An early-morning fire Wednesday destroyed Harper’s Country Ham in Clinton, burning most of the 100,000-square-foot building to the ground and leaving the future of the business and its 70 employees in doubt.
No one was in the building when the fire started, and no injuries were reported.
David Cox, chief of Hickman County Fire and Rescue, said the fire was called in to 911 at 5:50 a.m.
“I knew immediately this was going to be something that we needed help from multiple agencies,” Cox said. The word went out, and emergency response teams from Hickman, Carlisle, Graves, Fulton and Ballard counties assisted.
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Plant manager Sean Goetz called the building “a total loss.” Goetz arrived at the business on U.S. 51 around 6 a.m. and said it appeared that the fire started near the middle of the building.
Cox would not speculate on where the fire started or its cause. He said variable winds caused the fire to spread quickly.
The state fire marshal is investigating.
First District U.S. Rep. James Comer released a statement saying, “I was saddened to hear about the devastating fire that burned Harper’s Country Hams. Thankfully no one died in the fire, but the loss on the community is terrible. As a well-known business in Hickman County, it is an important part of many people’s lives in western Kentucky. Our thoughts are with the firefighters, the employees and their families today.”
Gov. Matt Bevin posted on social media, “We just received news of a fire at Harper’s Foods, a fixture in the Clinton community for generations. We are thankful for those fighting this fire, and pray the situation will soon be resolved.”
It’s uncertain what’s next for the company.
“We don’t know what our future plans are,” President Dolores Harper said as she took a break from visiting with employees at First United Methodist Church in downtown Clinton.
The church opened its hall to Harper’s employees and served them refreshments throughout the day. Shortly after noon, 12 employees consoled one another and some contacted the Kentucky Office of Employment and Training regarding filing for unemployment.
County Attorney Jason Batts announced the formation of a community aid and relief effort to assist employees.
“A lot of people went to bed last night with a job and woke up without one,” Batts said.
Donations are being accepted at Clinton Bank, First Community Bank and the Hickman County Attorney’s office. Donations can also be mailed to: Hickman County Attorney, 110 E. Clay St., Suite D, Clinton, Ky. 42031.
Batts said all tax-deductible donations would go directly to the nonprofit Mission House, which will work to distribute the funds to Harper’s employees.
Harper’s Country Hams have been produced in Clinton since Curtis Harper returned from World War II and began farming and custom meat processing. West Kentucky Star reported that the business has won six grand champion awards at the Kentucky State Fair, according to Associated Press.
The business began in 1952 and has been operated on the same land by Dolores (Torian) Harper, his daughter-in-law, who is president, and his grandson Brian, who is vice president.
In a story last August in The Sun, Brian Harper said the company sells an estimated 200,000 hams a year.
He said because most sales now are of smaller packages instead of a whole ham, “We would probably be talking several million packages a year out of those 200,000 hams.”
Each product is hand-rubbed “the cure” of sugar, salt, sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite by Harper’s employees, a process that hasn’t changed since Curtis Harper started it. Brian Harper said some employees have probably hand-rubbed “easily over a million hams.”