April 2017
Homeplace & Community

Pounds and Pounds of Pecans

 

Bob Whaley, president of Whaley Pecan Company, is proud of the business his grandfather helped launch in 1937.

After 80 years, Whaley Pecan Company is still going strong.

Family businesses often face decisions that can make or break a promising enterprise, but that’s never been the case at Whaley Pecan Co. in Troy where success is a given.

President Bob Whaley and his offspring are still going strong 80 years after the company was established in 1937 when the Depression still had America in its grip throughout that decade.

What started as a fruit stand with a future has become an important part of Pike County where the little nut has helped sustain hundreds of family members for many years.

Since April has been designated as National Pecan Month, this is a good time to reflect on an Alabama success story, one likely to continue growing and prospering.

"They’ve been in the pecan business for a long time and have always been very straightforward and honest in their dealings with people," said Alabama Rep. David Sessions of Mobile. "I’ve always respected the way they run their business."

It’s been that way ever since Lester Whaley helped launch the business and served as an inspiration for relatives who followed his lead.

Lester’s grandson Bob, 71, earned his spurs at the pecan plant as a teenager when he swept the floors and did whatever else he could to help.

A University of Alabama graduate, Bob also spent four years in the Air Force where he advanced to the rank of captain and could have made a career out of it.

Instead, he headed back to Troy where he was welcomed with open arms by family members who knew it was the right time for him to come home.

He wasn’t quite sure he had done the right thing, however; especially during his first few days at the plant when one of his assignments left a lot to be desired.

"My first job was to make little boxes to put the pecans in," he chuckled. "I asked myself, ‘What the heck have I done,’ but things got a lot better the longer I was with the company."

Bob’s pride in his ancestral roots is evident in a biography he has written for those interested in learning how the family came to be held in such high esteem within the pecan industry.

He wrote about the company’s humble beginnings, one that included a pair of platform scales, a counter, a typewriter and some fruit tables.

Sisters Marsha, left, and Melissa hold bags containing a variety of pecans at the company’s gift shop.

 

A shrewd businessman who stretched his assets as much as possible, Lester got his company off to a fast start by buying pecans and then reselling them.

Nuts were hauled from Troy to handlers in Georgia, where they were sold to users and shellers throughout the country

In the fall of 1937, Lester bought 95,000 pounds of pecans. It wasn’t long before his business had firmly established itself within the industry.

The first orders for shelled pecans exceeded 100 pounds and, in order to fill the requests, two electric cracking machines were bought, but there were problems. Some of the pecans were cracked while others were smashed.

The machines were soon remodeled, resulting in significant improvement and production. Increased orders were the result and that eventually led to a larger production facility before the company moved to a new building.

Lester’s son Ed joined the business in 1952, making it a second-generation company that continued to modernize production. It wasn’t long before the plant was shelling over a million pounds a season.

Ed soon became well-known throughout the industry and it wasn’t long before he served on many national pecan committees. In 1992, he was honored by the National Pecan Shellers Association for over 50 years of service to the organization.

Bob’s wife Mary serves as vice president of the company and is office manager; so she’s as busy as the couple’s two daughters who represent the fourth generation.

Sisters Melissa Boatner and Marsha Meeks have important jobs at the plant and provide the energy and experience to keep the wheels turning at Whaley Pecan Co.

Their dad hasn’t lost a step as president and they marvel at his ability to put in long hours now that he’s in his 70s.

"I’m never bored," he said. "What we do here is not like selling shirts and I look forward to coming to work every morning."

Georgia and Texas generally lead the pecan producing states, but Alabama isn’t lagging at the bottom by any means.

Bob stands with daughters Melissa Boatner, right, and Marsha Meeks outside their headquarters building.

 

Alabama growers have produced millions of pounds of pecans in recent years and the state currently ranks eighth in pecan production according to Catherine Browne of Auburn University’s College of Agriculture.

Commercial pecan harvesting began in Alabama in the early 1900s and, by the 1940s, became a significant industry in the state.

Harvesting of pecans is around mid-October and the trees are said to produce edible seeds for over 300 years.

Two of America’s most famous founding fathers took a liking to pecan trees and planted them around their plantations.

Thomas Jefferson planted them in his nut orchard at his home in Monticello, Virginia, while George Washington did the same thing at Mount Vernon.

Texas Gov. James Stephen Hogg had an unusual request before his death, asking that a pecan tree be planted at his grave instead of a traditional headstone so its seeds could be distributed throughout the state to make Texas a "Land of Trees."

Hogg’s request was carried out, bringing even more attention to pecans. In 1919, Texas bestowed its blessings and made it the official state tree. One Texas town even began calling itself the "Pecan Capital of the World."

At last count, 22,000 acres were planted in pecan orchards in 39 of Alabama’s 67 counties. They are most abundant in Baldwin and Mobile counties.

Pecans in Alabama currently are in a dormant state, waiting for a change in the weather for a reawaking of the crop later this year.

Browne said Alabama families view pecans as the perfect topping or filling for pies, especially during holidays when they are given away as gifts to friends during Christmas.

 

Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.