In the not too distant past, traveling Forest Avenue from Lexington Street to Union Street could take awhile, as the street was congested with trucks bringing loads of tobacco to the Parker Tobacco Company.
The entire block was a beehive of activity during the burley season, as farmers brought in their tobacco, buyers worked the auction floors and purchased lots went into storage for future processing.
Today, all that remains of the prized tobacco market which helped build the economy of Maysville and Mason County for nearly a century are empty tobacco warehouses scattered throughout town and the vacant Parker Tobacco Company processing plant, a landmark in Maysville since its construction in the 1920s.
Parker Tobacco Company ceased operation in 1998, and since then, the three story brick building and its adjacent processing plant have suffered vandalism, fires and deterioration.
The most devastating fire occurred in May 2007, when the prize-redry room located at the rear of the complex was consumed by fire.
With no viable use for the building, the current owner, Sammy S. Parker, grandson of Alex Parker Sr. who started Parker Tobacco Company in 1932, has contracted to have the building demolished, a task that is scheduled for completion by late summer.
Dismantling of the interior of the building began last weekend. A chain link fence has been erected around the property and trailers and equipment have been moved into place to start the task of removing metal, wood, brick and other items which can be salvaged. Immediate plans call for demolition of the main building which housed administrative offices and the processing plant. Storage warehouses adjacent to, and behind the plant will remain intact.
With such a landmark building and history of a family business leaving our presence, Alex Parker Jr., spent time with me to help put a timeline to the legacy of Parker Tobacco Company and how it grew to become a major player in the global tobacco market.
"It was good while it lasted," he said, as he shared the story of his family's business.
Parker Tobacco Company was begun in 1932, through a four-way partnership that involved S. Alex Parker Sr., Frazer LeBus of Lexington, Frank Vaughn of Lexington and Fall City Tobacco of Louisville.
The company was located on Buckley Place, which is the road at the rear of the processing plant that feeds onto Lexington Street near the railroad underpass. The business was a processing plant and storage facility, and by 1940, Alex Parker Sr., had bought out his partners.
For nearly 20 years, Parker Tobacco Company sat behind the larger processing plant of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, but in 1958, Alex Parker Sr., purchased the larger processing plant fronting Forest Avenue.
By 1962, Parker's workforce jumped to 500, with an estimated payroll of $750,000. By 1974, the payroll of more than $1.6 million was distributed among 150 full-time employees and 450 seasonal workers.
There are still visible signs of the time R.J. Reynolds owned the building and campus surrounding it: you can barely see the R.J. Reynolds name painted across the front of the building overlooking Forest Avenue and located at the rear of the property is a chimney with the initials RJR in red brick against the yellow brick which makes up the stack.
The building so many people know only as Parker Tobacco Company was completed in 1925, and formally opened on Sept. 23. It comprised floor space of 225,154 square feet (over five acres) and operated year-round with an employee base of more than 600.
After Parker Tobacco Company moved into the building, Alex Parker Sr., was president and chairman of the board; Alex Parker Jr., William "Bill" Chamness, Ernst B. Hillenmeyer and W.G. "Buddy" Brothers were all vice presidents.
Matt Smoot was secretary and treasurer and when he died, Cecil Baber assumed those titles.
Throughout its history, Parker Tobacco Company was a privately held business.
With the move also came the purchase of new, modern processing equipment, which made it possible to expand with tobacco stemming or "tipping and threshing," as it was called. Alex Parker Jr., said the new equipment "made it unlimited," referring to the ability to handle all aspects of processing tobacco which the company did.
Parker bought tobacco, processed it and then sold it to cigarette manufacturers in the United States, as well as all over the world.
"Exporting," he said of the expansion of the business.
In fiscal year 1974/75, Parker Tobacco Company's customer base included eight domestic manufacturers, the Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative Association, three foreign manufacturers through direct export, and other foreign manufacturers through more than 10 U.S. dealers.
Alex Parker Jr., said it was also in the 1960s the business expanded into Honduras in Central America and Brazil where Parker Tobacco contracted with farmers for their tobacco production and the product would be sold in the United States or it would be re-exported to another country.
"We were enhancing the facility bringing in more tobacco," Alex Parker Jr. said.
It was also in the 1960s that Alex Parker Sr., retired, handing the chairman of the board position to his son, a position he held until the last year tobacco ran through the plant in 1998.
W. G. Brothers, William B. Chamness and Ernst B. Hillenmeyer each served in the capacity of president of the company.
Parker Tobacco continued to expand its international presence in the 1970s.
In 1970, Parker Tobacco joined A.L. van Beek of Rotterdam and Hofor Tobacco Corporation of New York in Brazil; through a partnership called Fumos Serra, the partners purchased 75 percent of the stock of Exportadora Catarinense de Fumos, called Exca, a Brazilian leaf handling company.
Sales of burley tobacco from this venture were distributed to the U.S., Japan and the European Economic Community.
In 1974, Parker joined with Dibrell Brothers Inc. of Virginia to form Extaho, a Honduran company, for production of burley tobacco in Honduras.
The company maintained its business interests in the two countries until roughly 1985, a time when "everybody else was coming in and we were getting out," Alex Parker Jr. said.
Parker Tobacco Company was also active in the tobacco markets of Malawi and Rhodesia, in Southern Africa from approximately 1970 to 1980.
During its peak years of business operation, the worth of Parker Tobacco Company was approximately $5 million, Alex Parker Jr. said and on average, 18 million pounds of tobacco went through the plant each year.
But it was the decline in smoking in the United States which began to hurt tobacco companies, even while demand abroad in such countries as China, Japan and India accelerated in the 1980s and 1990s, he said. The elimination of the government quota system also added to the demise of the industry.
By 1998, the final run of tobacco had moved through Parker Tobacco Company's processing plant and in 1999, the building was put up for auction.
Alex Parker Jr., said he couldn't believe it when he learned his son had purchased the plant, knowing the tobacco market wouldn't return to provide a use for the building.
"When it's over, it's over...when it's gone, it's gone," he said of the age when tobacco was Kentucky's crown jewel of cash crops. "We had the finest bunch of people up here...the people who worked there were the best friends I ever had, and I do miss them."
** Information gathered from the personal files of Parker Tobacco Company and S. Alex Parker Jr., and The Spirit of a Greater Maysville and Mason County.