By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
When the doors opened, citizens of the small town about 80 miles east of Dallas and more from surrounding Hopkins County swarmed into the auditorium--some 700 dairy farmers, attorneys, housewives, parents, and tradesmen, more people than anyone could remember seeing even at a Sulphur Springs high-school football game.
Milk cows have long been the backbone of Hopkins County's economy, but dairy farmers have been going under during the past few years. Aside from the new Wal-Mart south of I-30, Sulphur Springs has few new businesses about which to brag. Like many East Texas towns, it perseveres as a rural enclave, its 14,000 or so residents unvisited by great prosperity, and not expecting it anytime soon.
They turned out in large numbers last March to talk to Bo Pilgrim, the storied Texas chicken tycoon. An East Texas boy from two counties over, Pilgrim has parlayed a family feed business into a multimillion-dollar company--the fifth largest producer of processed chicken in the nation.
His company, Pilgrim's Pride, was proposing to expand into Hopkins County, building new plants that could someday add several thousand jobs and send millions of dollars coursing through the anemic local economy. It was a heady prospect for the East Texas dairy lands, where struggling farmers might be lured by talk of so many jobs, and where shopkeepers could always use more cash in the register.
The night's city council meeting was the first chance for citizens to speak their piece on Pilgrim's plan to build a new plant on the old McKenzie tract, a scruffy piece of land just beyond the railroad track that marks the city's northeast border.
Bo Pilgrim and one of his grown sons sat in the front row as townsfolk rose, one after another, to bid their welcome. It would be great for someone to create new jobs in their town, the citizens said. They would love for someone to pump millions of dollars into their economy.
As long as that someone was not Bo Pilgrim.
Speaker after speaker told the council that Pilgrim's chicken plants stink; that the Pilgrim's Pride company has a sorry track record of polluting air, water, and land; that the company hires undocumented workers and pays them poorly.
A Pilgrim's Pride plant offered more trouble than opportunity, the speakers said. All anyone had to do was drive 40 miles east to Mount Pleasant--home of Pilgrim's largest chicken-processing plant--to see the ruin Pilgrim's Pride could wreak on a community.
"Do we aspire for our children to work in the deplorable conditions that Bo Pilgrim provides for his workers?" one woman asked the council.
Another speaker, noting the company's record of fines for pollution from its existing plants in Mount Pleasant and Lufkin, told the council that Pilgrim's environmental record alone "renders this corporation an irresponsible corporate citizen, one that is not worthy of our support."
A few speakers came to Pilgrim's defense during the meeting, but for each speaker favoring the plant, six rose to oppose it. There was no mistaking which way the wind was blowing in Hopkins County that night. Throughout it all, Bo Pilgrim sat quietly. When all was said, he left without speaking before the council or the crowd.
"Bo and Buddy sat through a public meeting that no one should have been put through," recalls Coy Johnson, a Sulphur Springs attorney who had led efforts to bring the Pilgrim's Pride plant to town. "When you invite guests to your home, you don't sit down and insult them. It was embarrassing. If I had been them, I would have walked out."
At the meeting's end, councilmember Stacy Cody tried to offer some kind words to Pilgrim after the thrashing that had been administered. "I would like to say to Mr. Pilgrim and his son that I would not wish this on anybody, even if they were an enemy of mine," Cody said.
Within two days, the deal was dead. The local Economic Development Corporation withdrew an offer which would have given Pilgrim's Pride the McKenzie tract for free, and thrown in other lucrative enticements to boot.
The citizens of Sulphur Springs had done something remarkable. At a time when many rural Texas communities will fight tooth and nail for any new industries--including jails and garbage dumps--as long as they create jobs, Sulphur Springs said no. Faced with a choice between Pilgrim's Pride and nothing, the people of Sulphur Springs demanded nothing, unwilling to allow the chicken company to build in their community no matter what hope it offered to their sluggish economy.
Almost one year has passed since Hopkins County slammed the door on Pilgrim's Pride, but the echo of that abrupt dismissal still rings across East Texas.
To this day, Pilgrim's Pride has been unable to begin construction on its new chicken plant. Since that humiliating night in Sulphur Springs, other towns across East Texas have spurned Pilgrim's entreaties. Not just lonely environmentalists or avid Pilgrim-bashers, but entire communities have risen up to keep Pilgrim's Pride out of their towns.