Last Genuine Smithfield Ham arrives at IW Museum

Published 4:18 pm Friday, April 19, 2024

A glass case at the Isle of Wight County Museum that houses the world’s oldest ham is also now home to the last ham to bear the Genuine Smithfield brand.

In January, Smithfield Foods stopped producing the brand-name Genuine Smithfield Hams that have become synonymous with the company’s namesake town. Three months later, the company gifted the museum its last ham produced in 2024 using the salt-cure and six-month aging process mandated under a nearly century-old state law defining the Smithfield brand.

Museum staff hosted what they termed a “hamwarming” ceremony, with remarks by Smithfield Mayor Steve Bowman and Smithfield Vice President of Corporate Affairs Jim Monroe on April 19 to welcome the museum’s newest addition.

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“You could argue that the Genuine Smithfield Ham was what put this town on the map as the ‘Ham Capital of the World,’ but over time, consumer tastes and preferences change,” Monroe said. “We’re going to change with them. Hams remain a vital part of the Smithfield Foods business and an important part of our heritage, and while demand for Genuine Smithfield Hams has waned in recent years, we produce tens of millions of hams every year, including many spiral-cut hams that are today’s holiday ham of choice.”

Isle of Wight County history predates colonial contact, and when contact was made with the English settlers who founded Jamestown in 1607, “pigs were a big part of the story,” said Museum Director Jennifer England.

The 1752-founded town of Smithfield’s association with meatpacking, Bowman noted, began officially with Mallory Todd and over the centuries has grown to include “names like Joyner, Luter, Chapman, Garner, Spratley, Gwaltney and Gray.”

Todd, a Bermuda merchant who moved to Smithfield in 1767, is credited with originating the salt-cure technique and six-month aging process, according to Helen Haverty King’s book, “Historical Notes on Isle of Wight County, Virginia.”

After Todd came P.D. Gwaltney Jr., who in 1902 unintentionally left a ham hanging from the rafters of one of his packing houses and rediscovered it 20 years later after it survived the 1921 fire that destroyed two blocks of Commerce Street. He fashioned a brass collar for it, calling it his “pet,” and took it on tour across the nation, touting it as evidence of the preservative powers of the Smithfield curing method. Gwaltney’s ham, now recognized as the world’s oldest, has been in the museum’s custody since 1985.

The 1926 law, according to England and the museum’s literature, came about a year after James Sprigg, a World War I veteran, relocated from Texas to Virginia and in 1925 purchased the Smithfield Co. Inc., a Gwaltney competitor. The law was passed in response to locals’ fear of an outsider potentially creating an inferior product under the Smithfield name.

“With the rapid growth of Smithfield of the meat industry in the early 1900s there began to appear on the market other meats branded as Smithfield which were nothing more than poor imitations,” Bowman said. “Every conceivable device was used by imitators to induce the public to believe that the product they were buying was the true product.”

“The name Smithfield today still garners worldwide recognition, as it should, in part to this act,” Bowman added. “Smithfield meats have been and still are shipped abroad to grace the tables of royalty, dignitaries, nobility and the influential. The tradition of these fine products and the feeding and fueling of families across here and across the globe pays homage to our wonderful town.”

Gwaltney died in 1936, the same year as Smithfield Foods’ founding. In 1983, Smithfield Foods, under former CEO Joseph Luter III, purchased the Gwaltney brand. Charles Henry Gray, who, according to past reporting by the Times, rose from the loading docks to assistant to the chairman of Smithfield’s Board of Directors under Luter, is credited with developing the Charles Henry Gray Party Ham, which uses a secret brown sugar sauce.

Smithfield Foods still produces and sells what the company brands as mild-cure hams, which go through a similar process to the discontinued Genuine Smithfield brand but require only four months of aging rather than the state mandated six.

The museum’s ceremony included a performance of “Save the Last Dance For Me” by The Gentlemen of the College, a William & Mary acapella group, with the lyric changed to “Save the last ham for me.”

Museum Curator Rachel Popp said the glass case where the hams will spend the rest of their days has been specially designed to control humidity for the preservation of ham.