by Allen Purnell, Jr.
When I think of the history of this company I think the one word that best sums it up is “family.” The Purnell family has owned and operated Purnell Sausage Company going on three generations now. We invite you to read more about how the Company got started, how it grew and some memories offered by long-time employees and family members.
I remember my grandfather, Fred B. Purnell, as being tough as nails, willing to take a chance and loving the farm life. He was always a serious person who as a child earned the nickname, “Old Folks” because of his interest in listening to older people tell stories. Later he migrated from the family’s Middle Tennessee farm to Nashville where he worked in a variety of occupations. He eventually worked for the Louisville & Nashville Railroad Company as a steam engine mechanic.
A Shared Lunchbox
Old Folks was accustomed to his family’s homemade country sausage and found there was none available in the city. He started making his own pork sausage in the fall of 1932, using only the choicest cuts. The term “whole hog” actually refers to using only the choice cuts like the hams, loins, and shoulders. He ground the sausage with a blend of salt, pepper and his special seasonings. When packing his lunchbox for work he would take leftover biscuits from breakfast and his “Purnell” sausage. Once he shared his lunch with a co-worker who enjoyed it so much he offered to buy the sausage from my grandfather who gladly agreed to sell it to him.
Louisville on a Whim and a Prayer
“There were times when Fred would say he didn’t know how we would make it. I told him that we can’t quit now-we’ve got too many mouths to feed!”
His wife, Clara, helped the endeavor by sewing cloth bags during these early years. The business was more or less a hobby until Old Folks retired from the L&N as a result of disability. Needing to earn more than his pension to support his family of 4 children, they embarked on creating a business out of making and selling country sausage. At the time Nashville was somewhat of the center of the nascent country sausage industry and the Purnells found themselves competing with several more established sausage makers. Old Folks was talking with a sales representative from Louisville, Kentucky at one point. The salesman recommended that he move to Louisville because there weren’t any other sausage companies there, at least country sausage makers. In the 1950’s while the couple was in their 50’s and with 3 kids still in school, the family decided to move to unfettered sausage territory.
The move was really brave on their part. Think about moving to a new city with no contacts and starting a business with 3 kids still in school. But they worked together as a family. All members of the family worked in the business.
“Back in the 1950’s we had a guy down at Scottsville, Kentucky who was selling sausage and other products and he called in late one afternoon wanting more sausage to sell the next day. Daddy, Mama and I loaded up the car and took product to him that night. On the way back around 2 a.m. on Dixie Highway between Ft. Knox and Valley Station a policeman pulled Daddy over for speeding. Daddy got on to the cop for pulling us over saying that he was out trying to make a living and the cop should leave him alone and get after the crooks. Mama and me kept telling Daddy to hush, but the cop gave him the ticket anyway.”
From Louisville to Simpsonville on Another Whim and Prayer
“The first chain of stores that I sold was the old Steiden stores of the Louisville area. Frank Murphy who now lives in Florida gave me the chance to sell sausage in their stores, maybe 50 of them. I was on fire. It was the first significant chain of stores to stock and sell Purnell’s Old Folks Sausage.” ~Allen Purnell
The Purnell family rented a plant in the Mellwood Avenue area of Louisville. The kids, Betty, Fred, Jr., Bob, Allen, and Betty’s husband, Tom, all worked in the business in various roles. The family lived in Louisville for about five years before deciding to settle in the rural community of Simpsonville about 25 miles east of Louisville around 1956. “Old Folks” purchased land in the tiny community of 250 people and constructed a new plant with its own water and sewage systems. By this point of time the Company was becoming well entrenched in the Louisville market.
I can remember talking with my grandmother, Clara, about what compelled them to move to yet another place not knowing anyone with my grandfather approaching his 60’s.
“We knew we wanted to be in the country. It’s hard to say you make country sausage in the city. I prayed and looked to the Bible for guidance.”
Allen Purnell, Sr.
The Company began advertising on the radio in the 1960’s. The focus of the advertising was on University of Kentucky basketball games. Such advertising made the Purnell name almost synonymous with the Wildcats and their huge fan following.
“I had a customer in Nelson County, Kentucky in the late ’50’s or early ’60’s that sold our bologna and sausage at the time Purnells advertised on radio when the Kentucky ballgames were being played. The lady would say when she started to give an order, ‘bring me 3 or 4 legs of bologna today.’ Then their customers told them that when they heard a Purnell’s ad, they had to go to the kitchen and cook some sausage because it made them hungry.”
~Charles Coulter (Sales Manager)
Fred Purnell, Jr.
“John Lee [a long-time employee] said it was just like a big family working there, you know. I think he was right, also it is still pretty much that way.”
~Fred B. Purnell, Jr.
In many ways the people that work in the plant became the Purnells’ second family. They aren’t just employees or associates or whatever jargon you want to use. The informality and laid-back atmosphere of the place contributes to a friendly workplace filled with long-time people.
“My oldest memory was the day I walked into the ‘old office’ twenty six years ago. Mrs. Anna Belle Smith was there then. I asked about a job. She said Allen Purnell was down the hall and was in, so I went in. ‘I know you…I saw you on TV.’ I said. He laughed. Then I asked about a job. He said, ‘Can you drive a truck?’ ‘ I have a pickup.’ I answered. ‘Well, you can drive one of our’s.’ So on the next day I went to Ohio with Charlie Coulter. When I got back Al asked about my thoughts. I told him I liked it. He said, ‘Good, you’re on the payroll. Now you can call me ‘Jug.'”
~Al Stargel (Sales Representative 1973 to present)
The biggest contributor to the success of the Company has been its loyal, dedicated and hardworking people many of whom grew up in the rural areas surrounding Louisville. Often, members from the same family worked in the business. Others felt and feel like the plant offered a family work environment.
Every year at Christmas time there is a dinner to celebrate the season and each other.
“My all time favorite memory was my first Christmas Dinner. It was at Floral Hall in Shelbyville. What I liked so much was that the entire Purnell family and children were there. They all treated me and the rest of the Employees as if we were a part of this Company.”
~Ida Guier (Office)
Naturally, there are the “downtimes” when work wasn’t being done…
“One morning, Danny Joe [sales representative] told a salesman to ‘come watch the Squirrel perform.’ [Danny Joe’s nickname is ‘Squirrel’.] The Squirrel jumped up and grabbed the overhead rail in an effort to ‘skin the cat.’ Well, guess what? It was his last act as far as we know.”
~Fred B. Purnell, Jr.
Old Folks Retires
My grandfather retired in the 1960’s. He had developed emphysema which had become more debilitating. He spent his last days driving his old cadillac on his 500 acre farm that was adjacent to Simpsonville. I can still remember going with him to open gates. He had a cow horn on the car. He used to park it and blow the horn and watch as the cattle, white Charlois, approached to sniff and stare while he smiled. He died in 1974.
At this time the business was operated by Fred, Jr., Bob and Allen. Together they continued to build the Company adding new equipment, new sales territories and workers to the Simpsonville facility.
Burgeoning Business and It’s Gooo-od
“I had been sales manager and it seemed to be my job to sell the sausage. So I made the first TV commercial. Brother Bob said he wanted equal time so he made a TV commercial. After viewing the TV commercial he had made Bob did not like it and said he would leave it up to me to do the commercials.”
The plant was expanded during the 1970’s to accommodate a big increase in sales. By this time the products were sold in Kentucky and the surrounding states of Indiana, Ohio and Tennessee. They began advertising on television during this period of time. Each brother had respective roles: Bob in Facilities and Maintenance, Fred in Plant Operations and Allen in Sales and Marketing. When it came time to doing the commercials they had to settle on how the ads would be made.
The media campaign had a big impact. People began associating Allen’s country accent with the sausage and his tag line at the end of each ad: “Buy a pound or two ’cause it’s gooo-od!”. Believe me, it had an impact on his kids’ lives too. We were constantly teased at school about the slogan and could only smile and say, “That’s our dad.”
The ’80’s and 90’s saw continued expansion of sales territory. Even so, the Company has carried on a strict adherence to selling quality products and longstanding commitment to service.
The Company continued to expand the plant too. In the 1990’s the plant was greatly modernized and expanded in Simpsonville. The sales territory now encompasses about half of the states in the U.S. and also Mexico. There are approximately 300 employees. Sales figures have continued to grow through the ’90’s. Product innovations and product quality and service have enabled Purnells’ products to be top-sellers in places far from Simpsonville such as Iowa and Texas.
Yet the business retains its family flavor; it’s unlikely you’ll meet an unfriendly face in the Purnell facility. And the products still carry with them the family pride that my grandfather had in that first lunchbox by adhering to the best quality ingredients.