And then, there’s the ‘smell of money’

Published 7:03 pm Tuesday, July 25, 2017

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Last week’s column about smells and their effect on our memories drew some light-hearted comment. The column was admittedly nostalgic, recalling mostly smells associated with “good” memories.

One reader called after last week’s paper was published and said he had driven by the packing plants on one of our hottest, most sultry days and found the odor more “rank” than usual.

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Well, yes, the cooking process at the pet food plant located where Smithfield Packing used to stand can occasionally get your attention.

Plant odors have been familiar to Smithfield residents for a very long while, and I am reminded of an old Smithfield saying about hog trucks and plant rendering: “It smells like money.” And indeed it does.

But the plant odors aren’t always objectionable. They still smoke hams over there and on occasion the savory aroma generated by that process makes up for a lot of other days.

Not many decades ago, there were three commercial smokehouses located in what is now the Historic District — Gwaltney, Smithfield Packing and V.W. Joyner. When all three companies were smoking hams at the same time, as they sometimes did, the whole town smelled of ham smoke. It was delectable.

Local meat smoking was also a source of confusion at times. Some newcomers who moved into Smithfield during the 1970s and ’80s were unaccustomed to buildings that wafted smoke onto nearby streets. Whenever V.W. Joyner was smoking hams in those days, you can be reasonably assured that someone would turn in a fire alarm reporting a fire in a big, white building on Cedar Street.

And occasionally, a smokehouse would catch fire. Smithfield Packing’s old smokehouse on Commerce Street was severely damaged by fire in the 1980s.

Other industrial odors have also “smelled like money” in Isle of Wight for many decades. Forty years ago, if the wind direction was just right, the sulfurous odors belching from what was then the Union Camp paper mill would find their way north as far as Smithfield.

A major renovation of the plant, aimed more at efficiency than odor control, accomplished both in the late 1970s. Camp thereafter captured most of the noxious gases resulting from cooking wood pulp and burned them to cook more wood pulp. Since then, the plant has not been smelled in Smithfield.

Another particularly disagreeable odor that has now disappeared was the Pagan River at low tide on hot July days. Back in the days before wastewater treatment, raw sewage from both industry and residences were dumped directly into the river, and the stew they created could, at times, bring tears to your eyes.

We may wax nostalgic for the “good old days,” but I doubt that many of us would wish for raw sewage a return to raw sewage in the Pagan.