In 1935, Lee C. Priester started selling paper-shell pecans at his Texaco service station in Fort Deposit, Lowndes County. Over the next eight decades, in partnership with local oil distributor Hense C. Ellis and his descendants, this sideline developed into a successful business that now includes cracking and shelling pecans, processing them into candies, marketing dozens of varieties of packaged nut products from its store along Interstate 65, and shipping to customers worldwide. The production and sales facilities of Priester's Pecans now encompasses about 100,000 square feet of floor space with approximately 75 full-time employees; the staff increases to more than 200 during the fall harvesting and packing season.
Established in December 1813 as a military encampment, Fort Deposit evolved into a town with a thriving cotton, livestock, and timber economy by the turn of the twentieth century. It was also situated amidst lush pecan orchards that stretched through much of the Deep South. Seeking additional income during the Great Depression, Lee Priester hired a local man to gather pecans from his father's grove and a young boy to crack them outside his filling station to attract the attention of passing motorists. Soon, Priester was filling larger orders as a result of a request from a traveling salesman for five pounds of shelled nuts for his boss. The recipient was so delighted with his gift that he ordered a dozen more boxes for his friends as Christmas presents. With additional orders arising from these recipients and word-of-mouth advertising, Priester, assisted by a $200 loan from Hense Ellis, hired local women to crack, shell, and box the nuts on his back porch, thereby establishing a mail-order business.
In 1940, Ellis became a silent partner with an investment of $5,000 and the business became a more formal company. Over the next 15 years, Priester expanded production facilities with the acquisition of a separate building near the Texaco station, the introduction of electric shelling machines and vacuum-sealed containers to replace cardboard boxes for shipping. Despite the expansions, Priester's Pecans remained essentially a cracking and shelling operation. The product line started to expand by the early 1950s, when Priester secured a fruitcake recipe that featured whiskey-cured pecans as the base. The company further expanded production and its product line in 1954 with the purchase of two candy stores in downtown Montgomery that were administered briefly by Hense Ellis' son John. That same year, the candy-making operations at the two stores were moved to the facilities at Fort Deposit, where employee Jewel Cook produced pecan confections such as divinity, pecan logs, and pralines from scratch in huge copper pots stirred with wooden paddles to sell in the company store. Cook later supervised the packaging of mail-order gift boxes of candies.
In the early 1960s, Priester moved his Texaco station east of town when the construction of U.S. Highway 31 by-passed Fort Deposit and established another retail outlet there. The company also found new sources of pecans by the 1970s in the Mississippi Delta and southern Georgia, most notably the high-quality Desirable, Stuart, Schley and Elliott cultivars. Additionally, new markets emerged in places as distant as Finland and China. The company again expanded its production facilities with the purchase of equipment that washed, sorted, and separated nuts by size and color before they were cracked and the pecan meat extracted from hulls by other machines. The kernels were then roasted at 300 degrees Fahrenheit and either buttered and salted or processed into candy. Honey-glazed pecans became a consumer favorite by the 2000s.
After Hense Ellis died in 1965, his sons John and Ned entered the partnership with Priester until his death in 1978, when the Ellis family bought the Priesters' share of the business. Ned headed the operations and John remained a silent partner until 1986. Beginning in 1980, sales improved dramatically with the construction of a large store and processing plant along Interstate 65, the main Mobile-Chicago traffic corridor. Holidays proved to be especially good for business, as did college football game days and beach season. The company again invested in its infrastructure by computerizing its operations and supplementing traditional mail-order catalogues with telephone, FAX, and Internet services.
Just as business was flourishing, an electrical fire broke out on the evening of November 19, 1996, and destroyed the I-65 store and processing center. Unable to meet orders for the busy holiday season, the owners sought assistance from the community. Cooking was done in school kitchens with big pots, and local volunteers helped in all aspects of the business to keep production running. The Ellises quickly constructed a larger facility with improved equipment, a restaurant, and gift shop. Building on their successful reconstruction, the owners opened a second facility in Perry, Georgia, along Interstate 75 in 2004. Ned Ellis's children, Thomas Ellis and Ellen Ellis Burkett, took ownership of the company in 2002 and continued to expand the business, shelling and cracking about two million pecans and grossing $15 million annually, with 45 percent of earnings coming from the wholesale sector.
Most other regional pecan companies offer mainly packaged nuts, but Priester's offers a broad range of products. Its major competitor since about 2008 has been Chinese firms that started buying huge quantities of pecans from regional growers, thereby driving the price up to unprecedented levels. In addition to its success as a company, Priester's Pecans has had a very beneficial effect on the local economy. With virtually no employee turnover and an annual payroll of $2 million, the company provides steady work in a county with high unemployment and a low tax base by bringing in income from outside the area. In 2013, owing to sagging sales, the company was forced to sell the Georgia facility and redirect business development from branch facilities to consignment stores and Internet sales.
Burkett, Eric. "Fire of City." The Lowndes Signal, November 28, 1996.
"Business Built Entirely Upon Successful Ways of Packaging Product is Alabama Pecan Co." Montgomery Advertiser, July 26, 1953.
The Heritage of Lowndes County, Alabama. Clanton: Heritage Publishing Consultants, 2005.
"L. C. Priester Dies Following Illness." The Lowndes Signal, July 20, 1978.
"The Passing of L. C. Priester." The Lowndes Signal, July 27, 1978.
Stevenson, William H., III. "How Family Businesses Have Survived Through Many Generations." Business Alabama (December, 2011), 54.
John D. Fair
University of Texas, Austin
Published February 7, 2014
Last updated February 10, 2014