Did you know that Paducah was once home to a couple large peanut factories?!
Paducah Peanut Company first opened in 1892 and occupied the entire block corner of Second and Jefferson streets, where the lawn for the National Quilt Museum is now. Pictured is a small artist’s rendering of that first building. Their business consisted of purchasing peanuts from a grower, and then cleaning the nuts with machinery to ultimately ship to consumers. Two years after opening, the company boasted having already shipped out 300,000 bushels of peanuts. (FYI: It takes 540 peanuts to make a 12 oz. jar of peanut butter
At this period in history, the late 19th century, peanuts were not exactly a popular crop, not popular like today. While eaten and enjoyed, the peanut plant was thought too laborious to grow, harvest, and process on a large scale. It was often used as animal feed. Planters Peanuts wasn’t founded until 1906, and George Washington Carver didn’t start his influential peanut research until 1915. As such, the Paducah Peanut Company was ahead of its time. The sort of cleaning machinery the Paducah Peanut Company used at the time wasn’t seen much outside of the state of Virginia (where most of the peanuts were grown then). One early article in the Paducah Sun stated that there were only four such peanut cleaning machines west of Virginia in the early 1900’s: two in St. Louis, one in Nashville, and the one at the Paducah Peanut Company. (FYI: follow this link to read the list of 300 uses for the peanut as published by G.W. Carver, including mock oysters, hand lotion, and axel grease. http://www.tuskegee.edu/about_us/legacy_of_fame/george_w_carver/carver_peanut_products.aspx)
The original Paducah Peanut Company was founded and managed by J.F. Perrine who farmed peanuts himself for a couple years in Humphries County, TN before moving to Paducah to open his peanut cleaning business. By all accounts, Perrine’s business was a success for nearly 12 years. In 1903, however, another peanut moved to town. The Southern Peanut Company, run by John W. Scott, bought out the Paducah Peanut Company, and for a while, operated out of the same buildings on Second and Jefferson. They advertised to selling the “finest of Fancy Virginia, White Tennessee, and Fancy Reds” varieties of nuts. (FYI: Runner peanuts are now the most commonly grown in the United States, accounting for 80% of the crop.)
Within a year, Southern Peanut outgrew their facilities and moved into a four-story facility near the river and rail line at First and Washington streets. The new, larger factory claimed to employ 350 people. Around the same time, Southern Peanut also purported to introduce wider peanut farming to Western Kentucky which brought a lot of tangential business to the area as well. It looked for a bit as if Western Kentucky was vying to become a peanut capital!
The peanut business wasn’t without its hazards, however. Fires were a constant threat on the grounds of the factory because of the flammability of empty peanut hulls. Fire Company No. 1 in Paducah declared the hulls “a menace to the mill and surrounding property” (Paducah Evening Sun, August 27, 1906). Also, the dust level created by the factory was said to be nearly unbelievable. The Sun reported in 1906, that “anyone who goes into the peanut factory now wonders the employees can live at all in such an atmosphere. Sometimes the air is so laden with dust, that you can see only the outline of a person across a room from you.” Because of the dust, two businesses nearby pressed litigation on Southern Peanut. The river industry claimed that the dust emitting from the factory kept them from painting their boats, and the Paducah Water factory across from Southern Peanut said that the dust from the peanuts was settling in the machinery at the water plant and injuring it. Southern Peanut ultimately smoothed things over by installing a dust collector on the roof of their mill. (FYI – OSHA now has strict guidelines for peanut mills because of the highly combustible nature of the dust created by peanut meal and skins).
As quickly as the peanut business seemed to arrive in Paducah, however, they also left. By 1907, the Southern Peanut was poised to boom. An article in the Paducah Evening Sun on June 8, 1907 stated company that reported to doing half a million dollars of business a year. The plan was to reorganize its capital stock, expand its Paducah plant, and build a new plant in Texas that would handle all kinds of southern nuts. Just a couple months later, however, a small article in the Sun on October 21, 1907 stated that the Southern Peanut Company had gone bankrupt. It’s not exactly clear from the information available what went wrong.