In southern Richmond County, you will find the quaint town of Hamlet, N.C. Settled in about 1875 and formally incorporated in 1897 the town was named by John Shortridge, a local citizen, for the word then descriptive of its size. Hamlet serves as an important railroad center with maintenance shops, hump classification yard, and other facilities including the National Railroad Museum and Hall of Fame.
Hamlet is also home to a unique phenomenon, the pleasant aroma of fresh fried chicken greets visitors as soon as they arrive. Tourist will soon find there is no nook, nor cranny in town that escapes the succulent, mouth-watering scent. This feature is courtesy of the town’s raging manufacturing sector, home to two thriving industrial parks, Pine Hill just outside the city limits, and the Marks Creek Industrial Park. But like the Pied Piper in the storybook version of Hamlet, the bringer of joy and chicken has faded to mere legend, leaving only the ghostly delicious smell behind.
The tale begins in a building known as the Imperial Foods plant, a structure dating back to the early 20th century. The building had been used for food processing applications and had once been an ice cream factory. Emmett Roe, the plant owner, was a savvy businessman. Even though there had been three previous fires at the plant, he saw no need to waste money on fire alarms or suppression systems and shrewdly had doors padlocked and the windows boarded, to prevent theft, vandalism or other criminal acts. For the eleven years that the building had hosted Imperial Foods, there had been no safety inspections by the state due to a lack of inspectors.
No one knows exactly what magical forces conspired on September 3, 1991, but during the course of normal chicken frying operations one of the 25 ft long deep fat fryer vats may have spontaneously ignited at around 8:30 AM. This cooker’s temperature was controlled by thermostat and was maintained at a constant 375°F (190°C), which was variable by design to 15°F (8°C) either way. The fire spread rapidly, causing a panic so that some workers suffered trauma injuries during a rush to escape. Large quantities of delicious-smelling smoke were produced by a combination of burning soybean oil and chicken, and melting roof insulation. The smoke was later found to be hydrocarbon-charged and had the potential to disable someone within a few breaths. Several gas lines embedded in the ceiling also caught fire and exploded.
Despite the majority workers trapped by a curtains of smoke, the locked doors and a blocked loading bay, some did eventually manage to escape. Slow and inadequate response by the local Fire Department nursed the aromatic inferno to become North Carolina’s deadliest industrial accident. After the last embers cooled and state and federal investigators crowded in to begin shifting blame, the mouth-watering odor of extra-crispy lingered.
So if you’re near Richmond County, be sure to check out the wonderful little town of Hamlet and it’s signature winds of roasting poultry. Let the fresh, fried sizzle of savory golden goodness drift into your heart