Sunday, August 7, 2011

David Heintzelman's Long Tradition with a Knife

David quietly works the sausage press as he has done for thousands of Tuesdays since 1957.
The Heintzelman name has been associated with quality meats for 105 years. And nothing says Heintzelman like their area famous ring bologna. David Heintzelman has been making it as long as he can remember. His grandparents William and Laura started the business, passing it on to their sons Norton and Phaon. It was David’s father Norton who started making of the bologna.


The Heintzelman family in the early 1900s.  Children of William and Laura,
Norton and Phoan stand left of their parents.

Monday was always slaughter day and Tuesday has been sausage and bologna day. I was fortunate enough to spend a Tuesday with David and Barry Smith, though now retired, had been working at the market since 1976. Fortunate because I got to see over a century of accumulated experience create this almost mythical meat before my eyes.  Fortunate to see the seamless and rhythmic work of Barry and David, who are like a pair of steady draft horses. (Fortunate too that David trusted me with a few trade secrets that will not be reported here.)

Making Sausage and Bologna:

First, previously cut beef and pork are brought into the kitchen in tubs of 50 pounds each. One hundred-fifty pounds all told will be made today. (They will make 1,500 pounds over Saturday, Sunday and Monday the week before Christmas.) The meat is first run through the 5-horse power electric grinder which flashes like lightning when it first starts up. It grinds with such force a pan hangs in front of it to keep all the meat falling into the tub. (My first mistake was standing in it’s line of fire.) After a second pass with a finer screen, the meat, coriander, salt and secret ingredient is added to the stainless steel industrial mixer. From there, about 25 pounds of the mix is placed into the sausage press at a time.
Irreplaceable Barry Smith - Though recently retired,
Barry had been a dedicated employee since 1976.

On this day, 100 pounds of fresh sausage was made first. This process is near identical as is used for the bologna, except with slightly different ingredients. Sausage is stuffed into the small intestines of a pig. Bologna uses the girthier steer’s small intestine, both of which David is well adept at handling. From the water bucket, Dave works a splash of water through the sometimes 20 feet of intestine, rinsing it all the way through with the ease of his experience. The casing is now ready to be loaded onto the press tube and the meat mixture slides through easily.

Filling the casing in ring-sized increments and tying it off is done with equal alacrity. Now a two-man job, the rings are tied together with a single length of twine until enough to fill a length of the wooden rack stake is ready, which is about 12 or 13 rings. Then each rack is carefully taken to the smoke house, the top rack puts them about six feet from the floor. Once placed, Dave will carefully separate each ring from touching the next and returns to continue loading rings onto the wooden stakes.
Barry and David pressing the bologna.

The rings go in a translucent white over pink and come out as brown as a chestnut mare. Once all are hung, a fire is prepared in the pit. The wood is bought from a local Mahoning Valley firewood supplier who only brings maple, chestnut, or fruit trees, but mostly maple. David feels oak is too strong a flavor and hickory is too scarce to find anymore. (Though at one time plentiful, Carbon County’s tanning industry virtually wiped hickory out of this area a long time ago.)

Once some coals are established, larger split fuel logs are placed on top and the steel plate is placed over top of that with just the right gap left at the bottom for a proper draft. As Dave prepared to adjust the draft, his eye went to the sky. Seeing it was a damp, overcast day, he left it open a bit wider to compensate. The steel doors, with a few small holes drilled in them, are then shut, but not too tightly. As usual, after just a few moments, smoke began to evenly seep out at all the edges of the door. The fire was just right.
With the bologna all racked above,
David waits for the fire to cook down
before covering with a steel plate
and closing the door to the proper draft.

Next door, Barry is doing the same in this side-by-side smoker. His fire is for smoking sausage. David points out to me how he’ll check back on the fire, putting his hand on the door where he checks to feel the heat. The trick is not to get it too hot that you start a grease fire but hot enough to reach an internal meat temperature of 160 degrees. There is a permanent handprint on the door from all the years of checking. The bologna will smoke for about four hours.
The right smokehouse door has a handprint
mark on the door from the years of David
testing for sufficient heat from his
butcher's hand on the hot metal.

From the smokehouse, the meat will go into steam boilers for finishing. Many times the meat has already reached 165 degrees and will float, telling David it’s done. The rest of the rings will stay in until the temperature is brought up and then they too will float.
Bobby Ebbert, recently retired from the meat business,
handed the Heintzelman tradition off to Kyle Elsasser.
Bobby leans on the steaming kettle while the scrapple
mixer/cooker is to the right.

The Heintzelman smokehouse has gone through a few permutations over the years. The side-by-side cinder-block house was once a two story structure. The top section used a coal-fire for longer smoked products such as dried-beef and Lebanon that smoked for more than a week. David’s father Norton had a wooden smokehouse that caught fire from a smoking job that got too hot. And once in June of 1987, a quick change in the weather caused it to overheat and fire spread to the second floor of the kitchen house.

The Earlier Days:

In former days, the wood was all cut and split on site. David remembers how the wood shed at one time had an 80-pound steam line run to it to power a steam engine that turned the saw. The cement slab remains as evidence of the steam engine’s place. Later, David would bring his Ford F-20 tractor down at the same spot and the saw blade was belt driven. The coil of belt rests with the unused saw.
David imagines the old steam engine as
though it were only yesterday.

Early on their original 28 acres wasn’t enough to raise enough beef to meet the market’s demand. Over the years they augmented the farm by leasing 15 acres further out the Mahoning Valley and 55 acres of what is today the Meadow Crest development, land situated between Heintzelman’s and Ebbert’s Park. And eventually they added weekly trips to auction as well.

Though it has been a long time since they raised steer on the farm, the folks at the Leesport Farmers’ Auction will attest to David’s fussy reputation he established over the years of buying 6-10 head each Wednesday. David learned one key to the Heintzelman success from his grandfather: raise and buy the best as it is actually cheaper and easier in the long run. It keeps the customers happy and saves in the hassle and extra work of cutting and dealing with inferior cuts of meat.
Rear view of the farm as it looks today.

A small brook flows through the property and eventually down to the Mahoning Creek. Above the Heintzelman farm was the Lobien Farm and they had a series of 5 dams that many kids enjoyed swimming in until copperhead snakes were discovered living there. Back in the early 1900s to the 1930s or so, the Ku Klux Klan was said to have acquired the main barn and used it as a meeting house and dance hall. Later, the barn was converted to apartments but is gone today due to a fire.

Henry “Hen” Danzer, ran a hammer mill on Mahoning Street in the present day vicinity of Peach Alley, in the dip by the Fairgrounds. He made chicken feed there and this is where the Heintzelmans got feed when they had chickens, hogs and cattle. Back in the early 1900s, Jonathan Gombert also ran a water powered hammer or bone mill in the vicinity of the Mahoning Valley Convalescent Home. Today a truck comes by to haul the bones away for milling into feeds. Perhaps back in the day, these were ground into local feeds.
David explains how the ceiling of the coolers still show the
early design for the purpose of draining water away
from the blocks of ice that sat on top of the cooler
in the days before modern refrigeration.

Originally, the meats were cooled with 100-pound blocks of ice stored on site in an ice house. It was located at the approximate location of the white cinder-block apartment on “Heintzelman’s Curve.” The walls were 6-8 inches thick and were insulated with sawdust. The blocks were also packed in saw dust. One hundred pound blocks would be loaded on top of the coolers. Evidence of this system can be seen today in the way the ceiling is slanted to allow the melted water to runoff. Later, David’s dad installed an ammonia coiled cooling system. The compressor was powered by a Ford engine.

Behind the market is a fenced-in loading dock. The steer would walk onto the scale and have its weight recorded. It is then led to a series of chutes that enter the slaughter room. Once inside, the chutes lead to the knock-down pen.
The slaughter room with the old bull ring on the floor.
Steer were lead to it, their head pulled down to the floor
and were struck with the backside of an axe.  Later,
a slaughter pen (off frame to the right) was built and
a .22 caliber cap drove a 4-inch steel rod into the
back of the head.

Previous to this setup, a steer was led in and fastened to a bull ring on the floor. With his head securely pulled down, he was struck by the blunt end of an axe. David recalls a few instances when one stroke wasn’t enough, a few times a steer just looked at you. Later, he remembers his father giving up the axe for a rifle. And later, with the more secure pen, a gun with a 22-caliber blank propelled a 4-inch steel rod into the back of the steer’s head. With that, they fell “like a sack of potatoes.”

Early on, they used 3 delivery trucks to deliver on this side of the Lehigh. When William first started he had a gentleman’s agreement with the folks at Fairyland Farms, his former employer. When he left, he agreed that he would keep out of Franklin Township and in return, the Diehl’s stayed out of Lehighton and Mahoning. These trucks were kept cool with ice too.

The early high-pressure ammonia system was later replaced by modern refrigeration compressors. The heavy coils of pipe were discarded but came in handy in the 1970s when the new United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) updated their slaughter house regulations. Al Sleva, a Mahoning Valley metal worker, used the piping to make new cattle chutes and a knock-down pen in the slaughter house. And though they no longer slaughter steer any longer, all the original equipment is all still intact.
The rear of the shop shows the cattle chute leading into
the slaughter house on the left.

An overhead metal track connects the kitchen to the slaughter room to the two coolers. Sides and hind quarters can easily be slid on hooks from one area to the next quite efficiently. Before entering the warm meat cooler, the four quarters would be weighed for each steer.

The 1970 USDA inspectors visited each Monday. They were required to inspect the condition and manner in which they were slaughtered and had to report it. David recalled a few times being called from Washington because an inspector’s report wasn’t posted and he would have to read off the weights of each steer slaughtered that week. Some steer dressed out at 700 pounds, though the average was around 500-600.

Regulations also called for the warm meat to be brought down to at least 40 degrees within 24 hours. That would be a tough order back in the ice-cooling days. So the two-cooler system at Heintzelman’s became a necessity, otherwise the previously cold meat would tend to get “sticky” if stored with the “warm” beef.

In addition to their widely popular bologna, those who enjoy Pennsylvania Dutch treats like scrapple, fresh and smoked-sausage, liver pudding and home-cured, smoked bacon will tell you their partiality to Heintzelman’s.

David, now semi-retired, has been working in the shop since he was a little boy, but full-time since he left the army in 1957. He and his cousin Joel Heintzelman (Phaon’s son) formally took over the business in 1962 from their fathers.
An old shot of Joel and David boning out ribs from the 1980s.


Many things have changed over the years. None of David’s children went into the butcher shop and Joel never married. Dave and Joel “retired” in 1994 when it sold to Jason Green who sold it to Robert and Neal Ebbert in March of 2006. And though family businesses are a bit of an endangered species these days, it does the heart good to know the Ebbert family continues running the shop much like it has for the past 100 years.

A modern view from above the farm.
Hanging beef jerky

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