As he leads a tour of Sunny Slope Farm in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, where the turkey industry entered the modern age, Charles W. Wampler Jr. wears a gimme cap on his head and a custom-made belt around his thin waist. The cap is stitched with the name Wampler-Longacre, the turkey growing and processing company that he once ran. The belt sports a silver buckle commemorating his 75th wedding anniversary in 2013.
Wampler’s accessories are steeped in about 1,000 pounds of pathos. Both the business and his wife, Dorothy, are memories now, two more important pieces of his life that he’s had to let go. But the hat and belt are also reminders of the things that have mattered most during Wampler’s 100 years on Earth: His skill at running a giant business that benefited the people of Rockingham County and his ability to nurture relationships over the long haul.
“Everybody loved him because he was, and still is, obviously, very personable,” says Harry Jarrett Jr., a grandson who now operates Sunny Slope as a special events destination. “He cares about people. He remembers people’s names. I don’t think he was just interested in building a multimillion-dollar business, which of course he ended up doing. But he really had a heart for the community.”
You can’t talk about the history of Rockingham County without talking turkeys, and you can’t talk about the history of turkeys in Rockingham County without mentioning the Wampler family. A century ago, on Nov. 25, 1915, Charles W. Wampler Jr. was born on Thanksgiving Day to the man widely considered “the father of the modern turkey industry.” As far as Wampler knows, his parents weren’t aiming for a Thanksgiving baby as the perfect heir to the family’s budding turkey-breeding business.
“They weren’t thinking about what they were going to do when they were getting ready to father me,” the centenarian says. “They had other things on their mind.”
Charles W. Wampler Sr. definitely had other things on his mind. The elder Wampler was developing ideas that pushed hard against the standard thinking on turkey breeding and growing. Wampler Sr. proved that turkeys could be hatched artificially, without hens to keep the eggs warm. He predicted that consumers would desire a turkey bred for the size and flavor of its meat, rather than the beauty of its feathers, which was the breed standard in the early 1900s. He demonstrated that wild turkeys, often ill-tempered birds, could be raised in large indoor spaces, and he pioneered a business in which contract growers bought his poults, or chicks, and feed and raised thousands of turkeys year-round.
Wampler Sr., in essence, created large-scale commercial turkey farming, sometimes known as factory farming among critics of the practice. Whatever you call it, large-scale turkey production helped transform a family business into a formidable enterprise that gobbled up other companies, went public in the late 1980s, fought off a hostile takeover from Tyson Food in the 1990s and eventually sold out to Pilgrim’s Pride in 2001. It also helped build an industry in Rockingham County, which became one of the largest turkey-producing counties in the United States.
For his role in the company, Charles W. Wampler Sr. was inducted into the American Poultry Historical Society’s Hall of Fame. Following in his innovative father’s footsteps, Charles Jr. played a different role with Wampler Foods, as the company became known: He was the avuncular leader who maintained tight community ties, no matter how large and influential the business became. He co-founded the local chapter of the United Way. He helped launch the Rockingham County Fair. He served as chairman of the former Rockingham Memorial Hospital, now called Sentara RMH Medical Center, where he still volunteers several days a week. At the age of 100.
Last month, James Madison University President Jonathan Alger celebrated the younger Wampler’s legacy during a United Way reception and party in Harrisonburg, not far from the family’s Sunny Slope Farm. “If Harrisonburg had a Mount Rushmore,” Alger told those assembled, “Charlie would be on it.”
The United Way gathering was just one of many celebrations honoring Wampler on or around his birthday. Some are public celebrations, such as the surprise party scheduled Wednesday at the hospital, where the birthday boy will arrive via limo. Others are private, such as the festivities planned at Sunny Slope Farm, including the family’s Thanksgiving dinner, which has for decades straddled the line between holiday and birthday party.
The Wampler family has gathered for the occasion, of course, all five generations. Wampler’s three daughters, Libby, Barbara and Margaret, have been scheming to celebrate the man whose approach to life has influenced their own. They say he has had an ability to flit from the Virginia House of Delegates (where he served from 1954 to 1966) to the turkey processing line and still be the same person no matter where he was.
“He would walk through the processing plants and call people by name, and they would call him Charlie,” recalls daughter Barbara Melby, 72. “He treated everybody with respect, and I think that was the secret.”
The one person missing from Wampler’s big bash is his wife, Dorothy, who died last year, just short of her 97th birthday. In the months since his wife’s death, Wampler has refused to change his lifestyle much. He now lives alone in the same large, multi-story house on Sunny Slope, just down the hill from the 19th-century home where he was born in a room reserved exclusively for the boys of the Wampler family. The girls had their own rooms, with their own stairwell, so the male and female siblings could not engage in any roughhousing. The segregation was apparently mandated by the elder Wampler’s religion; he was a faithful follower of the Brethren church, an Anabaptist Christian denomination that believes in peace, generosity, fairness and no partying. Or drinking.
His son has been more liberal in his approach to alcohol, enjoying an afternoon glass of wine later in his life. But he still seems to focus on others’ needs before his own. Even on the eve of his 100th birthday — in a community totally primed to give him back a fraction of the love he has shown it.
In the basement of his home, Wampler has an office. It’s a musty space, poorly lit and clearly in need of a good scrubbing. It’s obvious that Wampler does not spend much time here anymore, not even to relive old glories. The walls and shelves are adorned with framed photos, honorary degrees, newspaper stories, awards, medals, trophies and countless other pieces of dusty memorabilia from a life dedicated to turkeys — and the people who raised them or simply ate them.
Each item clearly has a story attached to it, but Wampler isn’t the least bit interested in telling stories. Part of his reticence may be due to his memory, which has diminished over the years. His body may be able to transport him down a deep flight of stairs to the office, but his mind cannot transport him back to the 1960s to share a story. “Daddy knows he’s not sharp,” says Libby Jarrett, 75, the eldest daughter, “and it’s really hard on him.”
But like a good son and a loyal member of the turkey-raising community of Rockingham County, Wampler knows better than to toot his own horn too much. Not when he has been surrounded by true greatness and innovation during his years on the farm.
“My father did all the thinking,” he says, “and I did all the work. And that’s a fact.”
Everyone erupts into laughter at the line: daughter, reporter, photographer, even the birthday boy. Then Wampler collects himself and reminds us, for the umpteenth time, that his father was inducted into the poultry hall of fame.
“My daddy’s picture was hung there,” he says. “My picture never made it.”