Milestones for Newsom's Ham on Main Street

Milestones were reached for Col. Newsom’s Aged Kentucky Country Hams in 2007. The family business was founded on Jan. 1, 1917, as a general mercantile retail store, and on Oct. 4, 1987, the business, which had become a full-service downtown neighborhood grocery, suffered a catastrophic fire. With the fire, which gutted the grocery, Nancy Newsom Mahaffey, known nationally now as “the ham lady,” became the third generation of her family to own, operate and put her entrepreneurial stamp on the retail business.

The first store, H.C. Newsom Store, general mercantile and groceries, was established by Nancy’s grandfather. His customers arrived at the Main Street store by horsedrawn wagon and buckboard (a sideless flatbed style) to carry away barrels and bags of flour, sugar and meal; nails and building supplies, wagon wheels, tombstones, notions, household items, whatever foodstuffs they couldn’t grow themselves, and, of course, aged meats. It was “one-stop shopping” for an era gone by.

Newsom was a great promoter and even offered sets of dishes as a premium to loyal shoppers.

When H.C. Newsom died, he left four children, the oldest of whom, was to follow him into business.

William H. Newsom, at age 18, took on the mantle of the business and the household with three younger siblings, his mother and a couple of other relatives to provide for in the extended family.

Provide he did. Bill Newsom knew hard work and its rewards — not all monetary. He invested his efforts in building a cornerstone business, supporting his church and community. And, he adapted to change — traffic on Main Street was converted from two-way to one-way and, when federal regulations dictated in the 1960s, he built a facility to meet the USDA rules for curing country hams.

Nancy was Bill Newsom’s youngest child and on occasion trailed behind her busy father or (so it seemed to the child) waited on him much of the time. Bill and his bride Jane (mother of Nancy and Jim, her older brother by nine years) were both at work in the store daily for six-day work weeks.

Actually, Nancy recalls hers as a busy childhood, but apparently one in which she was preparing all the while to become third in the line of Newsom entrepreneurs to produce and market aged meats — in particular the Colonel’s Kentucky Ham.

Eventually, as a young working mother Nancy had joined the grocery staff and begun working with the mail order business. “Dad wouldn’t tell you how to do anything but one time. You paid attention or you learned how to watch for what you wanted to know without asking,” she recalls.

Bill offered the lessons daily as he worked in the grocery with his daughter until fire gutted the Main Street store.

About 12 years before the fire though, the transition from grocery had begun as it must with modern supermarkets springing up and drawing away the downtown trade. The late James Beard, an internationally renowned chef and author, stumbled upon Colonel Newsom’s hams tucked away in the Kentucky hills in 1975.

Beard wrote about Newsom’s in his syndicated gourmet reviews, made sure that many of his friends had a taste and the word was out.

Writers across the country discovered Newsom’s and the business, the family and the product made a good story time and again in Esquire, the New York Times, Women’s Day, Food & Wine, The Wine Spectator, Gourmet Digest, True Grits, Gourmet, Country Home, New York Magazine, Men’s Vogue, SlowFood USA, The Splendid Table, Chow and most recently ForbesLife. (Now Details March 2008 has added a feature on Newsom's.)

Nancy and her ham tradition were also featured in a widely distributed book by author Peter Kaminsky, who is also a columnist for the New York Times.

“We have been fortunate that people have found us and that they want to write about us and tell other people about us. If you have a good product and give good service, people appreciate it,” Nancy said.

The Newsom business might have folded in the face of that disastrous fire of 20 years ago, but Nancy remembers telling her father, “You can’t quit now. We’ve got a smokehouse full of hams to sell.”

He had replied, “Well, then you do it.”

And so, she did.

Nancy had barely let the embers of the old building grow cold when she was opening her Old Mill Store, just two doors down. The Newsom’s had rented the old Purina store for part of the plant and garden supply business, one of the other mainstays through the decades. The “Mill,” protected by a fire wall and the quick response of the Princeton Fire Department, was virtually untouched by the fire next door.

The mill and tavern building, actually two structures at one point, are among the city’s oldest buildings and have a legacy of history that ties the community to stagecoach trails and the civil war.

Nancy and Ed Thompson, who had worked with the family for years at the time of the fire, soon got to work in the mill store and set some chrysanthemums out on the sidewalk to soften the scene that was all charred timbers and scorched iron. Someone came along and bought them, then their replacements, then more and more, came into the store, bought the hams and whatever Nancy could find to offer that year and the next, and the next, and on.

Yet another transition was in the making even as the Newsoms — Bill gave his moral support and became a fixture in Nancy’s store — were rebuilding. It was the “World Wide Web.”

Dictated by the marketplace and pace of today’s lifestyles, the Newsom business was taken in yet another direction. The smalltown business became firmly established as a national mail order and Internet retail outlet featuring Newsom’s artisan ham — recognized by food critics, restaurateurs and writers across the country as “a truly rare find.”

Newsom’s became a “.com” in 2000 ( recording the business’ first internet sale on Nov. 14 of that year.

“It is quite remarkable what God has in store for our lives. There are so many blessings every day. Our customers are part of our family, and now we have them all across the country,” Nancy said.

The year has been a busy one for Nancy and her crew. An article in Esquire magazine’s shopping guide last December emptied the smokehouse and the shelves.

“You just don’t look for that to happen. It is truly good fortune,” she said.

And, here it may be happening again. ForbesLife magazine included a short story about the ham and “ham lady” in September. “We picked up the pace then and haven’t had a chance to catch our breath. Now, we’re actually going into the ‘busy’ season,” she said.

“It’s not supposed to be easy. And it’s not, but it’s rewarding. I’m not looking to be a corporate giant. I want to do it our way as long as possible. We have a tradition — we have a traditional product, and I plan to keep it that way.”

The Newsom family ham tradition is one that pre-dates the 1770s — a long lineage.

That tradition — producing aged ham as an artisanal product — drew Nancy an invitation to speak for a Kentucky State Fair demonstration in this summer and gained her an invitation (which she accepted) to take part in the SlowFood celebration hosting the nationally renowned chef/nutritionist Alice Waters at Crestwood in September. Both events were new milestones for the ham.

...In the photo above, Chef Kathy Cary (left) of Lily’s in Louisville and ham curer Nancy Newsom Mahaffey (right) of Col. Newsom’s Aged Hams in Princeton teamed up for a Slow Food Bluegrass Kentucky Harvest Festival at Waldeck Mansion in Crestwood. Chef Mark Williams (second from left) was the host. Chef Alice Waters (beside Nancy) was the event speaker.

...In the inset photo, Ham producer Nancy Newsom Mahaffey of Col. Newsom’s Aged Kentucky Hams in Princeton joined Chef Jim Gerhardt (left) of Louisville for a Slow Food Bluegrass program at the State Fair this summer.

The Newsoms have a habit of looking at those milestones as building blocks. It is not uncommon for family businesses to fold with a third generation. That is usually because they keep trying to do the things that got them where they are — things that just don’t work in changing times. However, the Newsom family business has been more about customer service, preservation and entrepreneurial innovation — things that tend to work in any marketplace.

The face of Main Street has radically altered over the decades. There is no opera house, no pool hall, no blacksmith, no JCPenney, no Ben Franklin, no Scotty’s Corner, no Villager, no Sears, no Goldnamers, Lillie Belle’s or Federated Stores, but there is Newsom’s, and there has been a Newsom’s store on Princeton’s Main Street for 90 years.