By Tank Hoover
About a hundred years ago, a group of farmers built an out building using hand tools of the day. The rough-cut oak was milled with their own hands, just as the building was. Fifty years later, a concrete floor replaced the dirt floor when the building was converted to a butcher shop. About 20 years ago, my cousins purchased the adjoining farm, which included the same outbuilding, or as we call it, the butcher shop.
It’s rustic, dirty and sometimes foul, but we love it. One hundred years of wind, snow and sun have bleached and smoothed the exterior to a beautiful grayish wood patina. Inside, the basic framework is exposed, along with the wood peg construction. Huge antique cast iron kettles, hand forged meat hooks and cleavers are strewn about, dying to tell their story. Large whitetail skulls with horns adorn the wall, each with its own history. And all who frequent the shop, know it.
The beloved Butcher Shop, fully engulfed in flames.
The Place To Be
It’s the meeting place where weary hunters go to warm up, grab some grub, catch the latest news and of course, hear some stories. My cousins “Barrel” and Jay own it. Brothers, they are partner farmers. Hardworking and salt of the earth, these guys work seven days a week, all day long. Barrel, the older cousin, is starting to take more time off, though. Every third Sunday of the month he works a half-day, and feels guilty about it.
Slowly, the shop evolves, but not too much. No sense losing that earthy charm. Handsaws are replaced by a band saw to zip out ham steaks. A pulley with gambrel is added for hoisting hooved deer. A homemade wood-stove made from two 55-gallon barrels heats the shop.
It’s a pretty ingenious idea. The lower barrel has a door cut in it for loading wood. Set sideways on welded brackets, it is secure. A six-inch pipe comes out, leading to the second barrel. Here, the heat and gases circulate, finally venting all smoke out the shop from the stovepipe. Like the shop, it is crude, but effective.
At the end of opening day, the butcher shop comes to life. Red-faced, weary hunters with bloodshot eyes stagger, limp and hobble inside to warm stiff muscles and joints by the wood stove, thankful for the reprieve from Mother Nature’s elements during their all-day vigil on stand. My cousin’s younger kids have the job of making sure the stove is lit and hopping, emitting much sought-after heat for the day’s hunters. The basic need of warmth and shelter is deeply appreciated.
The successful drag their deer inside for skinning and quartering. The first back-straps are donated for the communal meal, where they will be rolled in flour and fried with mushrooms, salt and pepper. Other dishes are brought, for a potluck buffet. Broccoli salad, beans, mac-n-cheese, chips, and pies and cakes round out the meal. Libations are varied and abundant and will quench the thirst and put a smile on anyone from 8 to 80 year olds.
There was no saving it once the fire took.
A Tradition Continues
Youngsters with their first deer are welcomed into the ranks as the elders praise their deer, making a big deal of it, with exaggerated responses and animated faces. Peacock proud, the youngsters tell their tale for the first time, perfecting the centuries-old art of storytelling to the receptive crowd. Soon, another warmth fills the butcher shop, and not from the wood stove.
Stories start flowing, family members are remembered, tales rehashed, and good-natured teasing begins. Laughter fills the shop along with an inner glow that makes everyone feel that just for tonight, everything is right with the world. It’s my favorite time of year for sure.
Uncle Jerry loved the butcher shop too. We’d always have a mid-week lunch the first week of the season with just my uncles, cousins and me. We’d hash over observations, talk strategy, eat and just spend time together.
All worries are gone, just like wood smoke goes up the stovepipe during the week. The year Jerry died, and even more so now, the butcher shop brought us solace. It stands for good times and happy get togethers. But nothing lasts forever … .
The new butcher shop, carrying on the tradition.
A New Beginning
A few years ago, while my cousins were on a hunt, the butcher shop burned down to the ground. Something happened with the double barrel wood stove. The century-old structure made great tinder. Being farmers, my cousins are used to hard times and what life can dish out. They simply said, “We’ll rebuild it and make it better.” And they did. The yearly congregations never missed a hitch. The new “butcher shop” is nicer; almost too nice.
I miss the old shop. All of us do. But every year, on opening day night, the spirit and banter return. Some think it lacks the character and charm of the old shop, but the spirit stays the same as weary hunters gather for that special night when everything just seems right.
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