In the early 1950s a group of business leaders, concentrated in Siloam Springs' Chamber of Commerce, were looking for ways to increase the town's level of employment and quality of life. Some of the names -- Wasson, Allen, Crain, Henry, Pyeatte -- will be familiar to people who have lived in the area a while.
In 1951, Bill Simmons lived in Siloam Springs but ran a business called Pluss Poultry in Decatur, where he faced a number of challenges. Among other problems, the city of Decatur was unable or unwilling to install a sewage system, which made it difficult to operate a poultry processing plant.
The leaders in Siloam Springs wanted Simmons among them and they wanted his business to set up in town. Simmons said he was open to a move but could use some help.
The Chamber proposed to donate a site for a new poultry plant in Siloam Springs and vowed to raise $13,500 to help pay construction costs. The Chamber then called for a public gathering at the Community Building to see if residents were willing to raise the funds that would help bring the new business to town.
More than 100 residents attended the meeting on June 21, 1951. They heard that Pluss Poultry envisioned a plant costing about $250,000. They learned that, early on, the plant would process about 20,000 chickens a day, with the goal of raising the figure to 25,000. They learned that the new business would employ between 150 and 200 people, bringing to the community a weekly payroll of between $8,000 and $10,000. Broiler raisers in the area, meanwhile, could anticipate an annual income of between $10,000 to $15,000.
We don't know all that was said at the meeting, but we do know that Bob Henry, owner of a local hardware store and future mayor, was the first to raise his hand. He donated $500. The Crain Motor Company did the same, as did Allan Industries and the Millsap Food Liner, which later would become IGA and eventually Harp's. Oklahoma Tire and Supply gave $250, as did the Family Shoe Store. Bynum Grocery and the Rotary Club, like many others, gave $100. The Christian Church and Rhoda's Fashion Shop offered $25. Roy Davis granted $1. Margaret's California Store contributed 50 cents. From its own coffers the city pitched in $3,500. The total raised in about ninety minutes came to $19,071,50.
The next morning Bill Simmons and his partner Frank Pluss met with Chamber leadership and signed the contract to build the plant. Over the years the company would undergo several name changes, eventually becoming Simmons Foods.
We tend not to think of it, but Siloam Springs is the economic engine of western Benton County and the adjoining areas in Oklahoma and Missouri. This began in 1951. The people who gathered at the Community Building in June of that year had no idea that they were making probably the most economically consequential decision not only in the history of Siloam Springs but in the region.
The community leaders who put all this together had the town's best interests in mind. They wanted to succeed as individuals, and in moments of contention they advocated their particular points of view, but they were driven by a public spiritedness that is hard to detect these days.
No one in Siloam Springs had a television in 1951. Cell phones and social media were unthinkable to most people thirty years ago, let alone in 1951. For diversion people read books, newspapers and magazines; they joined clubs and participated in church activities; they attended lectures by JBU professors and listened to stories from missionaries who passed through town. Some were Democrats, some Republicans, but the differences among them were minor by today's standards.
Humans were involved, so we can be sure there were problems and plenty of complaining. Yet as we observe our own situation--more connected but also often more isolated than ever -- it's hard not to think that something worthwhile has been lost on the path to the future.
A study of Siloam Springs and towns nearby (e.g., Gentry and Decatur), as well as a history of Simmons Foods, formerly known as Pluss Poultry, Plus Poultry and Simmons Industries in the years 1949-1974, is nearing completion. If you have documents, photos, artifacts, or memories related to these towns or businesses from those years, please contact [email protected] /(479) 524-7488.
Preston Jones lives in Siloam Springs and works on numerous educational projects, including "War and Life: Discussions with Veterans," which can be found at https://warandlifediscussions.weebly.com/. The opinions expressed are those of the author.