It took 55 years for Harper’s Country Hams of Clinton, Ky. to become one of the nation’s leading producers of cured ham. Yet in only a few hours, a massive fire turned the 100,000-square-foot plant into pile of twisted steel and smoldering rubble. According Brian Harper, the company’s co-owner and vice president, an electrical fire likely started the blaze in an attic area near the center of the plant. When an employee saw smoke there, he knew it spelled trouble.
“By the time I got there … no one could go back into the building to grab anything, because it was too smoky and dangerous,” said Brian Harper. The plant, built in 1952, did not have a sprinkler system, but it was insured. “Our office manager takes a back-up of critical financial things with her every day, but otherwise, it’s a total loss.”
Harper estimates the fire consumed 45,000 whole hams in addition to bacon, ham slices and cracklin’s. The plant produces approximately 230,000 hams per year, just over 9 percent of the country ham industry’s estimated 2.5-million-ham yearly output. Among the inventory in cure were 6,000 Surryano hams, the long-aged, high-end hindquarters produced by Edwards Virginia Smokehouse. Due to a December 2015 fire that consumed Edwards’ Surry, Va., operation, Harper’s was curing the Surryanos on contract.
“It’s tragic for us, but almost unimaginable for (owner Sam Edwards, III) to lose all his inventory, then have us cure hams for him, get a year into it and all then all of it burns,” Harper said. “He put a plan in place, trusted us enough to do the process for him, and now that’s gone.”
Harper isn’t certain whether the plant will be rebuilt. At 75, his mother, Delores Harper, co-owner and president, was planning to retire. Unlike him, Harper’s sons aren’t part of the family business. He joined his father, Gary Harper, and his grandfather, founder Curtis Harper, in the business after graduating college just shy of three decades ago.
“I can’t see my mother starting a meat plant from the ground up at 75,” Harper said, adding that the fire left 60 workers unemployed. “The investment to do that is huge, so we’d not have a plant the size of what we had. But maybe we’d start small and get growing again. Maybe we’ll do some co-packing until then.”
The day Harper’s burned, Sam Edwards saw news videos of the tragedy and thought, “That looks eerily similar to the video of our plant burning.”
The unusually high winds on February 8 fanned flames from the plant’s production area to the aging house where Edwards’ inventory hung.
“We hoped the fire department could put it out, but Clinton is a lot like Surry: its fire department is equipped to take care of a residence, not a factory fire like that,” Edwards noted.
Edwards said his hams were curing nicely at Harper’s, and that he’s disheartened by the loss.
“But trust me, we’re just devastated to see that happen to them,” he said.