Locals who are intrigued by such things this week are watching the “big peanut fire” of August 17th.
There is nothing wrong with remembering disasters. A few weeks ago, I wrote a lament about the destruction caused by a fire five years ago in Surry.
This peanut fire was important because it was one of the factors that changed the course of Smithfield’s industry, and it accelerated the decline in steamboat traffic. For these reasons, it provides a good history lesson. I believe, however, that the role of fire has been a bit over-dramatized over the years.
PD Gwaltney Sr. was a partner of the Gwaltney-Bunkley Peanut Company, which was largely destroyed by the fire. By this time, PD Gwaltney Jr. was already running and growing the family-owned meat packing business, located down the street from the burnt peanut shelling and cleaning plant.
The fire is said to have ended Smithfield’s dominance as the “peanut capital”, a marketing claim she had been championing for a few years.
I would object politely. While the fire certainly hastened the end, it was enterprising Italian immigrant Amedeo Obici who effectively ended Smithfield’s leading role. Obici’s is a classic immigration story. When he was 12 he traveled alone to the United States, a child without a father, unable to speak English and with a tag attached to his clothes much like a piece of freight, designating who he was and uncle by whom he was to be met in Scranton, Pennsylvania.
Somehow he got off a train in the wrong place and ended up in Wilkes-Barre instead. There he was transported to a fruit stand whose owner employed him to sell roasted peanuts.
Young Obici saw an opportunity, built his own peanut roaster from junk, learned English at night, found a business partner as well as a wife, and in 1906, just 17 years later. getting off the boat, he founded Planters Peanut Company.
Seven years later, in 1913, he and his partners built a modern peanut processing plant in Suffolk, right in the middle of peanut country and right on a railway line.
The fire would come later, but Smithfield’s dominance as a peanut distributor was already in the rear view mirror when the Obici factory opened.
When the fire broke out, the Gwaltneys were buying pig carcasses from farmers who slaughtered and cleaned them, then transported their animals in wagons to town, where the Gwaltneys had a cutting operation and of curing.
This system limited much of the processing to the winter months because there was no refrigeration on the farms, and it was ultimately frowned upon by government inspectors who began to regulate sales of processed meat. .
Within 14 years, the demand for meat increased dramatically, as did government inspection. Expanding the business to meet this demand involved the construction of a modern, government-inspected slaughterhouse. PD Jr. began construction of the company’s “Plant 2” on the north bank of the Pagan River in late 1935, but died in February 1936, while the plant was under construction. Eight months later, the new “slaughterhouse” held an open house for the public, who were apparently much less disgusted with where the bacon came from than they are today.
With the opening of this factory, the Smithfield hog industry was out of the gate and going full speed ahead. Within a few years, the Smithfield Packing Company, founded by Joseph W. Luter Sr. and Jr., was in direct competition with Gwaltney.
Yes, the fire was a factor in reorienting local industrial efforts, but the changes and market demands were much greater.
The fire was also a factor in another critical area. Smithfield did not have an organized fire department in 1921, but the waterfront fire prompted the town fathers to adopt one.
The surprise to me is that it took another 18 years before the Smithfield Volunteer Fire Department was founded in 1939. Nonetheless, it was. The city bought a brand new Ford fire truck that remains the cherished possession of the department today, and the SVFD was in business.
Membership in the department’s charter reads like the Who’s Who of the Smithfield business community. WH Sykes Jr., whose family owned a sawmill on the outskirts of town, became the first fire chief. RL Thompson, a plumbing / electrical contractor, was his assistant and later a chef. Joseph W. Luter Jr. of Smithfield Packing and JD Gwaltney of Gwaltney were members, as was the owner of a local car dealership, Cecil W. Gwaltney.
Today, neither the waterfront, nor the packing factories nor the firefighters look like they were after the peanut fire, but all owe something to this morning fire.
John Edwards is editor emeritus of the Smithfield Times. His email address is [email protected]