Massive blaze shuts down popular Virginia ham producer

A massive fire Tuesday engulfed Edwards Virginia Smokehouse in Surry County, closing the famed ham producer indefinitely.

No one was injured in the fire, which was reported about 12:30 p.m. at S. Wallace Edwards & Sons‘ iconic red smokehouse on Rolfe Highway.

Crews from several area fire departments converged on the building, which burned into the evening.

Janda Mueller, a company accountant, told the Daily Press of Newport News that smokehouse workers were at lunch when the fire broke out. The plant usually shuts down between noon and 1 p.m. while workers eat in a nearby doublewide trailer, she said.

Mueller said she was working in the company office when she smelled smoke that “was stronger than normal.”

When she went outside to investigate she saw smoke pouring from the smokehouse’s loading dock. She ran back into the office to “tell everybody to get outta Dodge,” she told the paper.

 She said the smoke was so thick that it quickly became difficult to breathe.

“It happened that fast, that quickly. Very scary,” she told the Daily Press. “But, fortunately, everybody got out of the office and nobody was in the plant, from what I understand.”

Evan Jones, publisher of the Sussex-Surry Dispatch and the first reporter on the scene, said the blaze was one of the worst he had ever seen.

“It was quite a fire,” he said.

Late Tuesday afternoon, Edwards posted a message on its website informing customers that the company is closed for now.

“Due to a tragic fire, we will be closed for an undetermined amount of time,” the company said. “We’d like to thank the community for supporting us and local first responders for their heroic work.

“We’re eternally grateful everyone here is safe. Thank you all for your continued support and prayers. We’ll provide more updates soon.”

Edwards has been a Surry County staple since 1926. In addition to country hams and sausages, the company also makes Surryano ham, a hickory-smoked, dry-cured ham that has gained a following in food circles nationwide.

As news of the fire hit social media, aficionados of Edwards’ hams soon began mourning its loss.

Andrew Zimmern, a chef and host of the Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods,” shared the news with his Twitter followers, noting that workers there are “people I’ve met and broken bread with.”

David Chang, founder of the Momofuku restaurant group and a champion of Edwards’ products, took to Twitter to say he was stunned by the news.

The company recently got a plug on national TV when the “Today Show” featured Edwards’ sweet potato ham biscuits and dry-cured lamb during a segment on food gifts. In addition, Bon Appetit magazine has called Edwards’ hams the best country hams in the United States.

The family-owned business is one of the biggest employers in rural Surry County. The company has about 50 workers, Mueller told the Daily Press, including those at the company’s two retail stores — one next the smokehouse in Surry; the other across the James River in Williamsburg. Mueller said there are about 20 workers employed at the smokehouse.

Published Jan. 19, 2016, Richmond Times-Dispatch