By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Hardly anybody does business in Ladonia anymore. On the square, a huge vacant lot now occupies the site of Burns tractor sales, which once attracted farmers from across North Texas. The downtown mostly consists of the Farmers and Merchants State Bank, a couple of real estate offices, Delta Funeral Home (which has a respectable selection of caskets in the casket room), a medical clinic, and an antique store.
The slaughtering operation on the edge of town was one of the city's few stable industries for about 25 years. Though the business came with flies and bad smells for some townspeople when the wind was right, the jobs were good. At first, in the mid-1970s, horses were slaughtered for overseas appetites. (It's a delicacy over there, one former worker says.)
In the early 1980s, Supreme Beef bought the plant and retrofitted it for cattle. (Horses are longer than cows, so the hanging equipment was lowered, the former worker explained.) Ladonia's operation, called Supreme Beef Packers, slaughtered live cattle trucked in from 10 states, six days a week. In 1988, the city drilled another well at a cost of $188,000, mainly for the slaughtering operation. The plant cleaned slaughtered beef to produce what is known as "bone-in" carcasses. The carcasses were then shipped to the sister company, Supreme Beef Processors Inc., in Dallas.
In the 1990s, Supreme Beef started looking at other locations, ones that had more capacity for sewage than Ladonia did. City leaders wanted Supreme Beef to stay. So, with $1.4 million in federal and local dollars, the city expanded the sewage-treatment plant. The plant went into service just last February. The EPA and the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission investigated allegations that instead of slowing production until the larger treatment pond was built, Supreme Beef regularly polluted Pecan Creek with slaughterhouse waste. Steven Spiritas, Supreme Beef's president and chairman of the board, says the allegations against his company are unfounded. The investigation focused on the city, not Supreme Beef, he says.
"The city apparently, over time, had themselves, both before Supreme Beef was there and after Supreme Beef was there, had problems with one of the government agencies," Spiritas says.
The new treatment plant was more than large enough to accommodate the Ladonia slaughtering operation.
"What they put in was far greater than what they needed for the city and Supreme combined. They designed something that was far greater than what we would ever use with our expansion," Spiritas says.
Problems for Supreme Beef arose when ground beef produced in Dallas repeatedly showed levels of salmonella contamination that the federal government said were unacceptable according to new United States Department of Agriculture standards. Supreme Beef fought the government and obtained a court ruling preventing the government from closing the company. Unfortunately for Ladonia, by the time the ruling came through, bad publicity surrounding the tests and Supreme Beef had scared off customers. The company filed for bankruptcy protection in September.
"One of the saddest meetings I've ever had in my business career was to go up there and sit down with the mayor and let him know we would be closing our business. That was a very difficult time," Spiritas says.
In addition to the lost jobs, the departure of Supreme Beef Packers cost Ladonia about $25,000 a month in water and sewer payments. The economic impact on the already depressed Ladonia economy is obvious, but the city's dwindling population will take it in stride, say some residents.
"There'd been rumors flying around that it's going to kill the school, but in realistic terms, the kids that went to school here went to school before their parents worked out there," Braley says. "It's not like they're professional, professional killing employees; they just went to work there because it was a job opening. It was very convenient and local," he says. "It's been closed before."
But the closure cost the city its police department, and that loss is something new even to Ladonians who stayed while learning to get by during the last 50 years of decline. Although the Fannin County sheriff agreed to help out and a sheriff's squad car can be seen prowling through town once in a while, it's a temporary fix.
"That's really the thing that concerns me the most," Braley says. "I mean, like I say, I was born and raised here, but we've always had at least one policeman of some type."