I hope this column passes the smell test. Actually it seems appropriate that as a preamble to this narrative we discuss people’s selective acceptance of unpleasant odors.
When I was very small, my father was a dealer in cowhides. He would come home in the evening, pick me up and give me a big hug, his hands and clothing smelling of the hides he’d been handling.
It was similar to the smell of rancid meat, but I associated it with security and love. I also worked with hides for many years and never found the odor offensive.
Friends would ask how I could work around those smelly things. I would explain that people who grew up in Canton or Enka were similarly acculturated to the smell of the Champion Paper mill or the American Enka plant.
I remember once going to an ice-cream parlor in Canton. I couldn’t eat the ice cream—it tasted like the smell of the paper mill.
Some people bragged that it smelled like money to them, recognizing the mill’s importance to the local economy.
Many who lived in Asheville were totally offended by the nasty odors that wafted toward us from the west. We were less offended by the ever-present coal smoke from trains, industries and home heating that permeated our own community, because it had always been part of our daily lives.
Obviously, obnoxious smells are judged in the nose of the beholder.
So where am I going with this? Besides hides and metals, my dad also traded in many other commodities—including lamb fat, which we purchased from sheep farmers.
The fat was melted in a big cauldron heated by wood or coal, then poured into barrels for shipment. The resulting tallow was used to make candles and soap, but mostly to lubricate the leather belting that drove the industrial machinery I wrote about in a previous article (see The Gospel According to Jerry, Aug. 15, 2007 Xpress). It also helped keep leather boots and saddles from cracking.
World War II created a tremendous demand for animal fat, and my father’s experience with tallow segued naturally into helping meet that demand. The fat was rendered from offal (waste byproducts from slaughterhouses and chicken-processing plants), dead animals (including dogs euthanized at the pound), and kitchen grease from deep-fat fryers.
It was the ultimate recycling, as it eliminated the cost of burying this material and gave it a value that reduced the cost of meat products. My father built his first plant off West Haywood Street. The process required a large pressure cooker like the one your mother may have used at home to make pot roast and stews. After several hours, the water had floated to the top and been drawn off. Then the animal fat was pumped off and used to make soap, lubricants for the steel industry and chemicals, some of which went into the production of nitroglycerin. You ladies might not want to know that it was even used in cosmetics.
The remaining material, bone matter called tankage, was pressed into cakes to extract the remaining grease and then ground into powder. Shipped to places like the Earle-Chesterfield Mill on West Haywood Street, this material provided the protein for animal food and fertilizer products.
My dad’s plant was crude, and I don’t think he anticipated the problems caused by the horrific stench that was generated and the difficulty of maintaining any semblance of cleanliness.
There were several rental shanties adjacent to the plant, and while my dad would never have deliberately offended people, I am sure there was great unhappiness among these folks and also those who lived just a few blocks away on Chicken Hill.
After a year, he decided to build a more modern plant on Riverside Drive, now the site of the Riverside Antique Mall.
Despite many efforts to control the odor, it was still extremely offensive to people who were in the vicinity. It was just the nature of the beast (no pun intended). At least this was an industrial zone, and the nearest residences were almost a mile away. Unfortunately, much like the Champion and Enka plants, when the wind was right many town residents could still share the smell.
In those days, instead of offering a river arts tour, one could enjoy an olfactory mélange of offensive odors. Starting at the stockyard near the current Asheville Waste Paper site and moving north on Riverside Drive, the smell of manure and animal flatulence would be blended with smoke from the railroad and the cotton mill. Throw in a pinch of aroma from the Chesterfield Mill and the chicken-processing plant on West Haywood.
Then there was the reek of the most egregious environmental assault on the river—the putrid trash dump operated by the city of Asheville along the riverbank from the railroad bridge to Pearson Bridge. By the time you got to the splendid tang of the rendering plant, you had suffered a total crescendo of assault on your senses.
In this day of hyperregulatory overkill, it is hard to imagine that these operations could exist at all. But times were different then, and the Asheville area had gone through the industrial revolution, the Great Depression and the demands of a world war that dictated pragmatic solutions to economic survival.
In my next column, I will tell you about some of my personal experiences working in the rendering business, and hopefully that article will smell better.
[Jerry Sternberg is a longtime observer of the local scene. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.]