Factory debris being cleared from Harper's Country Ham factory site.
(Hickman County, KY) - In the very early morning hours of Wednesday, February 8, 2017, scores of lives in this small rural county changed dramatically. Harper's Country Hams caught fire and burned to the ground.
In a very short time, more than sixty people lost their jobs. A family business was gone. A source of community pride lay in ruins.
The fire smoldered for days after an early arriving employee called 911 because he saw smoke. Fire fighters came from departments around the region to fight the fire. Water became an issue as over and over pumper trucks visited Clinton, the county seat, to visit fire hydrants for refills.
The most positive news was that the facility hadn't opened for the day yet so no one was in the sprawling 100,000 square foot facility at the time of the fire. What started it is still under investigation.
By daylight, the community had jumped in with water, juice, sandwiches and donuts donated by Greg's Market for first responders. Volunteers showed up with computers and expertise to help shocked employees apply for unemployment. The Purchase Area Development District sent a rapid response team to help out with applications and aid.
By Sunday, churches were collecting donations to the Mission House which would manage funds for laid off workers, many of whom live paycheck to paycheck.
Harper's Country Hams has been a fixture since it began over fifty years ago. The company supplied country ham slices to local grocery stores and restaurants like The Cracker Barrel. Harper's won five grand champion blue ribbons at the Kentucky State Fair as of 2015.
Brian Harper, grandson of the founder, hasn't said whether the factory will reopen. Harper, in his mid forties, has been a major part of the business for years. He told WPSD Channel 6 that early morning calls have meant tragedy for his family. He recalled the unsolved robbery and murder of his grandfather, Curtis Harper, in September 1995. The murder occurred at the factory in the early morning hours and remains a cold case.
Whether the factory can come back, according to observers, will depend on how far the company's insurance money will go. Insurance company representatives have been on the scene since early on. Insurance representatives, citing health and animal issues, ordered a mass grave for the many hams recovered from the fire.
Harper's Country Hams hosted Hickman County Chamber of Commerce Leadership Classes for yearly tours as part of Business and Industry Day. Shown at left, students watch workers cut hams into slices. Note the large box of ham slices in box at foreground. Hickman County High School students wound their way through the stages of creation of a country ham. The process takes months of careful work.
Brian Harper spent time explaining to students the rules and requirements his company has to follow to keep the hams safe for consumption. The company worked hard to maintain its stellar safety record.
Expressions of support come from Governor Bevin, US Senators and Rep. Comer who represents the First Congressional District. Whether sympathy translates to government aid is still up in the air. Local officials have offered the use of empty buildings, including the local detention center and a spot in a business park on the other side of Clinton.
As one Harper family member told us, it's hard to look at the site without crying.
Everyone in Hickman County knows that feeling.
The fire was fueled by a building full of combustible fats, meat.
After the fire - no porch, no rocking chairs. No factory.
Harper's Country Hams in happier days - rocking chairs on the porch.
Sen. Mitch McConnell addressed crowd at an event last summer from front porch of Curtis Harper's first home. Firemen were able to save this building which held company records.
The main building burned - small house left standing.
Hams ready for shipping. Harper's supplied Wal-Mart, local groceries and Cracker Barrel with its award winning country ham.
Harper's Country Hams sign - a landmark on Highway 51 between Clinton and Bardwell. On the far left, debris can be seen still smoking two days after the fire.
Students listen to a presentation on factory operations.