Four generations of preservation
As the smoke clears, Edwards preserves its history
SURRY —Just north of where Route 10 collides with the old John Rolfe Highway in Surry County, a man and a woman are having lunch on the shaded porch of a red-sided building emblazoned with the words “VA HAM.” The afternoon is hot and peaceful, cars whipping past on their way to the Scotland slip, where the ferry will take them across the James River to Jamestown.
In some ways, the Surry of 2017 is little changed from the Surry of 90 years ago. The ferry, now state-run, still serves as the only crossing of the James within 30 miles. Agriculture still plainly reigns over the life of the county seat, population 244. And people are still eating ham sandwiches made just beyond that town’s southern boundary at Edwards Virginia Smokehouse, which this year celebrates its 91st birthday with a distinctly non-local achievement: induction into the national Specialty Food Hall of Fame.
When Samuel Wallace Edwards Sr. started Edwards in 1926, “I don’t think he ever envisioned the company would do what it’s become,” said his grandson and current company president, Samuel Wallace Edwards III.
As Edwards Virginia Smokehouse moves further into the 21st century, the company is finding that in many ways its strength lies in its deep roots in the past — even after a devastating fire in January 2016 destroyed much of the physical evidence of those roots.
“It’s crazy how much we lost in the fire,” said Edwards. Besides 50,000 square feet of smokehouse, processing and warehouse space, much of it decades old, the blaze swallowed up old family journals, financial records, photographs and historical documents, all of them priceless artifacts that can never be replaced.
Still, Edwards has always been more than just a physical plant. Markers of its presence litter the town of Surry in a county known primarily for its annual Pork, Peanut and Pine Festival. A nomination form for the addition of the town to the National Register of Historic Places makes particular mention of Edwards as one of three local industries that produced the region’s mid-century “commercial and residential building boom.” And at the time of the fire, the business not only employed 50 people — a significant number in the thinly settled area — but was the major or sole purchaser of pork from almost two dozen farms, leaving these small producers with no place to sell their product.
In the aftermath of the fire, Edwards has been scraping by thanks to the aid of other smokehouses, which have allowed the company to cure its hams in their facilities. Even that, however, is fraught: over the years, smokehouses lend their meats a distinctive taste derived from the wood they burn and the smoking techniques they use. Producing the “Edwards flavor” takes not only hickory chips but also control of a range of variables from humidity to air circulation.
In a cruel twist, the closest Edwards was able to get to reproducing its characteristic flavor was at Harper’s Country Ham in Clifton, Ky., which burned down in February 2017 in a blaze almost identical to the one that leveled the Surry operation. At the time of the Kentucky fire, 6,000 of Edwards’ “Surryano” hams, an 18- to 24-month-cured ham featured on chef’s tables around the country, were hanging inside the smokehouse. They were all lost.
Still, tradition has a powerful way of lingering, and while down for the count, Edwards Virginia Smokehouse is by no means beaten. With the rise in interest in heritage meats, charcuterie and butchery — trends that Edwards said he was “fascinated by” — foodies and folks at home alike are taking a renewed interest in Virginia’s most famous product.
Sam Edwards III posing for a photo inside the aging room. [CONTRIBUTED PHOTO]
Sam Edwards III, right, standing with his father, Wallace Edwards, inside the aging room. [CONTRIBUTED PHOTO]
[CONTRIBUTED PHOTO] As Edwards Virginia Smokehouse moves further into the 21st century, the company is finding that in many ways its strength lies in its deep roots in the past — even after a devastating fire in January 2016 destroyed much of the physical evidence of those roots.