Gourmet stores in fashionable neighborhoods may be far removed from rural life, but they still herald their "country smoked" hams and bacon. Today, these are treasured delicacies, available only to those willing to pay dearly.
Time was when smoked hams and other meats were the country's staples. Smoking was the most reliable, practical, and palatable way to preserve meat for later consumption. A nation of small farmers depended on the yearly slaughter of a hog or two and the occasional addition of wild game for its adequate supply of protein. It's hardly a surprise, then, that the smokehouse was a habitual farm fixture.
Smokehouses were built to meet several major requirements, and their functional construction made them into easily identifiable buildings.
Draft-free smoke chambers were the first prerequisite. To make them farmers used tightly caulked and carefully nailed boards along with mortared stone or brick. The choice depended on the materials available and the farmer's personal inclination. Since wood was normally the cheapest and easiest material to work with, it was the most popular.
In order to smoke meat, a small smoldering fire was kindled and kept burning until nearly all the oxygen was comsumed and a thick cloud of smoke filled the smokehouse interior. The type of wood used was important in determining the taste of the smoked product. Hickory chips, fruitwood and corn cobs were all favored fuels.
A simple dirt floor was the hearth for many a smokehouse fire. However, it was a general practice to dig a fire pit extending several feet below the gound. At times these pits were lined with stones and mortar to create permanent fixtures, but they were probably filled in once the smokehouse was no longer used to cure meat.
Meat hooks or spikes were set high on the walls or on the cross rafters. A smokehouse was one of the few farm outbuildings equipped with a door with a sturdy hasp so it could be locked. Hams and sides of bacon were too portable, valuable and enticing to leave unsecured.