“It was great; we had about 50 people here. We had the tuba quartet. We had PD Gwaltney. We had the birthday cake and the ham, of course,” Campbell said. appreciated.”