Country ham is still just what it used to be in one small town where tradition has a place and business is people and service more than numbers and ledgers.
The business is Newsom’s Old Mill Store — the retail outlet for Newsom’s Aged Kentucky Country Hams and so much more. It is a unique business that draws customers from across town and across the country alike.
A generation ago, Newsom’s ham was sold across the counter with country fresh eggs, milk by the quart or gallon and canned goods. Today, says store owner Nancy Mahaffey, the country ham has a popular barbecue (the “preacher ham”) counterpart and is sold across the counter and over the Internet with specialty and gift items such as cream candy, molasses, gourmet salad dressings, meat sampler boxes and gift baskets.
Families came to market by horse and wagon when the first member of the enterprising Newsom family, Hosea Newsom, opened his general merchandise store on Princeton’s Main Street down by the old mill in 1917. One of the items that he sold was country ham prepared by a recipe (most probably from Virginia) handed down through the family.
In the heyday of the next generation, which operated a thriving grocery business, automobiles had taken over the streets of the Princeton’s downtown business district, where all congregated and commerce was king. William “Bill” Newsom conducted his business in the smokehouse and across the counter and was at one time chairman of the state’s retail merchants association. One staple of the business remained the family’s (Col. Bill Newsom’s) country ham.
It is an Internet world today calling for an entrepreneur with the skills to carve out and manage a niche in the marketplace. Nancy Mahaffey, the third generation of Newsoms, is the proprietor now of the family business on this small town Main Street. Newsom’s country ham is the cornerstone of the local business that has drawn national attention.
Mahaffey operates her business out of one of the oldest buildings in town—a four-story structure that she says awaits development into a mill museum that could be a one-of-a-kind attraction creating a tourism boom for this small city.
Hers is a unique enterprise. It had to be to survive the past 14 years of virtually constant transition. “It is a fluid marketplace,” said Mahaffey.
Newsom’s grocery business was lost in a fire. That tragedy coincided with the advent of the supermarket chain. Mahaffey had a thriving rose bush and flower bulb market at one point, but that, she said was one of those product lines that gave way to the pressure of Wal-Mart merchandising. “It was a different grade of product, but that got lost sight of in the bottom line on the price tag,” she said.
Many small businesses lost their niche in the marketplace chain-type stores and downtowns lost the foothold on retail business to shopping malls.
The story of Newsom’s Old Mill Store is a tale of American business. It was a “mom and pop” type operation that lost its place to mass merchandising and literally a phoenix rising from the ashes.
Nancy Mahaffey remembers that her father had little heart for reopening the business after the fire that gutted the 208 E. Main St. store in 1987.
But, even then the Newsoms had begun to branch out and were renting an adjacent building for a garden seed and supplies line of products. It was a building that had housed a woolen mill during the civil war era, then a flour mill and later a feed mill; and, tucked just to the side, between the grocery and mill, was the storefront that was once the Old Globe Tavern, a stagecoach stop.
Mahaffey said that it was just by chance that country ham mail order business survived the fire and kept the Newsom enterprise alive. “We had most of the hams, which were at the smokehouse, and our mail order files left. We also had our garden supplies. And, my grandaddy’s chopping block survived the fire.
“It’s really interesting how our mail order was saved. I had moved the files from the front of the store just the week before the floor fell through in that fire. It fell through just two feet in front of the files, and the dishwashing liquid was right there so it coated the boxes with our files on 3x5 index cards. That dishwashing liquid kept the water from the fire hoses from washing the ink off the cards.
“We have put that list on computer now, and we have an internet site, but the computers don’t run the business. I still prefer to see my customers face to face or talk to them on the phone as opposed to dealing with them strictly on the internet.”
Mahaffey believes that service as much as anything keeps her business going. “I don’t want my business set up and computerized at the convenience of the business. I want it set up at the convenience of my customers.”
She said that the store’s internet site www.newsomscountryham.com, provides a new type of convenience for customers, but she often follows an internet inquiry or connection with a personal contact.
“We don’t want to put our customers onto answering machines, or call-waiting, or put them on hold while we go to the computer and pull up the information.
“We still do things manually. That makes it quicker for the customer.”
The customer base for Newsom’s covers a wide clientele. There are the area locals, the Princeton locals, persons who make a one day trip from out of state just to come to the store two or three times a year, tourists, mail order buyers and now internet shoppers.
The business has a seasonal nature with a sidewalk market of bedding plants in the spring, fresh produce in the summer, pumpkins and mums in the fall, and Christmas gifts and baskets through the holiday; and country ham, cured meats, barbecue ham and deli trays all through the year.
“People are coming in now for hams, bacon, sausage, to order gift baskets and boxes, and cooked meat for holiday orders,” said Nancy.
She and a friend developed an internet site before the holiday season last year. The internet site is based with Yahoo Shopping and in addition to a product line includes a recipe section and a picture gallery—a lot like the literature that has promoted her business for the past several years and the store itself.
The mail order business has been a part of the Newsom enterprise since 1975 when chef James Beard wrote about the hams in his syndicated column, which appeared in American Airlines magazine, and used the hams to teach other chefs in his Culinary Institute.
Newsom’s ships items on a daily basis. During this past week boxes have gone out of the store to destinations in several parts of Kentucky, California, Indiana, Alaska, Georgia, Washington state, Illinois, Kansas, Alabama, Ohio, Virginia, Tennessee and Florida.
That’s just a sample of the traffic going out of the store. Newsom’s products have been shipped to all 50 states and several foreign countries, those through APO addresses.
“We ship a lot of hams in our home state. I consider that a real complement.”
Mahaffey said that foreign shipping is curtailed because of restrictions that foreign countries place on agricultural products. “I personally use all the products that I can find from the USA for our gourmet and country items because other countries don’t accept ours as much as they should. I try to support our own.”
While the late James Beard holds the credit for opening the mail order door to the Newsom’s, Nancy has been working to keep it open.
She didn’t grow up interested in the business, but after she started working part-time with her father and mother, she grew into the business.
Her father, age 71 when the fire claimed his grocery, made the transition to semi-retirement, and Nancy took on more and more responsibility every day.
She learned the ins and outs of the produce trade, she learned to shop wholesalers and develop product sources for a retail market, she learned how to market her product, and most importantly, she learned how to produce the hams — from the fresh meat product to the seasoned and smoked country/gourmet delicacy that is being wrapped and readied for shipping this month.
“I am one of a very few women ham producers in the nation, and maybe one of even fewer who commercially process hams without chemical additives. There is absolutely no nitrates or nitrite in our country ham.”
The ham has also been likened to an Italian prosciutto type product, which is in demand by gourmet cooks.
Because of Nancy Mahaffey’s expertise with country ham, she was a featured presenter at a national chef’s conference held at the Seelbach Hilton Hotel in Louisville in 1999. She taught chefs how to use the ham, what to look for in a country ham and basically what the ham is.
Mahaffey said that she considers her business fortunate that the product has been discovered by the chefs at the Seelbach. “They have used our ham for years, and it is used in several restaurants in Louisville and other places. They are upscale gourmet restaurants.”
She noted that among the renowned customers who use Newsom’s hams are the Forbes (Forbes Magazine) family. “They have bought one every year.”
Also, Tommy Lee Jones has been a customer. President Bill Clinton was served Newsom’s ham at the Seelbach, and the ham was served to Peter DiNero when the Seelbach was used as a movie location.
“That doesn’t impress me any more than having my neighbor down the street come in for one every year. It’s just interesting that they find us and keep coming back.”
Mahaffey said the Seelbach executive chef Jim Gerhard uses and is impressed with traditional Kentucky foods.
She said that the Seelbach contacted her earlier this year to send congratulations about one of the newest Newsom’s ham customers — noted chef Wolfgang Puck. He started using the ham in his restaurants.
“People tell us all the time about hearing a chef or some food connoisseur mention our hams in a television or radio program. I was on a Santa Barbara, Calif., talk radio program one year talking about ham preparation.”
Newsom’s hams have been featured in several national food magazines and the business was a KET subject.
“Even with all that exposure, we have a lot of people who just don’t realize all we do. We prepare meat trays and do special order cooking on our hams — cooking, deboning and slicing them.
“We also do custom gift baskets and boxes. They can include our ham, sausage and bacon products, lots of Amish products, jams, jellies, preserves, sorghum molasses, soup mixes, relishes, dressings, all types of gourmet foods.”
The store is beginning to turn into the familiar holiday shop this week.
Frank Anderson, who compiled Pogue’s Diaries, was there Monday signing books and several customers took advantage to get an autographed copy of the book and enjoy refreshments. The books will be available at the store now through the holidays.
Mahaffey said that as Christmas approaches, the crew gets busier and often works into the night — just like a Santa’s workshop.
“I really get the greatest satisfaction working on Christmas Eve. I am really grateful that people have wanted our hams, gift baskets and boxes to go into all those homes to make their Christmas day.
“I have Christmas before Christmas down here as we work through the nights. It gets festive with all the gift basket shred, cellophane and styrofoam peanuts all over the floor.
“We’re trying to get everything out like Santa’s helpers. And, we check the list more than twice. We’re so tired that we can’t remember that we checked it the first two times.”
Note: This story appeared in the Nov. 21, 2001 edition of the Princeton Times Leader. The friend who helped Nancy Mahaffey develop the internet site for Newsom’s Country Hams is the writer of this story, Times Leader News Editor Anita Baker. The store owner is now Col. Nancy, having been commissioned in October 2002 to the honorary organization of Kentucky Colonels.