Lost Jacksonville: Broilers, Chicken Nuggets & Patties

December 5, 2014 2 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Metro Jacksonville takes a look at the rise and fall of a major local chicken processor and the Westside ruins that quietly remain today.

The story of behind what would eventually become one of Jacksonville's largest employers dates back to 1920 when Roger W. Painter, a former downtown clerk, opened the Roger W. Painter Company in a storefront at 744 West Adams Street.

Location of Roger W. Painter's poultry storefront in LaVilla in 1920.

His chicken and egg business was located in a small storefront adjacent to the Long Branch tenements, Arthur Flats, and bordellos in LaVilla's red light district. By 1930, the growing business had relocated to 591 Stockton Street in Riverside and Roger's son, George Painter, became the company's president.

Shortly after World War II, the poultry business became one of Florida's fastest growing farming enterprises. Despite bringing in $35.7 million in gross revenue in 1954, the amount of chickens and eggs being produced only met half of the state's domestic consumption demands.

Baby chickens at a Jacksonville area hatchery in 1950. Image courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/70058

At the same time, Jacksonville was in a stage of change. New limited access highways were being built all through Jacksonville's heart and Painter's business, at the intersection of Stockton and Phyllis Street, stood in the way.

Forced to relocate, Painter acquired a 20 acre site with a 48,355 square foot industrial building just outside of Jacksonville's city limits at 5421 West Beaver In the early 1960s, Painter expanded his operation with the opening of a hatchery on an old World War II airfield in Fleming Island. At it's height, the hatchery produced 650,000 broilers a week using 89 contract farms and five company-owned farms.

Painter's Fleming Island Hatchery. Painters Poultry hatchery in Fleming Island. Image courtesy of UF George A. Smathers Libraries.

In 1972, George Painter sold the company to Cargill Inc. In 1980, Cargill added a feed mill on the west side at 114 Halsema Road. On August 31, 1985, Cargill sold the three Jacksonville facilities to Tyson Foods, Inc. for $15.4 million. In 1991, Tyson expanded Beaver Street's operations with a 55,448-square foot warehouse and 6,000-square foot office complex.

As a part of Tyson's operation, the Beaver Street plant produced both fresh chicken products and chickens to be turned into chicken nuggets and patties. In December 2002, after 82 years of continuous operation, Tyson Foods announced their decision to get out of the Jacksonville chicken business.

Tyson's Beaver Street processing plant produced chicken products that were turned into nuggets and patties.

According to Tyson, there were three major reasons for abandoning North Florida and sending 737 Jaxsons to the unemployment line. All operations were too far from Midwestern grain suppliers, the local customer base for Tyson's chicken products was non-existent, and there were increasing maintenance costs with an aging plant that Tyson believed was too small.

The 138,000-square foot Beaver Street plant had the capacity to process 650,000 chickens each week, which was well below the average Tyson facility's 1 million birds per week. Of the jobs lost, 627 were at the Beaver Street chicken processing plant, 88 at the Halsema Road feed mill and 22 at the hatchery.

Inside a Tyson Foods processing plant. Image courtesy of Tyson Foods.

Today, the Fleming Island hatchery no longer stands. It was demolished to make way for Christ Church Fleming Island in 2006. However, the skeletal remains of 5421 West Beaver Street still remain.

As for Beaver Street, shortly after operations ceased, the property was purchased by Shep Ellis, owner of Shep's Discount & Salvage for $1.1 million. At the time, according to Ellis, "Everybody... was just thinking of it as a chicken processing plant and didn't see anything else. I saw something different." Something different indeed.  The property ended up being converted into an auction site with an appropriate name-- Shep's Chicken House.

A 2014 aerial of the former Tyson Foods chicken processing plant.

Next Page: Images of former processing plant today

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