In the frontier days of the Jersey Highlands, a monster stalked the mountains near Stockholm in Hardyston. The hulking beast was reported to have long tusks, a bristly hide, beady eyes and a fearsome cry. It terrorized local farmsteads, and villagers lived in fear of it. Finally, the townsfolk banded together, hunted it down, captured it, and finally killed it, ending its reign of fear once and for all.
A relative of the Jersey Devil, maybe? A local Sasquatch? Or maybe a North-of-the-Border version of the notorious El Chupacabra? Well, no. It was a pig. A big pig. A really big pig. A Really. Big. Pig.
The story is brought to mind by recent news reports about the killing of "Monster Pig," a 1,051-pound hog shot by an eleven-year-old boy in Alabama this past May. The story was promoted as a brave young lad tracking down and killing a vicious, wild boar. In fact, it seems it was an extremely large domestic hog that was sold to a hunting club and killed for sport in a fenced-in tract—an act decidedly less courageous and considerably more dubious.
Still, domestic pigs that have escaped and gone wild –"feral," to be precise—are somewhat notorious in rural America. Another recent example was "Hogzilla," a wild hog shot in Georgia in 2004 that weighed over 800 pounds. Left to their own wits and with enough time, pigs can grow to enormous sizes. With their considerable intelligence and a mean streak that can be a mile wide, they are not to be taken lightly. One such case occurred right in our back yard over 200 years ago.
The story comes down to us from a piece in a January 1883 edition of the old "Sussex Register" newspaper. The "Register" was printing a series of articles entitled "Historical Sketches of Stockholm." The author was anonymous, but was most likely our old friend J. Percy Crayon. Born Joseph Percy Crane in 1841, he was a Stockholm native who became a noted regional journalist, historian, and genealogist (and schoolteacher, photographer, and traveling salesmen of typewriters, pump organs, insurance, books, newspapes and magazines!)
The series of articles is filled with the kinds of interesting old tales that young Crane would have heard sitting around the fireside as a child; many of the families mentioned in them were his relatives. The area he discusses in this particular story is not quite in what we today know as Stockholm. Rather, it occurred in what is now the Pequannock Watershed lands along Route 515 as you head toward Route 23 and Stockholm.
The story begins "During the months of July and August 1799, the Seward, Ford, and Card farms had no little damage done to their growing crops. In the dark woods, twenty-seven wild hogs had taken up quarters, and their visits to the fields of the farmers were most unwelcome. This army of swine soldiery consisted of three broods marshaled by a big general of masculine persuasion. To take the enemy alive was no easy task. The hogs were extremely wild and always fled to the dense forest whenever a white man appeared on the scene of havoc." (If you sense our author's prose tends toward the purple, you're right.)
How such a band of hogs came to live in the woods is no surprise. We tend to think of pigs living in pens or other enclosures, but in these early days, when it was sometimes miles between farms separated by deep woods, pigs were commonly allowed to free-range. This worked for a simple reason: though they may roam hither and yon as they please, at the end of the day pigs almost always return home for one simple reason: it's where their supper is (they share this characteristic with husbands and children.)
Sometimes, though, the hogs decide they like their freedom. The writer speculates that this particular band of hogs had been living in the woods for four or five years. Such a group will breed, producing offspring that have never known captivity. And so you get a band of feral pigs like the one mentioned, wild, aggressive, and destructive. And dangerous.
The writer continues: "It was at last resolved to form a band of citizens for the purpose of having a general chase. Twenty men were raised, and a dozen hounds and bulldogs secured. The big hog had withstood the storms and tempests of several winters, and his tusks had grown to the length of four or five inches. It was now the first day of September, a bright and refreshing day, that the men and their dogs started in pursuit."
The men and dogs tracked down the hogs, which retreated into the dense woods. The first day's chase, hindered by thick forest, yielded no results. By midday on the second day of the chase, the men and dogs had captured four of the smaller hogs, but the big monster hog remained on the loose. "Before night," the writer continues, "the faithful canines brought him in bay, having him surrounded on two sides by an unsurmountable stone wall, and hemmed in front by the men. But to take such a hog alive, even in this position, required great strategy."
"After several severe struggles," he goes on, "resulting in the killing of three dogs and the wounding of one man, the wild general of the swine soldiery was taken captive. It is extremely probably that this is the only wild hog chase that ever happened in New Jersey."
It is tempting to portray this episode as a case of struggling frontier farmers protecting their crops and homes from a destructive nuisance. Yet if simply eliminating the big hog was their concern, they could easily have shot him once he was cornered. That they went to great lengths to bring him back alive suggests that for the men involved the whole hunt had a definite element of sport.
And though the "general of swine soldiery" didn't meet his doom right away, he was destined to become a Christmas ham (probably a pretty gamey one). The author notes: "A hog pen, a little less than mountain high, was erected for the home of the big hog. He never became domesticated, nor would he eat food in the presence of anyone. At the holidays, he was butchered. He dressed near six hundred pounds."
It's worth noting that if the hog's dressed weight (i.e. weight after his organs were removed) was six hundred pounds, then his original weight would have been something close to 750 pounds. That's a pig that's almost twice the size of most of the black bears you'll see around hear, and nearly as big as the biggest black bear on record. With some tusks and a bad attitude, you can see why he struck fear into local hearts.
(Ron Dupont can be reached at vernonstories.com.)