Kentucky Sausage Queen: Life Is Good
SIMPSONVILLE, Ky. (AP) _ Looking out the window toward her thriving sausage plant, Clara Purnell recalled how she worked alongside her husband in the kitchen to turn a family recipe into a household name.
She helped grind and season the meat, packing it in hand-sewn cloth bags marked Purnell’s ``Old Folks″ country sausage. As the business grew, she joined employees on the processing line and even appeared on television in folksy commercials that ended with the signature line: ``It’s gooo-od.″
Those days are now a distant memory as Mrs. Purnell approaches her 100th birthday Oct. 22, matriarch to a sausage-making tradition that spans three generations.
The Purnells’ plant in this Kentucky town 20 miles east of Louisville produces more than 100,000 pounds of sausage daily, sold to grocery stores and restaurants in 44 states and Mexico.
Mrs. Purnell, who was born in Springfield, Tenn., is modest about her role in starting the company from scratch with her husband, Fred B. Purnell Sr. But their children say her resolve and work ethic helped it prosper.
``She had a definite role in the business,″ said son Allen, the company’s board chairman and sometime television pitchman. ``They were partners. Daddy took the lead, but Momma kept him propped up.″
Betty Moffett, Allen’s sister, credited her mother’s religious faith.
``She feels like that really makes her life complete, and it has,″ Moffett said. ``She’s been an inspiration to the whole family.″
The business started almost by accident, then became a necessity.
At first, the sausage was served only at home. The recipe was Fred’s mother’s, brought from his family’s Middle Tennessee farm to Nashville, where he worked as a railroad mechanic. The blend of seasonings still remains a closely guarded secret.
It was in the rail yard that the sausage first gained a following. Purnell shared his sausage-and-biscuit lunch with a fellow worker, who liked it so much he wanted to buy some. Word spread, and soon the family was selling sausage in the rail yard.
Known by his rail yard nickname, ``Old Folks,″ Purnell put the name on his sausage. He acquired the nickname as a farm boy because he liked to sit and listen to old folks talk.
Sausage stayed a side business until 1944, when Purnell was disabled by a double hernia. His pension wasn’t enough to support the family, so he started the sausage business full time.
``We had to work all the time,″ Mrs. Purnell recalled.
In 1950, the family moved to Louisville, where a salesman said the sausage business was less competitive than in Nashville. Six years later, the Purnells settled in Simpsonville.
Fred Purnell made the sales trips to drum up business, but his wife was constantly his ``spirit booster″ whenever times were tough, Moffett said. And she was there to pitch in wherever help was needed.
``I think she was very instrumental,″ said Carl Kramer, a historian who has researched the family’s history. ``You can’t start a business from scratch like that without cooperation by the spouses. It just takes too much. Her faith was a very important factor, providing inspiration, but she was also very much a hands-on participant in the business.″
Fred Purnell died in 1974.
The plant has expanded several times over the years, and now employs about 300 people. Longtime employees still fondly remember Mrs. Purnell’s generosity and frugality.
Bill Nethery, the plant manager, remembers times when Mrs. Purnell would help box link sausages. Each box was supposed to weigh 6 pounds. If a box weighed slightly more, Mrs. Purnell would break off a link to get the weight down.
Tina Wise remembers the Christmas season nearly 20 years ago when Mrs. Purnell presented gifts to women working in the plant office. Wise still has the cultured pearl necklace she received.
``It was the thought that here she is, one of the owners of the company and she thinks enough of the ladies in the office to come in there and tell us a Merry Christmas and give us this gift,″ said Wise, a Purnell’s employee for 21 years.
Still family owned and operated, the company has carved out a share of the market in an industry top-heavy with corporate sausage producers.
According to a trade publication, Purnell’s ranked ninth nationally in refrigerated breakfast sausage sales for the year ending April 23, 2000, with sales of $19.9 million.
John McMillin, food industry analyst with Prudential Securities, said smaller companies like Purnell’s must expand distribution to hold on to marketshare in the face of corporate competitors.
``Like basketball, there are some advantages to size in the food industry because retailers and restaurants want to be supplied on a national basis,″ he said.
Far removed now from the daily grind, Mrs. Purnell said she has been blessed to lead ``a very useful life.″ She drove a car until her mid-90s, but doesn’t get out much anymore. Though frail, she finds no reason to complain.
``Each day is a good day, and if it’s not a good day, we should make it a good day,″ she said.
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