About 30 years have passed since he planted a life-size ostrich cutout in the grass next to the road. Its painted feathers were shiny and black back then, and over the years, it has tempted many curious drivers heading north on Route 87 to pull into Jake Perkins’ dusty gravel driveway in the Williamsburg Township outside Reidsville, N.C. A sign mounted on a tree next to his house advertises ostrich meat and eggs for sale, and transactions are made on his screened gray porch.
Today, the metal ostrich is still standing, but its black paint, like Perkins’ business, has faded over the years. A boom in the ostrich industry in the late 1980s spurred more than 350 North Carolina farmers to buy and breed their own birds, but many North Carolinians were more enthused by the bird’s appearance than the idea of eating its meat. Now, fewer than 25 ostrich farms remain in the state.
Perkins, who turned 89 in October, isn’t too bothered by the market’s decline. Though he has invested much time and energy in the 80 ostriches he keeps across the road, some of his grandest adventures happened long before his first three birds began strutting alongside Route 87.
He traveled the South Pacific with the U.S. Army Gasoline Supply Depot during World War II, graded tobacco for the state government while the industry pulsed with life and founded the Williamsburg Volunteer Fire Department under the auspices of the community.
Many years have passed since then. The annual reunion of Perkins’ fellow Army veterans was once a boisterous gathering of 135 men, but with only four company members remaining, the party is almost over. The members of the Volunteer Fire Department now span three generations; the remaining founders can be counted on one hand.
But Perkins doesn’t dwell much on the past or the future. Even as his heart begins to tire, he still works hard for himself and others. His two most important tools are at the ends of his wrists, and he works best with a wad of Bright Leaf tobacco tucked in his cheek. He punctuates most sentences by swiftly spitting on the ground.
His hair is snowy white and his skin is etched with lines, but Perkins doesn’t act his age. His memory is as sharp as his humor is quick, and his blue eyes laugh when he does.
Time slows for no one, though. Years stack up like abacus beads, every row an era in history. Few beads are left in the row colored by war stories and road trips, tobacco hauling and tradition building. Perkins is one of the last men standing.
From Williamsburg to the South Pacific
Born in 1923, Perkins spent his childhood running in and out of the house that is now decorated with pictures of his children and grandchildren. He was his parents’ only child, and he learned how to farm by watching his father. He fell in love with the outdoors and the feeling of satisfaction that followed a long day pulling tobacco or tending the fields.
“It’s the best life in the world,” he said.
In high school, he fell in love again, this time with a woman. Her name was Gwen, and she had recently moved to Williamsburg from a town across the county. They spent many evenings together, and somewhere along the way, she fell for him, too.
“Back then gas was rationed, so you couldn’t really go anywhere,” Perkins said. “All of us would gather in one home where there was a piano and we would sing and play games and have a good time together.”
After high school, Perkins heeded the call of the U.S. Army. He enlisted in August 1944, completed his basic training, and used his 12-day furlough to kiss Gwen and his family goodbye. He reported to San Francisco and was deployed to the South Pacific.
As motor sergeant in the Gasoline Supply Depot, he oversaw the maintenance of his company’s military vehicles.
“I had 37 trucks, Jeeps and a weapons cache,” he said. “I had four mechanics, a dispatcher, and myself. We ran the motor pool.”
He traveled throughout Australia and the Philippines. In Manila, he witnessed the brutality of the Japanese invaders. The Filipino corpses he saw in the streets bore the fatal marks of foreign bayonets.
But his sharpest memories of deployment aren’t tainted by the chaos of war. At the forefront of his mind are the relationships he built and the cultures he experienced at a time few today have lived to witness.
“Being in the army was unique in that I had never traveled very much ‘till I got in the service, and it was a great experience going all over the United States and overseas,” he said. “Words can’t describe how enjoyable it was.”
In February 1945, Perkins returned home. Though he sent letters weekly and called when he could, Gwen breathed a sigh of relief upon his arrival. Perkins took her hand in marriage, and he still holds it now.
40 states, and then some
As Perkins’ family grew to include his two sons, Ronald and Charles, his foremost responsibilities became fatherly in nature. But once each year, his Army brotherhood took priority. The annual Army reunion drew together men from almost every state in the country, and though the location often changed, the men always returned to their favorite places. Perkins hosted the reunion four times.
“They wanted to see Southern hospitality, and they fell in love with this part of the country,” Perkins said. “The oldest living member is 93 now. He lives in Spokane, Washington. He drove from out there to here for the reunions in a Winnebago. He did it a couple of times.”
When other company members decided to host the reunion, Perkins studied a map and filled his gas tank.
“I guess we covered about 40 states,” he said. “I liked all the states. There were some I hadn’t seen, and I enjoyed all of them. It was a great experience in every one. Words and money can’t express or pay for what I’ve seen with the Army boys.”
He travelled every summer, too. From July to February, he crisscrossed the Southeast grading tobacco for the North Carolina government. The farmers were busy and the markets were crowded: The crop was in high demand.
“We had to go down the rows of the farmers’ tobacco and describe it according to group, quality and color,” he said. “We would start in Florida or Georgia and end up in Kentucky, Tennessee, Indiana or places out west where the burley tobacco was grown.”
When Perkins wasn’t grading other farmers’ tobacco, he was inspecting his own rows of Bright Leaf, a variety that grows particularly well in the sandy soil of central North Carolina. He spent time with his family and continued to bond with his neighbors, many of whom he had known since childhood.
“On Thursday nights the men used to play bluegrass music all night long, and at last it got to be couples, but it was at first it was just a stag party,” said Wallace McKinney, a Williamsburg tobacco famer whose father was Perkins’ close friend. “Then everyone would go around and listen to bluegrass and talk to all the neighbors and farmers. There was a sign that used to hang up — my oldest brother made it — and it said ‘We are the champions of Haw River.’”
Each Thursday night, the already faint line between friend and family dissolved a little more. Since then, few have ever redrawn it.
“It’s a very clannish community, handed down from one generation to the next,” Perkins said. “Everyone is neighbors and knows everybody. And in case of sickness, disaster or any ailments, they don’t ask for help. The help is always there.”
A community of firefighters
In 1965, a disaster struck. After a house burned down in the community, the help was there as promised. But the men of the community feared the consequences of another fire, and after some discussion, they formed the Williamsburg Volunteer Fire Department.
“We felt it was a necessity and the community needed some protection from fires,” Perkins said. “We were the second community in the county to form a volunteer fire department. Ruffin was the first.”
Each member purchased his own gear and tested his own strength while Perkins drove to Lansing, Mich., with a few other men. He drove back in a fire truck.
“We didn’t have any training before we started the department, but we took a 36-hour course on firefighting, and we were ready to go,” said Donnie Brown, one of the three remaining founders of the department. He is 77 now.
The men’s first test was a junkyard fire, and together, they passed. The second test, which took place the next Sunday, was far more difficult. As a train was passing between Ruffin and Round Summit, the hotbox on one of its freight cars spit some embers into the brush beside the tracks. The flames sprinted off in all directions, and when Perkins got the call, ten miles of track were burning.
“I was leading the choir at church and we disrupted the service,” he said. “The people in church had a very short sermon and the women fixed lunch and brought it to us. I had to stop the train from running so we could have access to the railroad to get the fire out. We knew we accomplished something when we could go and put the fire out and minimize the loss.”
The women who fixed lunch that day became part of the Ladies Auxiliary, an organization formed to relay messages to the department and support the men while they tried to avert disaster.
“We only had two telephones for the volunteer fire department,” Perkins said. “I had one and the fire chief had one in his store. Whenever we got a call, it would come in on those two phones, and the Ladies Auxiliary would notify the firemen where it was and what it was, and everyone would drop what they were doing and come.”
The department’s one fire truck carried only a few men, so the rest of the members arrived at the scene by car.
“Whoever left with the fire truck would throw out a lime bag each time we made a turn,” Brown said. ‘That way, everyone knew where we went by seeing that lime bag in the road.”
Before the department built its fire station, the truck lived in Perkins’ driveway. When his house phone rang, he would jump into the truck with his father and two sons, and one would toss the lime bags as the truck rounded corners.
“The phone was in the hall and my boys were upstairs, and whenever that fire phone went off, they’d be coming down the stairs, ready to go,” Perkins said. “That was the only time I didn’t have to call them to get them up.”
When the firemen began hosting fundraisers to finance the department, the community members eagerly showed their support. They gathered for turkey shoots, cookouts, horse shows and tractor pulls. Each fall, the firemen prepared a cavernous pot of Brunswick stew to sell by the pint, and they almost always found themselves scraping the bottom of the pot at the end of the night. Over the years, the events became community traditions.
“That was the most enjoyable part of the fire department, all those projects,” Brown said. “It brought the community together.”
“It was like we were all one big family,” Perkins added.
With the money they raised, the firemen built a fire station and kept their equipment in top condition. In the 1970s, they cultivated a field of tobacco next to the station and sold it for a bit of extra cash.
Birds of a different feather
Around this time, Perkins’ own tobacco fields grew to cover 100 acres. When the plants turned yellow-green, he packed load after load into his curing barns and watched with satisfaction as the bright leaves shriveled into a dark, pungent commodity.
But by the 1980s, Perkins was in search of a new business venture. The ostrich industry was becoming increasingly lucrative, and a breeders’ market was rapidly developing within the state. At that time, a fertile egg sold for $1,000, and a rooster was worth $2,500-3,000. The prospect of breeding and selling such valuable birds excited Perkins, and he infected Brown and his oldest son Ronald with his enthusiasm. The three drove together to a small town near Raleigh, and each returned with three ostriches; all together, the nine birds were worth nearly $20,000. Perkins paid $5,600 for two hens and one rooster.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “It was an adventure and a gamble and we thought it was a good venture, financially.”
But at first, the ostriches gave the men a run for their money. When Brown brought his birds back to his farm, he set one of the roosters loose in the pasture.
“He got to running and he ran right through the fence and got out,” Brown said. “Some of my firemen came to help me get him, and when they finally caught up to him, he was lying flat on the ground. Someone was doing CPR on him, trying to revive him, but he didn’t make it.”
It took some trial and error, but the Perkins and Brown families learned to breed and raise the birds. They sold their young hens and roosters to other men vying for spots in the breeders’ market, and they charged the premium prices they once paid.
A business venture became a lifestyle. Before some long days on the farm, the men woke to the sound of ostrich egg in a hot skillet and later came home to the smell of ostrich roast or ostrich chili.
“The meat is unique tasting,” Perkins said. “It’s all a dark red meat, no gristle, no bones, very low in fat and no cholesterol. And one egg is equivalent to two dozen hen eggs.”
As the industry boomed, ostrich meat was touted as the heart-healthy alternative to beef and pork, and it held great appeal to a certain demographic of people. Unfortunately, that demographic didn’t include the majority of North Carolinians.
“It’s certainly a shame it didn’t really catch on because a lot of people who tried the ostrich meat found it really wasn’t all that bad,” said Brown’s wife, Wilma. “I guess some people eat with their eyes. I fixed some of the roast at Thanksgiving, and one of the daughters-in-law was very adamant that she was not eating ostrich. But she came in and ate a piece and didn’t know the difference. We all got a chuckle out of that.”
The last 20 years
Like most health food fads, the demand for ostrich meat eventually tapered off. The breeders’ market soon followed suit, and the Browns sold their last birds in the early 1990s.
But Perkins continued to care for his ostriches and keep an eye on his incubators. He watched as their community grew to span several generations.
“The ostriches all defend their group,” Perkins said. “When there is danger, one male bellows and all the others answer.”
The same is still true of the volunteer fire department. Its six trucks often venture outside the community now, but the men are always there when the people of Williamsburg call. For forty-seven years, the department has remained in the hands of the founding families. Perkin’s son Ronald and his grandson Steven, who serve as chief and assistant chief of the department, continue the community traditions that Perkins began with his fellow men. This year, the Brunswick stew will be sold Oct. 27.
Perkins doesn’t ride the fire truck anymore, but he still keeps a radio in the front pocket of his blue denim overalls. It sputters and beeps when the department receives a call, and he listens intently for short bursts of information. His chocolate lab, Jim, barks whenever he hears a siren.
He helps out the department when he can, but now his farm is his main responsibility. Every day without fail, he crosses the road and tends to his ostriches. He gets along particularly well with Rufus, an aging rooster that comes when he’s called. He used to be the dominant male in his pen, but he has since stepped back and let the younger generations take over.