Record-old pork another year older

Published 10:50 pm Tuesday, July 3, 2018

One of Smithfield’s most prized artifacts is big, smoky and turning 116 years old this Saturday.

The Isle of Wight County Museum in Smithfield will hold a 116th birthday celebration Saturday morning for the Pet Ham, the world’s oldest edible cured ham. There will be arts and crafts for children to make birthday cards and Blackwater Regional Library employees will bring story time, coloring books and other ham-related activities.

There will also be plenty of birthday cake, of course.

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“We always sing hammy birthday before we cut the cake,” said Museum Director Jennifer England.

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. The prized pork was recently removed from its glass case to be scanned and printed into a 3D format by Virginia Commonwealth University professor Bernard Means and several of his students.

It’s the second time the ham has been scanned since 2015, which will allow Means to check it again years later to determine whether or not it’s degenerated. The case is also removed once per year for cleaning, England said, releasing a potent smell of smoky flavors more than a century old.

“It’s really intense. You have to make sure what you’re wearing that day goes right into the wash when you get home,” she said.

The first ham curing business in Smithfield was credited to Mallory Todd in 1767. There were several such companies during those town’s boom years for ham production, with the ham’s trademark flavor coming from pigs eating the town’s peanuts in the fields.

Gwaltney expanded the pork-processing operation of his family’s company in the early 1900s, modernizing its plants and smokehouses. 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, and the museum carried on that marketing tradition when it was donated in the early 1990s, England said.

“It’s the item that draws most of our visitors and gets people the most excited,” she said.

The “ham cam” on lets visitors spy on the artifact at any time. The old hog even has a Twitter handle: @Worldsoldestham. England said it’s a great way to showcase both the history of Smithfield’s ham industry and its ongoing importance in the community.

“I think that it’s wonderful that we still have this object that continues to tell our story,” she said.

The birthday celebration will be held from 10:30 a.m. to approximately noon. Visit or call 356-1223 for more information.