During its heyday in the community of Letcher, Wardrup’s Packing Company employed about 50 people to slaughter hogs and cattle, butcher their carcasses, and process their meat into about 50 products, such as wieners, bologna, and a variety of sausages.
The employees at the “packing house,” as it was often called, also prepared baked and boiled hams, hickory-smoked and sugar-cured hams, and various cuts of beef. The meat products were trucked daily to the Harlan Provision Company, an affiliated wholesale distribution center in Harlan, where the Wardrup family lived. From there, the meat was delivered to local grocery stores for sale to customers under the Wardrup’s Pine Crest brand sold throughout southeastern Kentucky, including locations as far away as Corbin, London, Richmond, and West Liberty. And I can tell you that Wardrup’s meat products were some of the best tasting that I have ever eaten.
Wardrup’s Packing Plant also employed a salesman who sold to stores between Blackey and London. After the sales were made the products were then delivered by truck each week. The loading of the meat products onto this truck required planning. The products that were to be delivered to the last store on the delivery route had to be packed first. The products ordered by the next to the last store were packed next. This process continued until the products for the closest store were packed last. This order of packing allowed the driver to unload the products at each store quickly and efficiently.
Richard Smith, leader of the West Letcher Oral History Society, told some history leading up to the opening of Wardrup’s Packing House during a recent gathering of the group. Prior to the opening of Wardrup’s, Nat Combs operated a slaughterhouse on Crases Branch beside of the Stuart Robinson School campus. Richard pointed out that the Wardrup family may have chosen nearby Pratt Branch as a location for the packing house rather than their home county of Harlan, because the site was ready and offered the availability of experienced workers previously employed at the Combs’s slaughterhouse.
A quick check of deeds at the Letcher County Courthouse showed that Clara V. Wardrup and her husband C.A. Wardrup bought three plots of land around the mouth of Pratt Branch in the mid 1940’s. The three plots were purchased from N.L. (Nat) Combs and his wife, Lydia. Interestingly, a deed for one of the plots bought by the Wardrups stated that Clara V. Wardrup was “doing business as Pine Mountain Packers.” The Wardrup family transferred these three plots to the Wardrup Packing Company late in 1948. However, the packinghouse was already in operation by the time of the transfer, having opened in 1946.
The Wardrup family’s land holdings at Pratt Branch were sizeable by today’s standards. They had a camp of eight or nine houses constructed on their land a short distance up Pratt Branch. Originally, the managers of Wardrup’s lived in those houses.
Stella Elam, who worked for several years in the office that coordinated and oversaw the operations at the packing plant, said many of the animals the plant slaughtered were trucked in from a stockyard in Boyle County and from the nearby Isom Stock Sale operated by Ivan Childers. Depending upon the supply at these two stockyards and the demand for meat at Wardrup’s, animals sometimes had to be acquired from other stockyards.
Local farmers could also sell their hogs and cattle to Wardrup’s. If the local farmer preferred, Wardrup’s would kill and butcher the animal and return the meat to the owner to take home and to do his own meat processing, likely by salt curing or freezing.
An article by local reporter Larry Caudill on page 2 of the July 2, 1959, issue of The Mountain Eagle states, “Normal operation of the slaughter house calls for processing of about 200 head of hogs and 50 head of cattle a week. Production in 1958 was 3,511,648 pounds of meat products.”
Clarence Arthur “C.A.” Wardrup spent the day of October 23, 1957, at the packing plant at Letcher. If my childhood memories are correct, he then visited a local family late that afternoon. As night approached, he left to return to his home in Harlan. However, on his way there, he was killed in a car accident and was later buried in the Middlesboro Cemetery. His connection to Middlesboro is explained in the article “From My Window” by Robert Kincaid in the January 18, 1944, issue of the Middlesboro Daily News: “C.A. Wardrup operated a liverwurst business in Middlesboro before he moved to Harlan in 1933 to start the Wardrup Provision Company. Following his death, his widow Clara V. Wardrup continued her active involvement in the running of the packinghouse at Letcher.”
An article in the June 21, 1962, issue of The Mountain Eagle states that a fire started about 1 a.m., June 19 in the smokehouse at Wardrup’s Packing House. The Whitesburg fire department was able to contain the damage to the plant’s sausage department. Plant manager J.B. Hensley said estimated damage to the building to be about $50,000 plus a loss of about $20,000 in meat stock. The plant would be shut down about two months for repairs, putting 35 workers temporarily out of work.
According to the August 22, 1963, issue of The Mountain Eagle, Wardrup’s Packing House would permanently shut down on August 28, 1963, putting 31 employees out of work. Hensley, the plant manager, said the company had been losing money for some time, and the plant’s owners saw no need to continue losing money indefinitely. As a result of a slowdown in the coal business, many of Wardrup’s customers had moved from southeastern Kentucky to find employment elsewhere and the declining population did not provide enough sales to keep the packinghouse open. Most of the equipment and trucks were sold shortly after the plant closed. The plant building and the surrounding land were sold in 1974.
The Isom Stock Sale closed about the same time that Wardrup’s Packing Company closed. Since the packinghouse was a large customer of the Isom Stock Sale, the success of each business depended, to a large extent, upon the other. Thus, it is likely that the closing of one of these businesses contributed to the closing of the other.
During its 17 years of existence, Wardrup’s contributed greatly to our local economy. Wardrup Packing Company, Inc., the largest employer in the lower end of the county, provided a steady income for local families and offered a tasty product that was sold in local grocery stores.
Richard Smith retold a story told to him by Randy Combs, son of Raymond Combs, Sr., and the grandson of Nat Combs. Randy said that during his father’s youth, Raymond used the running water of Crases Branch to clean the intestines of hogs butchered at Nat Combs’s slaughterhouse. He then sold the cleaned intestines in the colored coal camp on Caudill’s Branch (now Carbon Glow).
Elwood Cornett said that in the process of cleaning animal intestines, the inner lining is removed after the intestines have been washed. Only the outer layer of the intestines is boiled or stewed to make chitlins (chitterlings).
Jim Cornett posted on Facebook that the blood of the animals slaughtered at Wardrup’s Packing House was piped into Rockhouse Creek. When the wind was just right, the smell on the SRS campus a quarter mile upstream was terrible. Catfish loved the blood, and schooled just below the discharge site.
Ernie Caudill stated that his father, Coman Caudill who worked at Wardrup’s, said that all his fellow employees were good people and were honest as the day was long. Coman said that you could leave your wallet lying out all day and no one would bother it. But you had better keep an eye on your dinner bucket. If you failed to do that, you likely would be missing some food come eating time.
Stella Elam went to work on a rainy day (January 28) in 1957. The rain continued to fall and the creeks continued to rise. The water overflowed the creek banks, flooding houses and blocking roads. This became known as the 1957 Flood, one of the worst floods in this area.
The floodwaters eventually surrounded Wardrup’s Meat Packing Plant. Since the roads were blocked, Stella had to find an alternate way to get home. She walked up the Pratt Branch Road to the top of the mountain near Coy Fields’s house. She then walked down the other side of the mountain on a treacherous, rain slickened trail. She held on to bushes as she descended the steep mountainside so that she would not slip and fall and perhaps tumble down the mountainside into the raging waters of the Rockhouse Creek below. She descended safely to the Lower Twin Bridge and then walked up Highway 7 to her home.
. Tony Blair is a retired schoolteacher living at Jeremiah. The West Letcher Oral History Society has been collecting information about Wardrup’s Packing Company, Inc., which was located at the mouth of Pratt Branch near the old Stuart Robinson School campus at Letcher before it closed in 1963. This report was based largely on conversations at recent West Letcher Oral History Society meetings, which are usually held the first Monday of each month at 6 p.m. in the Blackey Library. Everyone is welcomed to attend. Interested persons may check out the West Letcher Oral History Society’s group page on Facebook. This article was a collaborative effort of many people. Stella Elam provided the information about the day-to-day operations of the packinghouse. Randae Blair and Blackey librarians Nettie Combs and Grace Raglin contributed The Mountain Eagle articles referenced above. Ernie Caudill, Elwood Cornett, Jim Cornett, and Richard Smith made various contributions. Joyce Hampton and Larry Blair provided the personal information about C.A. Wardrup.