I’ve been taken to the woodshed by some animal-rights folks after describing my experience buying a lot of old horses and mules at the Asheville stockyard to be processed in my father’s rendering plant (see “The Gospel According to Jerry,” Nov. 26, 2008 Xpress).
There was no truck available to haul these animals. My father told me in no uncertain terms to get these animals to the plant any way I could. And as a 16-year-old kid, my solution was to rope them all together and drive them down Riverside Drive.
The animal people seem to think I exhibited extreme cruelty.
To begin with, this happened more than 60 years ago. In those days, when a youngster was told to do something—whether at home, school or on the job—there was no counting to three, no time-out in your room. Failure to respond, or rebellion, brought swift justice that was ofttimes painful.
This was called discipline, and my exposure to it has served me well over the years.
Second, these critics made the assumption that we didn’t feed or water the animals. Compassion aside, it would have been bad business not to feed them, as we would have experienced shrinkage, reducing their value.
Third, these folks assumed that I derived great pleasure from working in the rendering business. Nothing could be further from the truth. It was nasty, smelly, grueling work, but when I was told to do it, I carried out my assignment.
I should point out that it’s possible to become desensitized to even the worst conditions.
I remember when we used to go to the Baker Packing Co. on Craven Street, just west of the river, to pick up hides. We worked in a huge room where freshly killed carcasses were draining, and the blood would run over our rubber boots. Yet the men were always thrilled when some of the employees would give us “weenies” (fresh-made hot dogs). We would spear them on a piece of wire, cook them in an open steam line and eat them right there on the floor.
And at the rendering plant, some of the skinners would sit on an animal carcass and eat their lunch. My father, however, put a stop to that, requiring them to eat in the break room.
It should also be noted that to this day, large farm animals are still disposed of in rendering plants, as it’s very expensive and environmentally unsafe to bury them.
That’s a perfect segue to my final story about the rendering plant, which wound up being a life-changing event for me.
Among the services we offered was free pickup of dead farm animals in Buncombe and the four surrounding counties.
We had a pickup truck with a hand winch, four greasy boards to serve as a ramp, and a nasty tarpaulin for covering the carcasses. I begged my dad to put a power takeoff on the winch, but he said it would cost too much money.
I got my driver’s license at the Asheville Police Department at the age of 15. I was so short I had to stand on tiptoes to pass the 5-foot height limitation.
I was excited about getting my license—till I found out I was now qualified to drive the pickup truck.
Making these runs was definitely a challenge. Finding these farms was difficult, and there were no cell phones or GPS.
These animals often died in extremely inconvenient places, such as cornfields and creeks. Some weighed more than 2,000 pounds, and I would have to put a chain around their neck and crank and crank till my arm locked up.
To make matters worse, many of the farmers were very attached to these animals. There I was, like a hangman, with a noose around the animal’s neck. The tongue would be hanging out and the eyes bulging out of the head. Women and children would be crying and shrieking, and I almost felt it was my fault. Now I know how an undertaker feels.
To placate the farmers, I would tell them we had a special room at the plant with big urns full of flowers, and a part-time preacher who would send these animals off to their heavenly pasture in style.
I tried to get away as quickly as possible, before they figured out how stupid that sounded.
After two summers of making these “dead-stock runs,” I headed off to UNC, vowing that I would somehow avoid ever working at the rendering plant again.
My solution was the life-changing event. I convinced my dad that if I attended summer school, I could finish college sooner—saving money—and then once again be available to work.
I managed to graduate in three-and-a-half years, but I was immediately greeted with a jarring surprise: my draft notice. Since I was no longer in college, I was no longer exempt—and rather than becoming a grunt in Korea, I enlisted in the U.S. Navy, where I served nearly five years.
By the time I returned to Asheville, the rendering plant had mercifully been sold to a national firm that operated it until the 1980s. Even after they closed the plant and cleaned it up, you could still smell it for a mile in any direction on a warm summer day.
And now for the rest of the story.
I later bought the old property and demolished the buildings, erecting a new one that’s now home to the French Broad Antique Mall.
But I can still remember the awful smell of that rendering plant, and I can tell you that there’s nothing bittersweet about that memory.
[Jerry Sternberg has been active on the local scene for many years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.]