Appalachian Cattle Drives: Mountain Beef from a Century Ago

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Photo courtesy, Cattle drive on the Clarence Copithorne Ranch, Jumping Pound Creek
Photo courtesy, Cattle drive on the Clarence Copithorne Ranch, Jumping Pound Creek

When one thinks of cattle drives, typically images of cowboys in West Texas pushing a thousand head of Longhorns quickly comes to mind.  Movies such as Lonesome Dove have solidified in our minds the Great Midwest as being the only home for such romanticized activity.

Though it is accurate that Texas and the Prairie States played host to some of the largest cattle drives in human history, more than a century ago, each year local communities were participating in similar cattle drives right here in Appalachia — though these activities enjoyed a uniquely Appalachian flair.

It has been well documented that long before barbed wire — and even afterwards — ordinary families in Appalachia would “turn their hogs ah loose’t” in the mountains in springtime and leave them to fend for themselves until the fall of the year.  This made swine the mountaineer’s cheapest possible source of meat and yielded the quickest return.  As one North Carolina farmer once bragged to a New England journalist, “No other food animal can increase his own weight a hundred and fifty fold in the first eight months of his life.”

With notches in the hogs’ ears distinguishing ownership, mountain families would often spend Thanksgiving Day killing hogs in what was a community event.

Forgotten to history, however, is the reality that cattle were often treated in like manner here in Appalachia more than a century ago.

With steep mountainsides and thick forest canopies, the highest elevation areas were often the very best land for grazing, where the “balds” offered succulent wild grass which often resembled Kentucky bluegrass.

Because of these factors, cattle would be driven to these bald areas where no one lived and left to forage for themselves through eight or nine months of the year, running wild like razorbacks.  The only attention given them would be when the herdsmen would go out to salt them or mark the calves.

At the fall of the year, the owners of these cattle would trek up the mountain and drive the cattle back into the lowlands where they would either be kept through the winter or slaughtered.

Unlike in the West, where cattle drives were conducted exclusively on horseback, the Appalachian cattle drives were often, though not always, conducted by men on foot.  The steep and unforgiving terrain of the mountains were often no place to be chasing cattle atop a horse.

In the mountains, beef was largely a winter meat, as the mountain farmers had no way of preserving the meat once the weather was no longer frosty.

For this reason, very little emphasis was placed upon beef production and as a result, the quality produced was left wanting.

One visiting writer had this to say about Appalachian cows, “The truth is that mountain beef, being fed nothing but grass and browse, with barely enough corn and roughage to keep the animal alive through winter, is blue-fleshed, watery, and tough…”

“On those rare occasions when somebody killed a beef, he had to travel all over the neighborhood to dispose of it in small portions. The carcass was cut up in the same way as a hog, and all parts except the cheap ‘bilin’ pieces’ were sold at the same price: ten cents a pound, or whatever they would bring on the spot. The butchering was done with an axe and a jackknife.”

Back in those days, the taste and style of beef in the mountains was a far cry from the staple food American consumers know and love today.

“The meat was either sliced thin and fried to a crackling, or cut in chunks and boiled furiously just long enough to fit it for boot-heels,” commented one local who was reminiscing about of how beef was cooked in the early years.

These days, many parts of Appalachia have been transformed into some of the greatest cattle producing lands in the American East, but reaching this point has not come easily or quickly.

Do you like Appalachian History? Then you would love Appalachian Magazine’s Mountain Voice: A Collection of Memories, Histories, and Tall Tales of Appalachia!  Click here to check out the book on Amazon!

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