Town Square: Wine and poultry power Rose Hill

 In November 2019, Town Square

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By Bryan Mims

On the first Saturday of November, men wearing aprons and wielding pitchforks gather around a great big cauldron crackling with breasts, legs, thighs and wings. They watch the white meat turn gold and greasy in 200 gallons of cooking oil, which is what it takes to fill the World’s Largest Frying Pan. And in Rose Hill — with an estimated population of 1,623 — that’s something to crow about.

It sits in full glory at the corner of Main and Sycamore, enshrined beneath a red-roofed gazebo on the town square with a sign expounding its grandness. From its 6-foot handle to its 45-foot circumference, heated with 40 gas burners, the 2-ton pan is capable of cooking 365 chickens at a time.

It’s no wonder why such a wondrously large pan is the star attraction of the North Carolina Poultry Jubilee, the signature event in the eastern North Carolina town 45 miles north of Wilmington. “The town would about quadruple in size,” says Forest Hawes, a 56-year-old native who works at the Trading Co. of Rose Hill, a downtown hardware and feed store. The store’s owner, Wally Short, chimes in: “It was a big thing years ago.”

Recessions and hurricanes during Rose Hill’s 56-year history ate away at the crowds. After Hurricane Matthew scrubbed it in 2016, the town moved the jubilee from early October to the first weekend in November. Even if the event is smaller than it was back in the early days, the jubilee is still finger-lickin’ good, frying up piles of chicken and paying tribute to the area’s poultry prominence. House of Raeford Farms, one of the top 10 U.S. poultry producers, was hatched and is now headquartered in Rose Hill. Drive into town from the north on U.S. 117, and you’ll see the company’s “Big Ed” feed mill tower looming over the Duplin County farm fields like a concrete monolith.

Farmers in these parts have long been raising chickens for meat and eggs. In the 1950s, a local transplant named Dennis Ramsey, whose movie theater went dark as more living rooms glowed with TV screens, decided to make money by building a chicken house. He contracted with local farmers to raise the birds and called his business Ramsey Feed Co.

At the same time in the same town, Marvin and Bizzell Johnson were selling a lot of turkeys. They liked Ramsey’s contract-farming model and chose to do the same with their own birds. In 1955, the brothers and their father, Nash Johnson, built their first feed mill in Rose Hill. Four years later, they opened a chicken hatchery, outselling Ramsey and nearly everyone else. After the family bought a turkey plant 90 miles west in Raeford, the company consolidated as House of Raeford Farms in 1974.

The business now employs about 6,000 at chicken processing plants in the Carolinas, Georgia and Louisiana. More than 450 farms in the four states raise chickens for the company. Due to sagging turkey demand, the company scrapped turkey production in 2013, closing the Raeford plant that inspired the company’s name. It remains family-owned, with co-founder Marvin Johnson’s son, Robert, serving as president and chief executive officer.

To celebrate the area’s poultry growers, Ramsey Feed cooked up the idea for the World’s Largest Frying Pan. In 1963, employees built it with steel from Queensboro Steel Corp. in Wilmington, making it in time for Rose Hill’s first Poultry Jubilee. These days, the jubilee features a wing cook-off, a wing-eating contest, concerts, the crowning of Miss Rose Hill and 12 hours of serving up piles of fried chicken.

But festival weekend isn’t the only time you can partake in Rose Hill’s Southern-fried staple. Stop in for lunch at the Rose Hill Restaurant, hands down one of the most favored gathering places in town, and dig into the fried chicken tenders — the most popular entree — and the fried chicken, all from House of Raeford. The restaurant also dishes out a hearty helping of town history, with its walls furnished in old photos and short narratives of landmarks, including one black-and-white of the first Poultry Jubilee. Other images show the driving force that gave rise to Rose Hill: the railroad.

When the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad was completed in 1840, it became the longest railroad in the world at 161 miles. Rose Hill, named for the wild roses that grew along the tracks, developed as a shipping depot for the lucrative tar, turpentine and timber industries. A store, hotel, church and a few homes sprouted. By the early 1900s, farmers were bringing crops and produce to the railroad platform, most notably strawberries. In those days, about a third of North Carolina’s tart red berries shipped through Rose Hill.

BEARING NEW FRUIT

A different fruit has turned Rose Hill into another kind of hub, replete with sweet rosé. On the north end of town, Duplin Winery — also referred to as “The Winery of the South” — pulls in palates off Interstate 40 with its splashy billboards and its increasingly popular name. The Duplin brand is now available on store shelves across 17 states.

“We’ve been very, very lucky,” says Dave Fussell Jr., who owns the winery with his brother, Jonathan. That wasn’t always the case. The family business hit a long streak of bad luck that threatened to dry up the whole enterprise. It all started in 1972, when the Fussells’ father, grandfather and uncle decided to start growing muscadine grapes to sell to a winery in New York. Wine drinkers up North had a thirst for a sweeter wine, which the South’s native muscadine grapevines could quench.

The New York winery promised to pay the Fussells $350 per ton for the grapes. But within three years, the market soured, and the price dropped to $150 per ton. In order to recoup their losses, the Fussells decided to make their own wine and create their own market. Relatives pitched in, stomping grapes and licking labels to slap onto Mason jars — a cheaper alternative to wine bottles. They had to deliver their product in converted hog trailers. But this was a small Southern town in the ’70s, and it had little appetite for breaking bread with winemakers.

“It didn’t sit well with the locals,” Dave says. “Our grandmother actually came home from church one day crying, ‘The girls have said we’re opening a factory of sin.’ So we had to close on Sunday. We’re like the Chick-fil-A of the wine business.”

In 1976, the family’s first year of making wine, the winery sold 20 cases. A year later, the amount surged to 1,000 cases. By 1983, it was cranking out 44,000 cases — adding up to 200,000 gallons — a year. But the next decade would prove dreadful. After a lawsuit forced North Carolina to ditch tax breaks for in-state growers, Duplin had to raise prices. Wine sales plunged. Dave’s father lost the house, sold off equipment and almost quit.

But the family pressed on. “Because we had lost so much money and lost our home, we were going to be conservative in growing and not try to borrow any money,” Dave says. “We had it figured out: We could grow about 30,000 cases a year using our own profits.” Sales began to rebound, slowly at first, but then exponentially. By 2018, Duplin Winery had sold 519,000 cases — nearly 2 million gallons — of wine.

As a testament to the winery’s growing renown, the brothers opened a second winery in North Myrtle Beach, S.C., and are considering a location in Florida. About 80% of Duplin’s grapes are raised in eastern North Carolina, with a handful of growers in other states. “We just happened to find really good people to take ownership of the winery and work side by side with us.”

FROM POULTRY AND WINE PRESSES TO PORK

Rose Hill is bookended in the north with poultry and in the south by a feed mill for pigs. Murphy-Brown LLC, a subsidiary of pork giant Smithfield Foods Inc., owns the grain elevator. Rose Hill is deep in the heart of North Carolina’s pork country, with Duplin County ranking as one of the nation’s largest hog-raising counties. The county produced more than 1.9 million pigs in 2017, according to federal data.

In addition to running the Trading Co. of Rose Hill, Wally Short is one of those farmers, raising about 80,000 hogs. Signs are posted on the walls and windows of his downtown store that say “Stand For Hog Farmers” and “No Farms = No Food.”

“This store is a hundred years old this year,” says Short, 62. “It’s the longest continuously running business in Duplin County.” He’d like to see some life return to what he considers a dying downtown. “I mean, there’s nothing here,” he says, pointing out a church, an insurance services company and the post office. “That’s about it.” And town leaders have not put forth any plans to rejuvenate Main Street.

The lifeblood of town flows mostly along U.S. 117, where the Rose Hill Restaurant, Duplin Winery and the World’s Largest Frying Pan all command attention. The sign on the frying pan’s gazebo enthuses that Rose Hill offers a “hometown atmosphere in close proximity to the coast and capital of North Carolina” — Raleigh is about 80 miles west.

A few other towns across the country have boasted that they have the world’s largest frying pan, but only Rose Hill can claim the bona fide biggest. And, as the sign says, the Poultry Jubilee is “a celebration of an industry, a people and a way of life.”

It’s something this town of modest size and strange superlative deserves to crow about.

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