By Tim Bean
This story is based on an 1988 interview with Rose Buckley Pearce, the matriarch of one of Northwest Indiana’s early farming families. In 1977, she donated the beloved 125-year-old farm to Lake County, and it is now the Buckley Homestead Living History Farm.
Rose Buckley, like the rest of her family, worked hard for their farm. They had to. A farm isn’t a business or a location—it’s a living breathing thing in constant need of labor and nourishment. Chores were endless and numerous. Chores in the morning and evening. Chores after eating. Chores before school, more chores after school. Some chores, like scrubbing clothes in the finger-scrapping washboard, were no fun, but others weren’t chores at all.
Husking walnuts was a favorite. Rose and her sister loved to scoop bucketfuls of floating walnuts from their bin, where they sat softening so the girls could husk them. Each would take a bucket and run back to the hay barn to find a warm dent in the hills of straw. They’d dump the walnuts around them in a semi-circle and husk with their small but skilled hands.
They worked their nails under the mushy outer layer and then peel it back, revealing the dark, wrinkled nut. Then they’d crack that open with a small hammer and drop the delicious kernel into a bucket with a tin plunk! Well, not ALL the walnut kernels but most of them. They munched on the rest as they sat in the warm straw.
The only thing Rose liked better than munching away at black walnuts was caring for the animals. The Buckley farm had a typical barnyard menagerie: turkeys, chickens, horses, pigs, sheep, cats, you name it, they had it. Rose loved caring for them, especially the young animals, but thought nothing of their ultimate fate. She was a farm girl and that was farm life.
One day, Rose’s father came tromping into the tidy kitchen and called to Rose and her mother. Something small and gray-pink squirmed under his arms. He lifted one hand and out poked the snout of the tiniest little piglet, just bigger than a baseball. Its snout worked feverishly at the air and Rose felt its warm breath on her hand as she patted the downy hair on its neck. Rose’s father smiled at his pretty, dark-haired daughter.
“He’s too small, Rose. He’s not going to live,” her father said.
Rose didn’t look back but nodded. Rose’s mother and father exchanged a long look. Her mother sighed and nodded sharply.
“Maybe,” her father said, “…you and mother can care for it in here. It won’t survive in the farrow with the others. They’ll starve it.”
Rose beamed and nodded. She found a bushel basket with cracked slats and swirled a wool blanket into its bottom, making a cozy nest. Her father handed her the piglet, and Rose felt its tiny baby heat like a furnace cocooned in cotton. She danced her fingers over its downy neck and then placed it gently in the makeshift bed. It sniffed and snorted but soon quieted down to sleep.
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“I don’t know what good it will do,” her mother said, shaking her head at the runt pig. “I’ve never seen a smaller pig. Sickly. Has to be. And keeping it inside. I don’t know what that thing’s going to do.”
Rose thought her mother was going to change her mind and quickly said, “Just for a bit, until we can get it a little fatter? Then it can go back out with the others.” Her mother shrugged.
Rose and her mother took turns feeding it. They’d pour bowls of cow’s or goat’s milk, then twist a cotton rag tightly, dip it in to soak up the milk, then bring it to the piglet. That wide, flat nose would jitter and twitch in the air and then dart right to the rag, sucking greedily. Runt or not, it had an appetite.
When spring came around, the weaned piglet swelled into a healthy sixty-pound stoat. Rose didn’t bother naming the pig, but simply thought of it as the runt, although it was, by now, anything but. The pig had gotten so accustomed to Rose and her mother that it had no interest in its brothers and sisters wallowing in the filthy pig pen.
The runt evolved into a yard pig, snorting hello at the children and visitors. It grew and grew. Within a few months, the pig’s dusty, lumbering body weighed nearly 200 pounds, the proper weight for butchering or selling. No one mentioned doing either. It was an odd pig because it hadn’t learned proper pig ways. It behaved more like a farm dog.
That summer boiled and beat down on the Buckley farm. The animals, children, even Rose’s mother and father moved slowly, bathed in sweat after only a few minutes outside. They worked early at a marathon pace and then spent the day in the shade. No cooling breeze came. All the animals looked miserable and dusty, bunching together in whatever shade they could find.
The pigs knew by nature how to cool themselves, plopping down the in the cool, dark mud and rolling around. The pigs were the only comfortable thing on the whole farm. All the pigs save one—the runt.
The runt stretched out on its side in the dappled shade of the oak trees, trying but failing to stay cool. Rose didn’t see it first, but her mother did.
“That pig’s not looking so well, Rosie. We need to get it cool or that’s that,” her mother said. “Let’s get some water on it.”
And that’s what they did. The Buckley’s drinking well was deep, dark and had sweet, cold water. She and her mother took turns working the heavy handle of the well pump. Spurts of water filled two big metal buckets. Rose and her mother had to use both hands as they wobbled them over the overheated runt. It didn’t even raise its head to look at them, only opened one eye, looking at one and then the other, and closed them again. Even looking at them seemed an effort.
“Here we go,” mother said and dumped the heavy bucket of frigid water on the overheated pig. Rose did the same, spilling some on her shoes and dress, but getting most of it on the pig.
The sudden dousing seemed to do the trick. The runt jumped up from the ground, its gray-pink body shiny and dripping. It spun in a quick circle and droplets fanned off in a shower. It squealed and snorted. Rose laughed and then looked at her mother.
Her mother wasn’t laughing. Instead, her mother’s eyes widened until they were as big as boiled eggs. She covered her mouth with her fingers.
The runt pig had suddenly stopped snorting and trembled in a tight, tiny convulsion from head to hoof. It shook so violently its whole body seemed to blur. Its snout bobbed up and down, stabbing at the air and ground, and its small eyes rolled wildly. They heard its breath. To Rose, it was the same sound their bellow made after a seam opened in the leather. The windy wheeze of something broken.
Their pig shook again and then its legs bent and gave out, one at a time. It made no attempt to stand. The eyes stopped whirling but only closed to half-lids and stared straight at the end of its snout, which dipped and then buried itself in the mud. It stayed this way for minutes to at least an hour or two, doing nothing but breathing painfully.
The, with a final heave along its two-hundred-pound body, the pig settled into the mud as still as a statue. Dead.
To a farm girl, the incident wasn’t traumatic but disturbing. Rose knew hunting, and had killed her share of animals—mostly chickens. Death itself didn’t echo with trauma as it would to a “city girl.” But she didn’t like to see an animal suffer. Its death had taken an hour or two, not the few seconds of pain it would suffer during normal butchering. The runt had died hard.
Her mother said nothing. Rose opened her mouth to ask what happened and what would they do with the runt when her mother did something Rose had never seen before. Her mother suddenly erupted in a storm of sobs. She pulled a folded cotton cloth from her pocket and hurriedly dabbed her eyes. Without a word, her mother turned and headed to the field behind the barn, where Rose’s dad was working.
Rose was unsure what had happened and what she should do, but she knew she couldn’t just leave. Her mother had been so terribly upset. She waited and after a few moments her father came strolling up the gravel path to the oak where the runt pig lay.
“Shock, Rosie,” her father said. His eyes searched hers and saw sympathy but no real sadness. It wasn’t coldness but pragmatism. Rosie always knew how to tuck away emotions that didn’t serve an immediate purpose. In her later years, this talent would make her savvy and shrewd in life and business.
Her father continued. “His body couldn’t handle going very hot to very cold. If you want to cool down an animal on a hot day, you use tepid water. That well water…” Her father gestured to the heavy pump. “…almost as cold as an icehouse. Too cold.”
Rose nodded. It made sense. She was sure they’d be eating the pig. After all, it would be such a waste not too. Rosie liked the crackling edges of pork chops and the salty strips of bacon.
Her father stood there a moment longer and her mother joined him at his side, saying nothing. Her eyes were red but dry.
“It was only a little thing,” her father said, looking down at the two-hundred-pound pig. “It wasn’t supposed to live in the first place.”