Turning points in the history of business and technology are rarely recognized as such when they occur. Only after the fact can observers, writers or historians typically look back to the moment something truly groundbreaking began. For example, most of the curious rubberneckers in Montgomery in the 1910s witnessing the trial-and-error endeavors at the Wright Brothers flying school would have probably thought it ridiculous that, within many of their lifetimes, mankind would build a machine that would travel to the stars.
History’s quiet moments often have a way of surprising us. Such was the case in the Lowndes County town of Fort Deposit in 1935 with an event referred to today almost mythically as “Special Order No. 1.” While the precise date of this auspicious occasion is not recorded, it marks the moment 24-year-old Lee Cofield Priester got into the pecan business. Holidays and south Alabama road trips were never the same again.
The providential special order came from a traveling salesman who frequented the Texaco filling station Priester ran in his hometown. Like many families in the area, the Priesters’ land had an abundance of pecan trees. Young Priester sold small bags of the paper-shell bounty, cracked and ready to eat, to his customers and passersby. The salesman asked him to procure five pounds of shelled and cleaned pecan halves that he would retrieve on his way back through town in a few days. Priester accepted the order and sought the help of two local women to help him accomplish the task of selecting the best pecans and cracking and cleaning them by hand. When the salesman returned, Priester delivered his pecans wrapped in a shoebox from a Montgomery department store. More orders came from the salesman and his colleagues, some of them through the mail, in the coming months.
Truck farming a commodity like pecans is a tough business with thin margins. L. C. Priester knew this firsthand, having tried to sell pecans commercially a few years earlier. But the prospect of selling small batches of shelled and cleaned nuts directly to consumers or wholesalers for bakeries, especially via mail-order, was another matter. It was also something that, at least initially, he could undertake as a “side gig,” as one might call it today, alongside his work at the Texaco station.
L. C. Priester had all the makings of a successful new business except for employees. He sought the assistance of Hense R. Ellis, a local Texaco oil distributor, for cash to hire two workers to prepare for the upcoming holiday season. With a handshake deal and an initial $200 stake, Ellis and Priester began their partnership. In 1940, under a more formal arrangement, Ellis shelled out an additional $5,000 investment to procure mechanical cracking and sorting equipment for the company. Although the initial location adjacent to Priester’s Texaco was far smaller than the sprawling facility along I-65 today, it was the start of one of the most successful mail-order food companies in modern Alabama history.
It took time for Priester to find the precise packaging that would protect his plump pecans through both shipment and in customers’ freezers. He eventually settled on a sturdy, round, paper container, the proverbial ark that would deliver his “Mammoth Halves” to hungry consumers. Orders flowed in from every state in the Union and several foreign countries. During the 10 days prior to Christmas 1948, Priester’s shipped out a record 2,000 packages from the Fort Deposit Post Office.
The business was a boon for Lowndes County pecan growers, too. To stay ahead of demand, Priester offered the “highest prices paid for all varieties” in large quantities: 400,000 pounds in 1943 and nearly double that amount by the end of the decade. By the 1970s, Priester’s reach extended to pecan orchards from the Mississippi Delta to southwest Georgia.
A 1949 expansion doubled the size of the processing facility and increased its capacity to handle up to 10,000 pounds of pecans a day. Flush with orders, Priester announced additional construction the following year, along with new equipment that would allow the company to shell, clean and dry up to 1 million pounds of pecans in a season.
Confident in their continued success, Priester and Ellis moved beyond simply cracking and shelling pecans. In 1954, they acquired two downtown Montgomery candy stores and relocated the equipment to Fort Deposit, where employee Jewell Cook produced a number of delectable confections, including pralines, divinity and pecan logs, all of which could be packed and shipped.
There were, of course, leaner years, times when the crops just didn’t produce because of a host of concomitant maladies: too much or too little rain, diseases like pecan scabs and hordes of aphids and weevils that would rob the shells of their treasure. But with a wide geography of producers, a diverse array of products and business savvy to spare, L. C. Priester forged onward, leading the company for more than four decades. During much of that time he also served on the town council, as a board member of a local bank and as a deacon in his church. Priester died on July 16, 1978, and was eulogized as “one of the best known and beloved citizens of Fort Deposit.”
When Hense Ellis died in 1965, his sons John and Ned entered the business. Upon Priester’s death, they purchased his portion of the operation and Ned Ellis became the new owner and manager of the company, which today remains in the Ellis family. In late December 1978, the Montgomery Advertiser took stock of Priester’s Pecan Co. after the first holiday season under new leadership. From their facility the company’s 140 employees handled nearly 250,000 orders that year, all made by hand with fresh ingredients in big copper pots in Fort Deposit.
“I take no shortcuts here. No substitutions,” longtime employee Jewell Cook told the reporter. “And that’s the way it’ll stay.” One has to believe that L. C. Priester wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
Historian Scotty E. Kirkland is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. He lives in Wetumpka.
This story appeared in the December 2021 issue of Business Alabama.