Jesse Jewell (1902-1975) started what was to become Georgia’s largest agricultural crop—poultry. The now $1,000,000,000 a year industry has given Gainesville the title “Poultry Capital of the World.”
Jewell’s business acumen was highly acclaimed. He pioneered vertical integration—the combining of all phases of the business, such as raw materials, processing, and distribution, within a single company—in the poultry industry. His feed conversion incentive plans benefited farmers, helping guide the area’s agriculture economy through and beyond the Depression. The program, from avian parent breeding to brand name marketing, is emulated worldwide today by all poultry producing firms. At the helm of J. D. Jewell, Inc. for more than twenty years, Jewell was a key national leader of the industry.
Jewell’s father, Edgar Herman Jewell, owned a feed, seed, and fertilizer business. He died when Jewell was only seven years old. After studying civil engineering at the University of Alabama and Georgia Tech, young Jesse in 1922 began working in the family feed business, along with his mother and stepfather, Leonard Loudermilk. In 1928 Jewell married Anna Louise Dorough, and the couple settled down in Gainesville. They had three daughters.
When his stepfather died in 1930, Jewell began managing the family business. As the Depression drained the company’s receipts, he tried a new approach to boost feed sales. He bought baby chicks and supplied them, along with chicken feed, on credit to cash-poor farmers. Once the chicks were grown, Jewell bought them back at a price that covered his feed costs and also guaranteed the farmers a profit. More and more Hall County farmers began to contract to grow chickens for Jewell.
By the late 1930s Jewell began adding the elements that would make J. D. Jewell the largest integrated chicken producer in the world. The first step, in 1940, was to open his own hatchery. Next came a processing plant in 1941. The booming World War II economy gave a lift to the fledgling Jewell enterprise. In 1954 Jewell added the final touches—his own feed mill and rendering plant. This vertically integrated corporation set the standard for poultry processors everywhere, as did Jewell’s trademark frozen chicken. His work created a demand for specialists in nutrition, poultry science, poultry marketing and transportation. Jewell’s hiring policies were also innovative: his processing plant was among the first factories in Gainesville to hire black workers.
In the spring of 1951 a majority of workers at J. D. Jewell voted to unionize under Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen. “The workers in the Jewell plant were being paid 75 cents an hour for all types of work, regardless of the length of experience of the employees,” stated the union, in an August 1951 Congressional hearing before the Committee on Labor and Public Welfare. The union accused the company of organizing violent attacks on union representatives by a mob, which reportedly included members of J. D. Jewell management. The union never gained a foothold.
A leader in civic and industry affairs, Jewell was a founder and the first president of the National Broiler Council, the president of the Southeastern Poultry and Egg Association, and a U.S. delegate to the 1951 World Poultry Congress. He also gained the presidency of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, which he led during the 1950s.
In the early 1960s Jewell sold his company to a group of investors. It went bankrupt in 1972, though Jewell himself never did. With his poultry fortune he established a scholarship fund at Brenau College, where he also endowed a new building for biology and home economics. By his life’s end he was inducted in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Poultry Hall of Fame. Jewell suffered a stroke in 1962 and died, after an extended illness, on January 16, 1975.
Congress, Senate, Committee on Labor and Public Welfare, J. D. Jewell Co., 82nd Congress, 1st Session on J. D. Jewell Co. and Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen of North America, A.F.L., August 9, 1951 (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1951), 2–5.