When Harold Williams, founder of the West Tennessee-based Williams Sausage Company, first began selling sausage in 1958, he boasted a modest operation through which he sold small amounts of sausage to a handful of individuals and families. In fact, the operation was so small that Harold’s wife Hazel actually hand-sewed the cloth bags in which the sausage was sold.
Flash forward more than half a century, though, and Williams Sausage has become a multi-million dollar company whose products are consumed in nearly 40 states spanning across the country. In fact, the company just finished a two-year, $16 million project in which 40,000 square feet was added to its existing processing facility in Union City, Tenn. The recent success of Williams Sausage demonstrates just how viable sausage processing is as an industry in Tennessee.
“I guess you could say we’ve managed to stay up with the times,” says Roger Williams, Harold and Hazel’s son, and currently the president of the Williams Sausage Company.
Williams Sausage produces whole-hog country sausage in chubs, links, patties and in breakfast sandwiches, a line of products that is similar to those produced by a handful of other Tennessee-based sausage companies, the majority of which have a similar homegrown history to that of Williams.
“There were dozens of companies that started as small family operations,” says Harry Womack, who served as vice president of quality assurance and product development for Sara Lee until his 1995 retirement. Womack began his career with Rudy’s Farm Sausage, a Nashville-based sausage company with a history that mirrors that of Williams Sausage.
“When most of these companies started, raising hogs was an everyday thing for Tennessee farmers,” he says. “People in Tennessee have grown up eating and producing sausage.”
The workforce’s familiarity with the industry, plus the state’s central location in what Roger Williams calls “the sausage belt,” are among the other important factors that have kept sausage processing a stable industry in Tennessee despite the fact that swine production has almost exclusively migrated to Midwestern states such as Iowa.
In turn, Tennessee’s position as a hub for sausage processing has helped to create a tight-knit community of sausage companies, all of which provide much-needed rural manufacturing jobs.
The completed expansion at Williams Sausage, for example, added 75 new jobs to the company, taking the total number of employees to 375, a number Williams hopes to continue to build on over the next three years.
“It seems like America is becoming more and more concentrated in the cities,” Williams says. “But we think it is important to provide jobs in rural areas. That approach has been good for our company because we get a ton of support from the local community.”
Historically, many pork-related companies have been headquartered in Tennessee, including both sausage and country ham processors, most of which have gone from small-scale family operations like the ones described by Womack, to full-sized manufacturing businesses that produce convenience sausage items for supermarkets and restaurant chains.
“These companies started here and grew here,” Womack says. “And I see no reason why they won’t stay here and be profitable for years to come.”
Other Prominant Tennessee Sausage Companies Include:
Tennessee Pride was started in 1943 by Douglas Odom Sr., who had been in the meat business his whole life. Odom experimented with spice formulas to create the sausage recipe that is still used today. The Madison-based company is now run by Odom’s grandson, Larry D. Odom, and has 700 employees.
Country music singer, television host and actor Jimmy Dean founded his sausage brand in 1969 with his brother Don. Today, the company, located in Newbern, is owned by the Sara Lee Corporation and produces bacon, breakfast bowls, sandwiches and omelets along with its line of sausage products.
James Goolsby grew up on a farm in Viola, Tenn., where he cured country hams and shoulders and made sausage with his family. He founded Goolsby Sausage Company in 1981 and worked to develop a recipe that tasted like the country sausage his family once made. Goolsby Country Sausage, now a product of James Meat Company, is manufactured in Cookeville.
Wampler’s Farm Sausage has been a family operation since its beginnings in Riley Wampler’s kitchen back in 1937. The wholesale meat company incorporated in 1953 and was officially named Wampler’s Farm Sausage Company in 1981. Today, the company’s sausage is sold under the Wampler name as well as many private label brands. Its plant is located in the Eaton Crossroads community of Lenoir City.
The recipe for Swaggerty’s Sausage Company’s product began more than 80 years ago on a Sevier County farm in Kodak, where Lonas Swaggerty developed his sausage recipe using hams and tenderloins. Three generations later, the modern processing facility remains in Kodak, and the original sausage recipe is still one of the company’s most popular products.