Princeton, KY. Aug. 19, 2017 — Nationally, Princeton's oldest retail establishment is known as Col. Newsom's Aged Hams — locally, it is Newsom's Old Mill Store, or just "Newsom's."
Among the most recent national accolades that owner and operator Nancy Newsom Mahaffey hails as “blessings” for her small family business are being named an “icon” among Kentucky food products and listed as “one of the country’s best hams” in the April edition of Southern Living magazine. A foodnetwork.com series featuring the Best Food in America by State identified Col. Bill Newsom’s Aged Kentucky Country Ham in Princeton as one of the iconic foods to seek out in the Bluegrass state. Southern Living recognized the Gourmet BBQ “Preacher” Ham.
A member of the Newsom family has owned and operated the retail enterprise at the lower end of Main Street — 208 East Main — since January 1, 1917 when the business was established as the H.C. Newsom Store. The current owner and operator is Nancy Newsom Mahaffey, the third generation to serve the public at Newsom's.
Nancy said that the store and its patrons are celebrating Newsom's 100th birthday all year long. "It takes more than just a family and crew working for a business to last a hundred years. It takes all the customers, loyal through the years and newcomers, across the nation, around the surrounding area and throughout the community."
This past Christmas, she started putting extra items in the bags of her customers and in January started a series of Trader Bucks giveaways on the Newsom’s Old Mill Store Facebook page. The first winner was Tracy Jenkins who quickly claimed her bucks in ham, both country and "Preacher" ham. Kathy Curtis followed in February taking her prize with some of both hams.
"We're doing a monthly giveaway through our Facebook page," Nancy said. "That's really been a good addition for us, letting people know what is changing in the store. We can let them know about new items or remind them of what we have to offer every day."
Nancy is also doing a monthly giveaway in the store. The first was a BBQ "Preacher" ham half going to Nancy Trevallian of Dawson Springs. Subsequent winners have included Charles Brennan, William Fox, Jeanie Duncan, Edna Hamby and Karen Parrent. Those drawings continue throughout the year and patrons are encouraged to enter every time they come into the store.
The Newsom’s enterprise in Princeton, came into being on Jan. 1, 1917. Hosea Cleveland (H.C.) Newsom was 32 years old when he became proprietor of the store. He had worked locally for the Beaver Dam Planing Mill as a lumber salesman, before changing jobs and putting in a few years with the Smith Grocery. In fact, it was the Smith store on Main Street that he acquired and made his own establishment.
Newsom had grown up in a working family, less than a quarter-mile from the Newsom Cemetery, now 8 miles east of Princeton on Ky. 91-South. H.C. was the son of William Hosea and Mary Irene Newsom of Christian County. William Newsom was a prominent farmer of his day. H.C. married Ora P’Pool in 1909. The couple set up housekeeping in a house on what is now Hopkinsville Street and had five children, Irene, William H. “Bill,” Don “Pool,” John and James (who died in infancy). Irene served as Princeton’s city clerk for a number of years, Bill stepped into his father’s role at the store at age 18, Dr. Don was a successful dentist with a practice in Owensboro and Dr. John was an orthodontist with a practice based in Hopkinsville.
The business grew and changed with the development of the nation. Newsom’s was well-placed in the city business district, beside the Mill and across the street from the Livery Stable, which was also a blacksmith’s and later an automotive repair shop. At the start of Newsom’s in this rural region some customers or vendors would come in horse-drawn wagons, while others arrived in that first generation of cars and trucks taking to the roads. The cars and trucks of course won out, but horses and wagons still had their part to play. A young H.C. had paid court to Ora, a farmer’s daughter, often traveling from Princeton by wagon, hitching a ride, to visit the young woman that he would claim as a bride.
H.C. died at age 49, leaving Ora, daughter Irene with two young children of her own, sons Bill, Don “Pool“ and John — just 18 months old — and the H.C. Newsom Store on East Main Street in downtown Princeton.
“I can only imagine what it was like for my Dad, just 18, stepping in for his father to run the store for his mother and there was Aunt Fanny (Newsom, H.C.’s sister) too, who worked there with them,” said Nancy.
Bill, who had actually started working at the store when he was 8-years-old, stepped up to meet the challenge. Along the way, he claimed Jane Williams as his bride in 1940. Ironically, Jane was born in 1917, the same year as the store that would serve as the family’s calling and become the service that the family would carry on in Princeton.
There was a stint of service in WWII for Bill, then back home to pick up the mantle of Newsom’s store. He became active in First Baptist Church, as had the generation before him. With Jane supporting him at the store, which had turned from the general store era into the “Mom and Pop” neighborhood market, the family was active in the community and Bill took a leading role in the retail association, locally and at the state level. Jane and Bill had two children along the way, Jim in 1947 and Nancy in 1955.
It was the 1960s when transition came for the family’s country ham business, which is the Newsom’s mainstay today.
Bill had sold country hams at his grocery store through the years, but the demand for them grew only as the nation transitioned from a rural, agricultural base into urban commerce and an industrial economy.
“Daddy had been doing hams himself and bought a few from local farmers when he liked how they cured them. That is what he sold for several years, really nothing like we do today,” Nancy said.
The basic resources for the ham business were there though — the cure, the facility and the demand. It was a question of tying it all together.
The Newsom cure was tried and true, verified by a will dating to the 1700s. And, the heritage for the process was there, a forefather landing at Jamestown, Va., in 1634. The family grew in Surrey County, Virginia, then migrated to North Carolina and then into Kentucky settling in Caldwell County in 1823 with a Revolutionary War Land Grant.
A commercial facility for the country ham process came into being in 1963, when government regulations came into the picture. If you were going to be free to sell hams across state lines, interstate commerce, the process had to meet federal inspection — thus Bill contacted the late Sam Steger and undertook construction of a federally approved plant.
Demand had come locally and was spreading with a mail order list building for a few/several hundred hams shipping to customers in other states.
“Our mail order was ‘founded’ by the late James Beard, the father of gourmet cooking. He had written about us in the American Airlines magazine, and that launched it for us,” Nancy said.
Beard had been turned onto Col. Bill Newsom’s Country Ham by a Kentucky transplant who lived in Virginia. The woman had read Beard’s comments about country ham and wrote to him that he “had not had a real country ham until he had one from Col. Bill Newsom’s Country Hams.” Beard heeded the recommendation, purchased one of the Newsom hams and thus a long association was born.
“He would call Daddy at home. And, they would talk about ham. It seemed like he wanted to know everything, and he called a lot. When Chef Beard died (in 1985), they called Dad (as one of the people considered as close associates) for a comment and he told them ‘Well, all we ever talked about was ham.’”
James Beard Foundation awards have become the Emmys and Oscars of the food industry — chefs, restaurants, cookbooks writers, food writers, all treasure the Beard honors.
An article in Connoisseur magazine in 1989 produced a magnificent photo of Bill Newsom (taken by a groundbreaking photographer who worked with National Geographic) and showed the value of that first facility. “Our business and two other farm ham producers (Guier and Freeman) from the Trigg County area, were featured. Neither of them had a federal facility, but one of them mentioned shipping to other states and after the article, he came to dad to see what it would take to be federally inspected. He opted not to and quit shipping his hams.”
At that time, Nancy was a young mother with two children, one in grade school. She had worked part-time in the grocery store and the ham production before taking on the business full time. “I worked the mail order list from home, beginning in 1976, and have done it each year since.
Her children, John and Alisa are now grown with children of their own. John’s roots are firmly established in Princeton with his young family, wife Katie and daughters, Kyndle and Stevie Ray, and he works in the business for his mother. Alisa, while putting in her time at the business as a teenager, is busy with her family, husband Daniel Lopes and children, son, Christian, and daughter, Emma Jane, in Oldham County.
There have been a lot of milestones in the 100-year-old Newsom family business and in Nancy’s life. The one that changed them both forever occurred on the night of Oct. 4, 1987, when a spark became a flame and the flame a blaze that destroyed the family grocery store on East Main Street.
“It was awful. It was just awful. It seemed like we smelled that smoke forever. Well, that was the end of the grocery and my Daddy retired. He was 72 and not ready to start over,” Nancy said.
Nancy was 32 and not one to back down from a challenge. “‘But Daddy we’ve got hams to sell,’ she had said when he showed no sign of reopening the business. He told me, ’Then you do it.’ I did and have been every since. I don’t think he expected that.”
Ironically, the few items saved from the rubble of the fire included H.C. Newsom’s chopping block, a band saw, a painting of a pig playing a flute in a garden and the boxes of mail order files — what you would need to carry on a ham business.
“Just two weeks before the fire, I had moved the file boxes to the back of the store. The floor fell in just in front of those boxes. Some plastic dishwashing liquid bottles melted into a coating that covered the boxes, keeping water from the hoses from washing the ink off of the file cards. We had to dry them out, but they were ok. We rewrote the 3,500 envelopes, which had burned, and sent them out.”
Newsom’s has continued that old-fashioned tradition of mailing out a brochure letting customers know in the fall that it is time to order the hams. “Our customers look for it. Just occasionally, if they feel that we are a little late or they haven’t gotten their brochure, they will call to see that we are on schedule.”
In that era of transition in the late 1980s, the Old Globe Tavern and the Princeton Roller Mills/Purina Feed buildings next door were being rented by Newsom’s Grocery for seed sales and garden supplies. Those buildings became Newsom’s Old Mill Store, just one door away from the 1917 grocery/general store.
“It was a day after the fire. I called Ed Thompson and asked if he was ready to go back to work. It was a quick answer, and we were back at it. We put a couple of chrysanthemums in front of the burned out store, kind of a memorial, and someone came along wanting to buy them. Then two more, and then more and we were back in business. I just added things as I could. We were never going to be a full-scale grocery again, but we could be a gourmet store and sell our hams,” she said. The business had been closed only one day because of the fire.
That year Nancy and Ed were the team that boxed and shipped out the country hams. Today, it is still a small family operation, but in the holiday season the Newsom team produces several weeks worth of loads for the UPS haulers and is a daily stop for the national shipping company.
With the Old Mill Store as a base of operation, Newsom’s cures country hams and produces a pit-smoked ham (Smoky Gourmet BBQ, “Preacher Ham”) — a family product of over 60 years. The “Preacher Ham” is a local favorite and has its own national following.
Still in business despite that 1987 fire, Nancy found ways to continue growing demand for the aged hams. Beard’s recommendation still carries weight — and the hams continued to meet expectations. Chefs continued to call and individuals who had grown up with hams that their families cured would find Newsom’s and stay with their find year after year.
“We have been fortunate that writers have shared our story in newspapers and magazines. Also, we have been included in several cookbooks and many other books about food and ham. Peter Kaminsky, who is greatly respected in the food world, included a chapter about us in his book ‘Pig Perfect.‘”
A highlight for any ham producer, especially one from America, came in 2009 when Nancy was invited to participate in the 5th World Congress of Dry Cured Ham. A Newsom’s ham was placed in the Jamon Museum in Aracena, Spain. “That was a wonderful trip. A truly wonderful honor, just a great honor.” As the only American Aged Ham to be in a European museum, the Newsom family relic still holds its place there in Spain.hh
“Nancy, the Ham Lady,” a nickname that came from a Wall Street Journal article, said that she has been told on more than one occasion by individuals who seek her out after traveling in Spain that they have seen her ham in the museum.
In 2013, the business reached another milestone. “We added a second facility. We were just running out of hams too soon every year,” she said. It is ironic, she noted that when building the second facility for Newsom’s she was the same age that her father had been when he built that first federal plant.
“My father held that ham process close, and I do too. It won’t change,” Nancy said. “He did not encourage me to take on this business, but he didn’t fight it. He just did not make anything real easy. He knew the level of hard work and stress it would bring, and I know that he did not want me to have to go through that. But that is what I chose, it was my choice to own and to make.”
“It was a good choice, and one I have never regretted.”
“I have learned through the years that people make history, but it is history that makes people who they are today. A hundred years, and all those generations before, is a good amount of history that has made me who I am today,” she said.
H.C. Newsom ran the store for 15 years, Bill Newsom for 55 years and now Nancy Newsom Mahaffey has for 30 years.