Articles & Stories

"Old Folks" Sausage Company
Has Long History In Shelby Co.

Fred Baines Purnell Began This Business In His Kitchen
In Nashville, Tennessee, In The Early 1900s

By Dennis Feeback - 2010

Anyone passing through Simpsonville, Shelby County, Kentucky, on US Highway 60 is sure to see the F. B.
Purnell Sausage Company sign. The sign has been there some 25 to 30 years in the present form. The sausage stuffer part of the sign was there just for a time when Allen Purnell had the idea of painting an old LP gas tank to look like a roll of the company's trademark sausage and hooking it to the sausage stuffer. The sign is a well-known landmark in the area and proudly represents the F. B. Purnell Sausage Company and its long history in the area.
The F. B. Purnell Sausage Company is a family-owned and operated business. The family history goes back to the early 1900s in Nashville, Tennessee. It all began when a Nashville, Chattanooga, and St. Louis Railroad worker began making sausage in his home kitchen and started a business destined for many accomplishments and a long history. That railroad worker was Fred Baines Purnell, who was born on June 22, 1900, to Samuel Purnell and Tabitha Baines Purnell of Smith County, Tennessee. As the lad grew he liked to listen to the stories told by the old folks around him. Family tradition tells that Fred was nicknamed, "Old Folks," by a fellow who said, "I'm just going to call you 'Old Folks' because you like to hang around old folks," and the nickname stuck. The lad was also very fond of the sausage that his mother made. That fondness for her sausage was to play an important part in his future business.

This unique Purnell's "Old Folks" Country Sausage sign is proudly displayed in front of the company's factory in Simpsonville, Shelby County, Kentucky. The sign is a well-known landmark in the area and proudly represents the company's long history.
(Photo courtesy of Dennis Feeback.)

When "Old Folks" grew up, he relocated to Nashville where he worked for the railroad. He married Clara Elizabeth Bridges, the daughter of Edward and Rosalee Bridges of Springfield, Tennessee, who was born October 22, 1901. Old Folks and Clara were married April 3, 1931. They had three children: Fred Baines, Jr., born in 1932; Robert, born in 1934; and Allen, born in 1936. Clara also had a daughter, Betty, born in 1928 in a previous marriage.
In Nashville, Old Folks was unable to find sausage as good as that his mother had made, so he and Clara started making sausage in their kitchen, using his mother's recipe in 1932. At first they bought a dressed hog to make sausage for their own use, and Old Folks took some of that sausage to work for his lunch. One day he offered some sausage to his helper, who liked it so much that he offered to buy a bag. "Pretty soon my sausage was gone," Old Folks wrote years later. He bought two more dressed hogs and was on his way to starting a well-known sausage company.
At first, railroad employees were "Old Folks'" primary customers. The business started small and grew slowly in the 1930s. By 1939-1940 the Purnells had processed 140 hogs, some of which weighed up to 800 pounds. One key factor to the success of Old Folks' sausage was the seasoning recipe, which remains a secret today, nearly seven decades later. Another key factor to its success was that Old Folks used the whole hog instead of the trimmings that other sausage makers used.
By 1940 the business had outgrown the family kitchen, so the family moved to Bakertown, southeast of Nashville in Davidson County. There "Old Folks" built a sausage kitchen making sausage from whole dressed hogs he bought locally. WWII curtained the fledgling company's operation and growth for the war's duration. Once the war was over the Purnells were faced with a problem. "Old Folks'" health was deteriorating, and after a second operation to repair a hernia, his doctor would not release him to return to the heavy work he had done for the railroad company. "Old Folks" retired from the railroad and built an addition to his Bakertown sausage kitchen which included a cooler, and he was ready to get into the sausage business full time. Since he could expect the railroad employees, who knew him as "Old Folks," to be his first customers, he adopted his nickname to be his brand name. Thus, Purnell's "Old Folks" Country Sausage was born. The whole family, "Old Folks," Clara, and the children, worked for the company through the 1940s. By 1950 "Old Folks" was selling sausage and bologna in and around Nashville but was competing with some well-established sausage companies. This made expansion of his business difficult.
In the late 1940s, one of "Old Folks'" suppliers, a Louisville, Kentucky, spice salesman, Lonnie Cannon, advised Old Folks to move his business to Louisville.
In the spring of 1950, the Purnells sold the Bakertown property and moved to a property located at 1774 Mellwood Avenue in Louisville's Butcher Town neighborhood. The Mellwood property that the Purnells rented included a house and plant that had been the Schwab Packing Company from 1927 to 1949. The plant was closed down, but Elizabeth "Miss Lizzie" Schwab, the daughter of Henry Schwab, founder of the Schwab Packing Company, occupied the first floor of the house. Elizabeth rented the Purnells the plant and second floor of the house in which to live. The Purnells were back in the sausage business.
Miss Lizzie and the Purnells soon became good friends, and Miss Lizzie gave "Old Folks" her father's bratwurst recipe and possibly some other processed meat recipes. The gift recipes provided a means for Old Folks to expand his product line and the company still uses Schwab's bratwurst recipe over a half-century later.
Back in the sausage business and armed with an expanded product line, the Purnell family set about marketing their products in the Louisville area. Old Folks also incorporated his business at this time under the F. B. Purnell Sausage Company, Inc., name. Their dressed hog carcasses came from the Producers Livestock Marketing Association and Berton "Bert" Gillis, who was associated with the Bourbon Stockyard. The finished products were mostly marketed to small independent grocers such as Stroher's on Barret Avenue, O' Koon's on West Walnut Street, L.F. Parr's Grocery on Bardstown Road, and Model Market on South 28th Street. In 1951 the business hired a salesman named Charles Coulter to expand its territory into the surrounding communities of Taylorsville, Bardstown, Shepherdsville, and Shelbyville. The business expanded slowly with the entire family involved in the operation.
Marketing a superior whole hog sausage rather than the ordinary trimmings sausage and an expanded product line allowed the business to expand in the new Louisville home; however, Old Folks soon realized that the rented plant they were in would not fulfill their long range needs. Besides, it was a hard sell to market country sausage made in the heart of Louisville, so Old Folks started looking for a new location in 1952. Old Folks and Clara started traveling around to surrounding communities looking for a suitable location.
In 1952 "Old Folks" bought about 16 acres on the eastern edge of Simpsonville, Shelby County, Kentucky, and began making plans for a new plant. It was a challenge to put the plan into operation, but eventually an adequate water supply, a water filtration plant, necessary equipment, and a 5,000-square-foot plant were completed on May 1, 1955. The immediate result was a significant increase in the company's production capacity.
With its increased production capacity and an expanded product line, which included whole-hog country sausage, smoked country links, frankfurters, bratwurst, bologna, souse, and lard, the company continued its growth. During this time the Purnell boys and Betty's husband, Tom Lincoln, undertook more responsibility in the business's operations. The company was very aggressive in seeking new markets for its products.
One big step taken to expand sales was to get the United States Department of Agriculture inspection which allowed sales outside of Kentucky. During this period Allen sold hotdogs at the University of Kentucky football and basketball games, bratwurst during racing meets at Churchill Downs in Louisville, and Keeneland in Lexington advertised the products. Operations were expanded into Northern Kentucky and a concerted effort was made to break into chain supermarkets such as WinnDixie, Kroger, and A&P. Advertisements were made on the radio and eventually television.
As a result of hard work, aggressive market expansion, and a growing line of high quality products, the F. B. Purnell Sausage Company's first decade in Simpsonville proved quite fruitful. Increasing sales created a need for more capacity. In 1965 the company built an addition that was to be followed by a number of additions over the years. In 1967 "Old Folks" retired from active participation in the company and sold his interest to his sons and son-in-law.
With the company under the leadership of a new generation of the family, more change was to come. In the past the company had depended on outside sources, such as Fleischaken Co., Louisville; Fischer Packing Co., Louisville; Robb Packing Co., Lexington; and Boyle Packing, Danville, for dressed hog carcasses to make their sausage. The new generation wanted to start its own killing operation. In 1969 construction of another addition provided a killing floor and holding pens. The new killing operation along with USDA inspections allowed the company to expand operations into Indiana and its Jay C Food Stores and Marsh Super Markets, as well as Krogers, Winn-Dixie, A&P stores and stores in the Ohio markets. By 1975 the company had increased sales to $1.75 million per year and had overcome a number of operational problems such as new industry technology; converting to a new hot process, where the hogs were killed, boned, and ground into sausage in one day; water supply; waste water treatment problems; and the need for more employees and space. By 1985 the company had become a major player in the regional sausage industry, and a number of changes had taken place. Sadly, Fred Baines "Old Folks" Purnell did not live to see all that had been accomplished.
In December 1974, "Old Folks," at the age of 74, succumbed to emphysema which had plagued him for more than a decade. Old Folks had well prepared his family to manage the growing company. Their leadership was to take the business to new heights. Under the new leadership the company expanded on all fronts: plant improvements, production, product line, market territory, and sales; but, it was also a time of transition in the family's role in the company. Tom and Betty Lincoln left the firm in the late 1970s, Tom passed away in the early 1980s, and Fred, Jr., retired in 1983.
The two brothers, Robert and Allen, who now remained in control of the company were to continue the firm's aggressive expansion. Part of that aggressive expansion included TV commercials. The company had advertised on the radio in the past, but the decision was made to do TV commercials. Allen Purnell was selected as the spokesman and made about two dozen commercials. I am sure some readers will remember, as I do, Allen's admonition, "It's Gooo-od," in those commercials. Another part of their expansion plan was to break into the fast food restaurant market. In 1975 Burger Queen Restaurant started serving Purnell's "Old Folks" Sausage. Burger Queen was acquired by Dairy Queen and that got the company started in those restaurants. Other early users of "Old Folks" Sausage were Hardee's and Ponderosa. Producing products other than sausage for the fast food restaurants led to another area of expansion of products, such as gravy and sausage and biscuits for home consumption. The company was producing some two dozen products and marketing them in some 23 states in the Midwest and South, which included an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 stores.
The company continued to expand the plant and add more employees, reaching 120 employees in the mid-1980s. Sale of the company's products reached $26.9 million in 1985. From 1985 to 1995 the company continued to expand with more plant additions and more employees. One major factor in the company's continued expansion was acquiring Cracker Barrel Restaurants as a customer. Cracker Barrel Restaurants purchased a number of different products from Purnell's such as smoked sausage, green bean seasoning, sawmill gravy, turkey sausage, and pre-cooked sausage links. The growth, generated by Wal-Mart and Sam's Club, added in 1992, and Cracker Barrel lead to more plant expansions and more employees in 1993. The city of Simpsonville helped with a bond issue, and the expanded capacity led to the employment of 240 workers and annual sales of $40 million. During the period 1985 to 1995, F. B. Purnell Sausage Company, Inc., grew to become a major player in the regional sausage business.
The closing years of the 20th century was a time of change for Purnell's. Purnell's had purchased hogs through the Bourbon Stockyard for years, and when the stockyard closed in 1999, the company had to go to other sources. Purnell's eventually started purchasing most of the required stock directly from farmers. That change required larger stock holding pens and a spiral chiller. Again the city of Simpsonville provided a $2 million bond issue, and the improvements were made. As the company approached the new century, it faced a changing market. Issues in the market place such as concerns over food safety and dietary preference, demands for more convenience foods, new production, and administrative technologies had to be addressed. Perhaps the biggest change has been a move away from an emphasis on bulk packaged fresh products to more convenient packaging and preparation products. The company's product line now has an extensive selection of convenience-styled packaging and quick, easy preparation; however, whole hog country sausage remains a big seller. Purnell's now markets its products in some 45 states. The company's market includes grocery stores, with retail sales to individuals, whole-sale grocery outlets, and restaurants. That market provided sales of approximatly $43 million in 2002.
Brothers Allen and Bob are now the company's driving force, but they are preparing for future leadership by grooming Allen's son, Fred Todd, for the role. Purnell's has had a successful 50-plus year history in Kentucky and is poised in the regional sausage industry for continued operation in their Simpsonville home.

Sources: The History of the F. B. Purnell Sausage Company, 2005, by Carl E. Kramen; Interview with Allen and Bob Purnell.
Purnell's "Old Folks" Whole Hog Country Sausage is the registered trademark of F. B. Purnell Sausage Co. Inc., Simpsonville, Kentucky.

Dennis Feeback, P. O. Box 237, Frankfort, KY 40601, shares this article with our readers.

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