Party for Smithfield ham planned

Published 9:51 pm Monday, July 3, 2017

A Smithfield artifact is turning another year older this week, and a celebration is planned for the occasion.

The Isle of Wight County Museum in Smithfield will hold a program for “The Pet Ham’s 115th Birthday” this Saturday from 10:30 a.m. to noon. Cake will be served, and the Blackwater Regional Library bookmobile will be on site with activities.

The festivities will be in honor of the world’s oldest edible cured ham. The ham was a prize possession and marketing device for P.D. Gwaltney Jr., the man that helped turn the Smithfield pork industry into big business.


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“It’s one of the main reasons folks come to see us,” said museum curator Jennifer England.

The first ham curing business in Smithfield was credited to Mallory Todd in 1767, and there were several such companies during those town’s boom years for ham production. The trademark flavor of the ham came from the pigs eating peanuts, the town’s other staple product, in the fields.

“Pigs really were the perfect colonists,” England said. “They eat everything, they were easy to raise and they reproduce very rapidly. Pigs did very well in the New World.”

Gwaltney expanded the pork-processing operation of his family’s company in the early 1900s, modernizing its plants and smokehouses. England said the company would eventually sell about 300,000 pounds of ham per year by 1919.

In 1902, one of the cured hams was overlooked for a shipment and left forgotten for decades. Gwaltney would later make use of it as a marketing tool to exhibit the preservative properties of Smithfield curing methods.

“it is a bit of a spectacle that defines so much of Smithfield,” England said.

The celebration this Saturday will also launch the museum’s annual “Pan Ham Photo Contest.” Participants are encouraged to submit pictures of themselves holding the iconic image of P.D. Gwaltney Jr. and his “pet ham” during their summer travels.

England said the celebration and photo contest help commemorate a piece of Smithfield history.

“Ham is the thing that defines Smithfield,” England said. “It serves as a wonderful reminder of why we became what we came, and why we’re still on the map. It’s a great, fun, positive thing and we’re always excited to share it with the community and the folks who are coming by.”

Photos may be submitted on the museum’s Facebook page or emailed to through Sept. 8. Participants may receive a prize through a random drawing on Sept. 12.

Call 356-1223 for more information.