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Smithfield’s peanut prominence was fading before fire

Local folk who are intrigued by such things this week are observing the “great peanut fire” of Aug. 17.

There’s nothing wrong with remembering catastrophes. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a lament about the destruction caused by a fire five years ago in Surry.

That peanut fire was significant, for it was one of the factors that changed the course that Smithfield industry would take, and it sped the decline of steamboat traffic. For those reasons, it does provide a good history lesson. I believe, however, that the fire’s role has been a bit over-dramatized through the years.

P.D. Gwaltney Sr. was a partner in the Gwaltney-Bunkley Peanut Company, which was essentially destroyed by the fire. At that time, P.D. Gwaltney Jr. was already managing and expanding the family’s meat packing business, located down the street from the peanut shelling and cleaning plant that burned.

It’s been said that the fire ended Smithfield’s dominance as the “peanut capital,” a marketing claim it had staked out for some years.

I would politely demur. While the fire certainly hastened the end, it was an enterprising Italian immigrant, Amedeo Obici, who effectively ended Smithfield’s prominent role. Obici’s is a classic immigration story. When he was 12, he traveled to the U.S alone, a fatherless child, unable to speak English and with a tag fastened to his clothes much like a piece of freight, designating who he was and the uncle by whom he was to be met in Scranton, Pa.

Somehow, he got off a train at the wrong place and ended up in Wilkes-Barre instead. There, he was carried to a fruit stand whose owner employed him selling roasted peanuts.

Young Obici saw an opportunity, built his own peanut roaster from scrap parts, learned English at night, found a business partner as well as a wife, and in 1906, only 17 years after getting off the boat, he founded Planters Peanut Company.

Seven years after that, in 1913, he and his partners built a modern peanut processing plant in Suffolk, right smack in the middle of peanut country and right on a railroad line.

The fire would come later, but Smithfield’s dominance as a peanut distributor was already in the rearview mirror when Obici’s plant opened.

When the fire occurred, the Gwaltneys were buying hog carcasses from farmers who did the slaughtering and cleaning, then hauled their animals in wagons to town, where the Gwaltneys had a cut and cure operation.

That system limited much of the processing to winter months because there was no refrigeration on the farms, and it was eventually frowned on by government inspectors who were beginning to regulate processed meat sales.

Within another 14 years, meat demand was increasing dramatically as was government inspection. Expanding the company to meet that demand meant construction of a modern, government-inspected slaughter house. P.D. Jr. began construction of the company’s “Plant 2” on the north shore of the Pagan River in late 1935 but died in February 1936, while the plant was under construction. Eight months later, the new “abattoir” held an open house for the public, which was apparently far less squeamish about where bacon comes from than today.

With that plant opening, the Smithfield pork industry was out of the gate and moving full speed ahead. Within a few years, Smithfield Packing Company, founded by Joseph W. Luter Sr. and Jr., was competing head-to-head with Gwaltney.

Yes, the fire was a factor in redirecting local industrial efforts, but market changes and demands were far more important.

The fire also was a factor in another critical area. Smithfield had no organized fire department in 1921, but the waterfront fire pushed town fathers to embrace one.

The surprise to me is that it took another 18 years before the Smithfield Volunteer Fire Department was founded in 1939. Nevertheless, founded it was. The town bought a brand new Ford fire truck which remains the cherished possession of today’s department, and the SVFD was in business.

The charter membership of the department reads like the Who’s Who of Smithfield’s business community. W.H. Sykes Jr., whose family owned a sawmill on the edge of town, became the first fire chief. R.L. Thompson, a plumbing/electrical contractor, was his assistant and a later chief. Smithfield Packing’s Joseph W. Luter Jr. and Gwaltney’s J.D. Gwaltney, were members, as was local car dealership owner Cecil W. Gwaltney.

Today, neither the waterfront, the packing plants nor the fire department look anything like they did following the peanut fire, but all of them owe something to that early-morning blaze.

 

John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is j.branchedwards@gmail.com.