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Life-size stand-up of Pembroke Decatur Gwaltney Jr. and his pet ham, next to ancient hams behind glass.
Life-size stand-up of Pembroke Decatur Gwaltney Jr. and his pet ham, next to ancient hams behind glass.

World's Oldest Edible Ham

Field review by the editors.

Smithfield, Virginia

"We all become our parents at some point," said Jennifer England, director of the Isle of Wight County Museum. She was referring to Pembroke Decatur Gwaltney Jr., son of Pembroke Decatur Gwaltney Sr., but she could just as easily have meant the World's Oldest Edible Ham (the museum's most famous relic), which is the figurative progeny of the World's Oldest Peanut (the museum's second most famous relic).

This sign once hung above the safe where the ham was secured.
This sign once hung above the safe where the ham was secured.

The elder Gwaltney, known as "The Peanut King of the World," was a prosperous businessman-farmer in Smithfield. For reasons lost to time he picked a peanut in 1890, wrote the year on its shell, and kept it -- later using the peanut, according to Jennifer, to promote his business.

Gwaltney Sr. died in 1916, and when a fire destroyed Smithfield's peanut industry in 1921, Gwaltney Jr. poured his considerable energy into the family's pork-processing business (peanuts were used to feed the pigs that became the hams). At this critical moment, so the story goes, Junior discovered a ham that had been overlooked, hanging from a rafter in a Smithfield packing house since 1902. What his father had done with the peanut, Junior decided to do with the ham.

1928 license plate celebrates The Ham Town.
1928 license plate celebrates The Ham Town.

Gwaltney Jr. had the ham insured, kept it in a big iron safe in his office, and put an image of it on his letterhead. He fashioned a brass collar and leash for it, called it his "pet ham," and took it to trade shows and county fairs, where it was exhibited as proof of the preservative powers of Junior's ham-smoking methods. His efforts were noticed by Robert Ripley, who made the ham (and the peanut) a Believe it or Not! feature in 1929 and again in 1932.

"It's really the cutest thing because he just looked so happy," said Jennifer, recalling an old film in the museum's collection that shows Junior with his ham. "It's really adorable."

Brass collar identifies the World's Oldest Edible Ham.
Brass collar identifies the World's Oldest Edible Ham.

Gwaltney Jr. also drafted legislation, later signed into law by Virginia's governor, requiring that all Smithfield hams be produced within the city limits. He had each ham "branded" to ensure its authenticity. Maybe Smithfield hams really were so tasty (and long-lasting) that they were counterfeited, or maybe not, but Gwaltney Jr.'s stunts gave the impression that they were, and that was what mattered.

Is Junior's 1902 ham really the oldest on Earth? "There's a ham in England that's reportedly older," Jennifer admitted. "But I've heard from people who've visited it, and apparently it's pretty moldy and kind of icky." Had she, we asked, ever been tempted to taste her museum's "edible" ham? "No," she said. "We don't eat the artifacts."

Although the Isle of Wight County Museum has varied exhibits, ham is never far from the spotlight. Visitors can walk into a replica smokehouse and touch a genuine hog-scalding pot. A recreated country store has Smithfield hams hanging from an overhead beam. A late 1950s fallout shelter is an excuse to display porky Smithfield canned goods, which were sold as "approved products" for Armageddon. A vintage 1920s license plate identifies Smithfield as "The Ham Town."

Museum director Jennifer England, flanked by meaty tributes.
Museum director Jennifer England, flanked by meaty tributes.

A "Ham Cam" enables everyone to see the ham 24/7 from anywhere on the planet "if you miss it and wonder what it's doing," said Jennifer, although the camera is mostly used by visitors to wave to the folks back home. A separate display exhibits another food relic: a hunk of the World's Largest Ham Biscuit, which was baked in Smithfield in 2002. It was eight feet wide and weighed over a ton.

2002 was, of course, Ham Year 100, and the ham's birthday is celebrated every July 7. Jennifer said that it actually receives cards and gifts. "They're usually just pineapples and mustard," she said. "What do you get a ham?"

3D printed exact replica of the World's Oldest Peanut.
3D printed exact replica of the World's Oldest Peanut.

The ham was given to the museum by the Gwaltney family between 1985 and 1992 (accounts vary). It is displayed, still wearing its collar, between two other hunks of historic meat. To the left is what Jennifer called "the big guy," a massive 65-pound ham from a 900-pound hog that was cured in 1955. To the right is one of Junior's branded hams from the 1930s, so leathery and desiccated that the brand has nearly vanished. All three rest in a custom case with built-in trays of silica that absorb moisture, discourage bugs, and should (in theory) make the hams edible. Outgassing from the hams leaves a smoky residue on the glass, which has to be cleaned. Jennifer described the pungent air inside the case as "very hammy, very porky, very peanuty," and said that, "You don't want to wear your favorite sweater on cleaning day."

In late 2015 the ability to bond with the ham, to experience it the way Pembroke Decatur Gwaltney Jr. did, was vastly improved when the ham (and the peanut) were both laser-scanned and then 3D printed. Visitors can now lovingly cradle an exact, smell-free replica of the current ham just as Junior did. Standing next to a life-size photo of Junior and the ham, you can see how much it's shrunk over the past 100 years.

Does the museum have plans to scan and print its companion hams as well? Jennifer seemed to think that one was enough. "The world's oldest ham," she said, "is the one with the star power."

Also see: Piece of Grover Cleveland's Wedding Cake

World's Oldest Edible Ham

Isle of Wight County Museum

103 Main St., Smithfield, VA
Isle of Wight County Museum. I-64 exit 263A (Mercury Blvd/US 258). South on US 258, across the James River Bridge, for 17.5 miles. Turn right on Main St. in Smithfield, then one-half mile to Museum.
M-Sa 10-4, Su 12-4 (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Adults $2.
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

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In the region:
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