Caroline Machen (at Walney) to Lewis Machen, December 1849"You speak of making our pork into bacon before selling it. I do not think it would answer well in many accounts. Our smoke house is too small?"
James Machen (at Walney) to Lewis Machen, 17 December 1853"The hogs were killed this week—25 in no. [sic] making 3700 lbs. This with the cutting up, salting, etc. consumed a good portion of the week?"
The restored smoke house in front of you is the only original outbuilding still standing in Ellanor C. Lawrence Park. It may very well be the smoke house referred to by Caroline Machen in the letter excerpt above. Smoke houses were common fixtures on Virginia farms from colonial times. Although Caroline's 1840 letter is the earliest surviving reference to a smoke house at Walney, it is likely that there were smoke houses here soon after a portion of the land was cleared by the Brown family by 1742.
Smoking meat is an ancient practice. Native Americans smoked whole fish or thin strips of meat to dry it for preservation during winter months. Europeans preserved their meat with salt, but used smoking to cure the outside of the meat and add flavor.
Just as with the large annual Native American deer hunts, the Machens slaughtered their hogs in the late fall or early winter when low temperatures assured minimal spoilage. Hams and bacons were packed in salt (often with sugar and spices added for flavor) for about six weeks to allow the salt to penetrate the meat. This created an environment so salty that bacteria couldn't survive. Once cured, the hams and bacon were hung in the smoke house and smoked with a smoldering, low-heat fire for about two weeks. The low heat was important to ensure that the meat did not cook. If it cooked, it spoiled. Different woods (even corn cobs or grapevine) were used depending on what was available or to add a particular flavor.
Once smoked, meat was left hanging in the smoke house or other outbuildings to age before sale or use by the family. Hams were commonly not eaten for several years. Before cooking, salt-cured hams are soaked in several changes of water over 24 hours in order to remove enough salt to make them edible.