Cattle drives in the Old American West are part of the nation's folklore and a Hollywood mainstay. But in the 19th century American South, a much more common sight in the fall were huge hog drives -- undulating seas of swine moving along the lanes and turnpikes -- bound for market.
Now a nearly forgotten phenomenon, the number of hogs that flowed out of the Kentucky and Tennessee uplands across the Blue Ridge Mountains and down through the Carolinas and Georgia may have numbered into the hundreds of thousands per season.
Along the way, the hogs and their drovers stayed in veritable "hog hotels" that sprang up in towns such as Asheville NC. A particularly large hotel might accommodate the drovers and in the adjoining barns up to 1,000 of the animals. Since hogs can only walk 8 to 10 miles per day, there were many such lodging places along the way.
The hotels were charged with feeding the hogs substantial meals of corn so that they would not lose too much weight walking to market. In his book "Lesser Beasts: A Snout-to-Tail History of the Humble Pig," author Mark Essig quoted one eyewitness account of 1,000 hogs chowing down for dinner: "The music made by this large number of hogs, in eating corn on a frosty night, I will never forget."
Hogs are not easily organized into moving herds, it turns out.
According to Essig: "Whenever a roadside creek or pond appeared, the pigs flopped into the mud and commenced wallowing. The secret, one drover said, lay in not exerting too much control. 'Never let a hog know he’s being driven. Just let him take his way, and keep him going in the right direction.' The start of the journey was especially difficult, for during that stage loud noises could send pigs stampeding back toward their home farms. One solution was to sew up their eyelids: temporarily blinded, the pigs clumped together and kept to the road by feel."
A local history written by Alex S. Caton, then director of education at the Smith-McDowell House Museum in Asheville, said that during peak fall season, there was an "almost continuous string of hogs from Tennessee to Asheville." Most of them were bound for the end markets in Charleston SC and Augusta GA.
Caton found correspondence from Zebulon Vance, a mid-19th century governor of North Carolina, who wrote of a sight in Asheville at the time: "The rain continues to fall, and our streets are almost impassible with the mud and thousands upon thousands of hogs moving through the town add to the general filthiness (sic) of everything around."
Hogs thus played a significant role in the economic history of the South. They sparked road construction, thriving corn farms along their routes, substantial lodging establishments, slaughterhouses, and food for the Southern dinner table. Railroad and trucking alternatives have long since eliminated the hog drives, but the place they came to occupy in the Southern palate certainly endures.