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Celebrating 117 hammy years with a sleepover

Families brought their children to the Isle of Wight County Museum in Smithfield Friday night for the World’s Oldest Ham’s celebratory sleepover. The sleepover was not for the children, however, but for their favorite stuffed animals.

Children brought roughly 20 stuffed toys in total to the world’s oldest ham’s 117th birthday festivities. The toys included a horse, dog and moose — even Disney’s Pocahontas made an appearance.

The children gave their prized possessions to Jennifer England, director of the Isle of Wight County Museum, and she asked questions about their toys: what the toys’ names were, whether the toys liked water before bedtime and whether or not late-night snacks were OK for them.

The museum wanted to do something special for the Pet Ham’s 117th birthday. So, they took the toys to take pictures of them playing in the sandbox, watching movies and throwing popcorn — all the typical sleepover antics you’d expect, England said.

The children got their toys back on Saturday with copies of those pictures, plus birthday cake and a letter that said their toy had the best time at the World’s Oldest Ham’s Birthday Party Sleepover.

“It was time for something special this year,” England said.

The children made birthday cards for P.D. Gwaltney Jr.’s 117-year-old Pet Ham on Friday, which was in its enclosed case surrounded by birthday gift bags.

Hillary White, outreach services manager for Blackwater Regional Library, sang “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and other nursery rhymes to the children as they sat on the floor with their parents.

As the children snuggled up, White read books to them like “Piggies in Pajamas” and “Llama Llama Red Pajama,” all with a pajama theme.

“I tried to keep that as the theme, since everything is sleepover-themed tonight,” White said.

Erin Pagano came to the museum with family, including her daughter Allie, 6, and son Riley, 8. Allie also brought Cinnabunny, her stuffed rabbit, to enjoy the sleepover.

“She’s super excited to hear about all the adventures,” Pagano said about Allie.

Pagano’s family was also excited to check out the historic ham. She said that it was one of the first things her family heard about when they first moved to the area.

“I didn’t know hams could last that long,” she said. “It’s definitely unique.”

Riley thought it was funny how the preserved ham looked.

“It looks like a rock, cause of the shape,” he said.

The ham was a prize possession and marketing device for P.D. Gwaltney Jr., the man that helped put the Smithfield pork industry on the map.

The first ham curing business in Smithfield was credited to Mallory Todd in 1767. There were several such companies during the 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 later used 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.

“It’s a representative for the town of Smithfield,” said Isle of Wight County Museum Curator Tracey Neikirk. “I think it’s a source of pride for a lot of folks.”