A century of ham on the James
First in a series on the history of Virginia ham
Story of Phyllis Speidell
Photos of John H. Sheally II
As anyone who has spent more than a few days in West Tidewater can tell you, country ham is not only a highlight of local cuisine, but also an integral part of the community’s history. . To put it simply, country ham has put the area on the map. The Edwards family and their hams, in Surry for almost a century, embody this bond.
The next time you bite into a chewy cookie piled high with paper-thin slices of Virginia country ham, savor the distinctly salty flavor and think of the Native Americans whose meat-curing methods led to our modern culinary treat.
Long before Captain John Smith and the Jamestown settlers arrived just across the river from Surry, the local tribesmen had mastered salting fish and venison with salt and smoke. When settlers introduced pigs to the area, they graze them on an island a few miles downriver from Jamestown. The island is still known today as Hog Island.
Settlers, learning from the native tribes, turned away from the traditional English process of sun-drying meat and adopted and refined local curing techniques. They rubbed the pork with salt extracted from sea water, fueled their smokehouses with oak and hickory, and allowed the smoked meat to sit for a period of time. The salt preserved the meat while the aromatic smoke added a distinct flavor to the pork. Struggling settlers survived on smoked meat and exported hams to Europe.
“There are records in Surry Courthouse of hams being sent back to England and Europe in the 1600s from Surry County,” said Sam Edwards III, Chairman, CEO and third generation Cure Master of S. Wallace Edwards and Sons, also known as Edwards. Virginia Smokehouse – or simply Edwards Ham Co.
The local drying process followed a seasonal schedule. The onset of winter was the time to slaughter the pigs. Colder temperatures reduced spoilage of cured hams. Once rinsed, the hams are hung to dry, smoke and cure in hot weather.
The tradition of curing ham has become an integral part of local culture, with farmers adding their own twists to the process over the years.
S. Wallace Edwards, the founder of S. Wallace Edwards and Sons, grew up in Jones Creek, near Smithfield, and learned how his widowed mother cured hams. He married Oneita Jester, daughter of Captain AF Jester, the man who launched the first Jamestown-Scotland ferry. When Edwards joined his stepfather as deckhand, pilot and then captain on the ferry, he brought ham sandwiches to sell to passengers.
The sandwiches were so popular that Edwards, buoyed by his success, opened a pig slaughter and processing plant, sprinkling his Wigwam brand hams into teepee-shaped smokehouses behind the family home in Surry. Some of the smokehouses remain standing today just at the intersection of National Road 10 and National Road 31.
Another link between the Edwards family and local history – the restored deckhouse of Captain John Smith’s original ferry – is displayed on the grounds of the Surry County Historical Society. In 1925 Jester used this ferry, the first motorized automobile ferry to cross the James River, to open the Jamestown-Scotland Ferry route. The Edwards family, proud of Edwards Sr’s career as a ferry captain, actively participated in the deckhouse restoration efforts.
Edwards Sr. also drove his own delivery van around southeast Virginia to deliver his hams and sausages to a growing list of customers ranging from country markets to fancy hotels.
He and his son, S. Wallace Edwards Jr., nurtured the business, employed 120 workers, and expanded with the production of lard and crackle skins as well as hams and sausages. The family has developed their own curing methods, adjusting airflow, temperature, timing and pork selection from humanely slaughtered pigs.
Edwards Jr. recalled standing on a street corner in Williamsburg in 1957, watching the parade that escorted Queen Elizabeth II of England to the Williamsburg Inn, where she dined with Wigwam ham . When the Queen returned 50 years later, Edwards was there on the same corner and, again, Her Majesty enjoyed an Edwards ham.
Edwards Jr. eventually took over his father’s business and added his own innovations, including temperature-controlled drying rooms. He also brought his son, Sam Edwards III, into the business. Young Edwards continued to innovate and returned to his grandfather’s belief that their supply hogs should feed on Virginia peanuts to achieve their distinctive flavor.
Even with the passing of Edwards Sr., the company‘s founder, S. Wallace Edwards Jr., and his daughter, Amy Edwards Hart, the company’s vice president, the company thrived with Sam Edwards III and his son, Sam Edwards IV, at the helm. .
The Edwards family continued to innovate and explore new products, including the popular Surryano ham, a ham similar to a Spanish cured ham and/or prosciutto.
Sam Edwards III took Edwards’ hams on a “Cure Tour”, talking to renowned chefs and food writers.
“We were developing a tasting wheel, similar to a cheese or wine tasting wheel, where taste and smell are seen as two interconnected senses,” he said. “To be enjoyable, any food must have the right aroma to make you want to eat it and savor its inner flavors.”
With such innovative energy, the story of Edwards Virginia Smokehouse could have continued happily and profitably had it not been for a fire in January 2016 that devastated the company’s facilities in Surry.
At 12:15 p.m. that day, Sam Edwards III smelled smoke, not unusual in a ham factory, but this smoke had a more pungent smell. He discovered a small fire in the electrical room and was grateful that most of the employees were having lunch.
“I pulled all the circuit breakers I could,” he said. “But then I realized that only Virginia Power could shut off overhead power lines.”
The fire burned for five days until a foam truck finally brought the last of them under control. Then, Edwards said, vultures, coyotes and dogs went after the wreckage while adjusters took three months to complete their investigations.
Edwards said he first saw the fire as a bump, albeit a large bump, in the road.
“I thought there might be room for improvements as we rebuild,” he said.
“It took a year and a half to finally get an accurate estimate of the rebuilding costs and although we got what we were covered for, it was only a quarter of what we needed,” he said. he added. “Insurance was based on outdated data. Construction costs and settlement would not come close to what we needed to rebuild, let alone build back better. Out of 50 employees, we were only able to keep 19. »
A court battle over the insurance claim dragged on and remained volatile in August 2021, when Edwards announced the sale of the Edwards Virginia Smokehouse brand and proceeds to Burgers’ Smokehouse of Missouri.
While the business was on fire, Edwards had contracted out production to half a dozen manufacturers, including Burgers’ Smokehouse, another family business and among the first to call to offer help. Her parents had been close friends with the Burgers and that made her decision easier — somewhat.
A temporary building on Edwards’ old site now houses Edwards’ new business – Oakvance Holdings Inc. – named after the Isle of Wight farm, The Oaks, where his grandfather grew up.
Sam Edwards reckons he has enough Surryano hams to last until 2022. Since the fire, Burgers has been making Edwards hams, both country and town ham products, according to Edwards. Coordinated by Burgers, smoked and fresh sausages are still made from Edwards’ original recipe.
This is good news for fans of Edwards products, including Sam Edwards. A confirmed ham lover, he keeps a home freezer full of ham, bacon and sausages to enjoy – along with a side of history seasoned with memories.