By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
So far, they have succeeded. The sheer magnitude and fervor of community resistance shows how low the company has sunk in the estimation of many who know the company's track record firsthand.
Bo Pilgrim may be a fabled Texas success story, a onetime poor East Texas farm boy whose personal worth is now estimated at $150 million. He may live in a massive imitation French mansion in Pittsburg which he calls Chateau de Pilgrim and many of his neighbors call Cluckingham Palace. He may travel in privileged circles and give lavishly to state political campaigns, his most recent largess including $80,000 for the campaign of Gov. George W. Bush, and another $50,000 for the governor's inaugural. And Pilgrim may be a favorite of the state's rich and powerful, who gathered 1,500 strong at a black-tie dinner last November in Dallas to bestow on Pilgrim the Russell H. Perry Free Enterprise Award. The award is given annually by Dallas Baptist University to a paragon of Texas business, and the tribute dinner for Pilgrim was sponsored, in part, by The Dallas Morning News.
But to his neighbors in East Texas, the farmers and small-town folk who have smelled his plants and watched Pilgrim's Pride foul their creeks and land, Bo Pilgrim is no hero of free enterprise.
Most say they don't dislike him personally, but fewer and fewer of Pilgrim's neighbors have any inclination to live or do business near him. "Pilgrim's Pride can ruin a town, can ruin a community," says Larry Powers, a Sulphur Springs attorney who aided the fight against the proposed plant. "You've got to be pretty desperate to want something like that."
Bo Pilgrim and his corporate officials did not return repeated phone calls from the Dallas Observer seeking comment for this story.
Pilgrim has been looking for more than a year, but as yet no East Texas community has been desperate enough to want his new chicken plant. Now, with its options running low, Pilgrim's Pride is trying to thwart the uproar and force the plant into Camp County, about 50 miles southeast of Sulphur Springs, where the company's corporate headquarters is located.
The company has applied to the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission for permits to discharge sewage into a creek running near a piece of property it already owns. Citizens have responded with more than 500 letters opposing the permits, and the TNRCC has scheduled a public hearing on the matter for late March.
The company is also scrambling to find a source for the huge amounts of water it would take to operate the plant. The nearby Franklin County Water District has water available in its lake, but is refusing to sell it to Pilgrim's Pride in the face of overwhelming opposition from people who live in the area.
In January, the company tried to bypass local resistance, appealing directly to the state Water Development Board to sell it water from the lake. Such a sale would be unprecedented in the history of the water board. At a meeting in Austin last week, Pilgrim's chances of succeeding in his heavy-handed bid for the water appeared to dim. Water Development Board members seemed inclined to defer to the wishes of the local community.
When the Franklin County Water District had considered selling water to Pilgrim last fall, more than 500 people showed up at a meeting to oppose the idea.
That 500 people would show up at a water-board meeting in East Texas is testament enough to the depth of opposition to Pilgrim's Pride. But no one is counting Bo Pilgrim out yet. He pushed his company to the bottom rungs of the Fortune 500 by slaughtering chickens, not cultivating the good will of his neighbors.
Although Bo Pilgrim has made a personal fortune from chickens, nobody would say it has been an easy road.
The chicken business is competitive and unpredictable. Companies like Pilgrim's Pride tread a thin line between profits and loss, easily swayed by price swings and economic flutters.
Pilgrim's Pride's success story has been often chronicled. It started in 1947 when Bo and his late brother Aubrey opened a feed store in Pittsburg and began building their Pilgrim empire, ultimately expanding into chickens and chicken processing.
After Aubrey died of a heart attack in 1966, Bo Pilgrim continued on, building the company until it reached more than $100 million in annual sales. In the 1980s, Pilgrim introduced the whole boneless chicken--achieved through a secret deboning process that Bo invented himself--and started to become something of a Texas icon.
Pilgrim began appearing in his own television ads, wearing a black pilgrim's hat and carrying a stuffed chicken named Henrietta. He became a walking symbol of his company, cultivating the image known to most Texans of an aw-shucks, down-home country boy just trying to sell a few chickens. In his early ads, he promised customers he would never sell a "fat, yellow chicken." Newer ads tell grocery shoppers that there is nothing but "chicken in my chicken."
The company's fortunes have ebbed and flowed. In 1988, Pilgrim almost sold the company to Arkansas-based Tyson Foods, the country's largest chicken processor, but Tyson pulled out of the deal at the last minute.