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.
A Shared Lunchbox
Louisville on a Whim and a Prayer
From Louisville to Simpsonville on Another Whim and Prayer
"It All Started In My Kitchen"
Burgeoning Business and It’s Gooo-od
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.
My grandfather retired in the 1960s. He had developed emphysema, which was becoming more debilitating. He spent his last days driving his old Cadillac on his 500-acre farm 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 Charolais, 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.
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.
“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!”
– Clara Purnell
During these early years, Fred’s wife Clara helped the endeavor by sewing cloth bags. 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 four children, Old Folks embarked on creating a business out of making and selling country sausage. At the time, Nashville was somewhat the center of the up-and-coming country sausage industry, and the Purnells found themselves competing with several more established sausage makers. Meanwhile, Old Folks had been talking with a sales representative from Louisville, Kentucky, who recommended moving there—Louisville didn’t have any other country sausage makers. So in 1950, Fred and Clara—now in their fifties with three kids still in school—decided to move the family up into uncharted sausage territory.
It was a brave move. Think about moving to a new city, with no contacts, and starting a business with three kids still in school. But they came together as a family, each and every one of them working in the business.
“Back in the 1950s, 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.”
– Allen Purnell
“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 small, rural community of Simpsonville, about 25 miles east of Louisville, around 1956. Old Folks purchased land and constructed a new plant with its own water and sewage systems. By this 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 and with my grandfather approaching 60.
“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.”
– Clara Purnell
She appeared in some of the earlier commercials with her family saying “It all started in my kitchen”
Allen: “…and that’s the way we still make it”.
This Purnell family recipe will surely be passed on for generations.
Since then, Clara has passed on. She was the heart and soul of the family business.
She will be missed but not forgotten.
SIMPSONVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Clara Bridges Purnell, co-founder of Purnell Sausage Co., died Saturday at her home in Simpsonville. She was 102.
Purnell, a native of Springfield, Tenn., helped start the business in 1932 with her husband, Fred B. Purnell Sr. She helped grind and season the meat, packing it in hand-sewn cloth bags marked Purnell’s “Old Folks” country sausage. The recipe was Fred’s mother’s, brought from his family’s Tennessee farm.
The family moved from Nashville to Louisville in 1950. Six years later, the Purnells settled in Simpsonville.
The Purnells’ plant, 20 miles east of Louisville, produces more than 100,000 pounds of sausage daily and is sold to grocery stores and restaurants in 44 states. The company is still family owned and operated.
Allen Purnell of Simpsonville said on Sunday that he would remember his mother’s faith and her outlook on life.
“She thought you ought to keep your mind thinking positive,” he said. “She lived what she preached.”
Clara’s daughter, Betty Moffett of Simpsonville passed (1928 – 2020). Clara Purnell also is survived by another son, Robert E. Purnell of Louisville; 12 grandchildren and 25 great-grandchildren.
“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 worked in the plant became not just employees or associates, but the Purnells’ second family. It’s the same way today. The informal, laid-back atmosphere of our company contributes to a friendly, welcoming workplace filled with long-time people.
“My oldest memory was the day I walked into the ‘old office’ 26 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 ours.’ 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 and is currently retired)
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 have worked in the business, while others have felt like the plant offered a family work environment.
Every year at Christmas time, there’s 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’s also downtime when work isn’t being done…
“One morning, Danny Joe [a sales representative whose nickname is ‘Squirrel’] told a salesman to ‘come watch the Squirrel perform.’ 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.
In the 1960s, Purnells began advertising on the radio. Focusing on University of Kentucky basketball games, these radio ads made the Purnell name almost synonymous with the Wildcats and their huge fan following.
First Advertising with Grand Ole Opry :
Allen Purnell family was raised in Tennessee. As a young salesman, he ran into banjo playin’, folk song singin’ performer Uncle Dave Macon and said “let me try some of your Sausage son and if it is any good, I’ll talk about it on the Grand Ole Opry”. Well young Allen always asked his daddy first but he also knew not to miss this opportunity, so he gave him a roll of his sausage and after that show, Purnell’s Old Folks Sausage was the talk of the town in Tennessee.
We still advertise with WSM and the Grand Ole Opry and you can see us on the courts at the University of Kentucky.
“I had a customer in Nelson County, Kentucky in the late ’50s or early ’60s 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)
“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.” – Fred B. Purnell, Jr.
The plant was expanded during the 1970s 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 ‘80s and ‘90s saw continued expansion of sales territory. Even so, the Purnells have carried on a strict adherence to selling quality products and longstanding commitment to service.
In the ‘90s the plant was greatly modernized and expanded in Simpsonville. Today, the sales territory encompasses about half of the states in the U.S. and also Mexico. There are approximately 300 employees. Sales figures have continued to grow. Product innovations and product quality and service have enabled Purnell’s 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 continuing to make sausage with the same family recipe with the best ingredients, premium cuts of meat and seasoned just right!