PITTSFIELD – Barbara Pickwell, a daughter of the man who started it all, moves swiftly through a series of plastic flap doors. She could navigate this chilled East Street maze blindfolded.
Its well-worn route through the cement floors eventually leads to room temperature, to a wood-paneled desk where an old grandfather clock divides the ticking time progression, an auditory equivalent to a perpetual chain of assorted Frankfurt babies.
The latter totaled a century for Wohrle’s Foods Inc., a food supplier primarily known for its meats, four generations of family-owned operations in an industry dominated by national companies, and an origin story steeped in decision-making in a split second.
Today, dozens of products carry the Wohrle’s label. Six Wohrle’s wholesale delivery trucks always share the road, starting at sunrise, with Sysco and US Foods. Despite having a BJ’s Wholesale Club just down the street, Wohrle’s operates a bustling food warehouse that is open to the public and which – hum – does not charge membership fees.
Pickwell, who is semi-retired but still does the math here every month using a calculating machine, says the secret to survival is “Work hard, very hard.”
“And have the patience to go through it, despite the troubles,” rings out her husband, Walter, also semi-retired. His office is adjacent to his wife’s. The two, married for 65 years, took over the business in 1969 when the man who started it all died.
OK, one last ocean crossing
Travel back in time to July 1914, and Barbara Pickwell’s father, John W. Wohrle (pronounced WHIRL-ee), quickly changed his mind that would ultimately alter the course of Pittsfield’s diet for decades to come.
He was an 18-year-old meat cutter from the Black Forest region of Germany. He had just completed what he believed to be his last round-trip sea crossing to New York on a German steamboat – oddly enough, named after George Washington – where he worked as a cook’s helper.
Back in port in Germany, his suitcases ready, he planned to return to his hometown of Wolfach to begin his career as a wurstmacher. But, at the last minute, he was persuaded to stay put, to make just one more trip. Good thing.
As the ship sailed back to the high seas, World War I broke out. If Wohrle had not accepted this last trip, he probably would have donned tall leather boots to serve as an infantryman in the Imperial German Army. Upon arrival in New York, the ship was seized by US authorities and Wohrle made another substantial decision.
“He left the ship,” Pickwell says.
Pittsfield discovers a meat cutter
With his experience as a meat cutter, he worked in delicatessens in the New York area. When the war ended, he returned to Germany and legally re-entered the United States, eventually becoming a citizen.
Turn the clock to 1921, 100 years ago, and Wohrle opened a store in Pittsfield. That is, he made frankfurters, sausages, and breakfast meats from sides of beef and pork that he removed from refrigerated cars. He first sold his specialty meats from a horse-drawn cart.
He had heard of the Berkshires through a friend who had settled here among a large community of German immigrants. Wohrle generated a clientele that literally ate it all.
Back in his office, Pickwell would like to be clear on something. His father didn’t just make old-fashioned sausages and sausages and cold cuts. He made “quality” Frankfurters, sausages and cold cuts.
Old newspaper advertisements, undated, dry and fragile like autumn leaves, tell of how the tasty “Pittsfield Hostesses” preferred Wohrle’s “Health Brand” meat label to everything else.
In the meantime, Wohrle had met a young woman from Connecticut, Anna Ungewitter. The two married in 1922 and eventually had four daughters, one of whom died in infancy.
Wohrle quickly opened his first brick and mortar store, at 137 Wahconah St. As business picked up in a meat-eating town, he bought the Eberwein Bologna factory at 157 Seymour St., where he has expanded its business to include wholesale distribution, primarily to the many small family-owned grocery stores that are now nearly extinct.
Pickwell, who grew up in an apartment above the storefront on Seymour Street, remembers how she would be forced to make boxes for orders and peel the skins of hot dogs, thousands of hot dogs, too many to count.
She remembers how her father diligently shed his German accent by joining a club of German immigrant speakers. They would meet regularly and just talk and talk – until their w, for example, no longer sounded like a v.
“He told us, ‘We are not Germans; we’re Americans, ”Pickwell recalls.
Over time he became a civic leader, a Lion, a shriner, a mason, a member of the Lutheran Church of Zion, a governor of the Loyal Order of Moose. In May 1936 he was named “Man of the Month” in Pittsfield, in recognition of his sportsmanship (he was a talented fisherman and hunter).
When the time came to buy a mincemaster, he bought a giant mincemaster. He made sure his delivery trucks were dustproof and his meat plant was cleaned every night with boiling water and disinfectant. He kept a pickle rack that he considered lucky. It has nurtured religious groups, children’s sports leagues and volunteer organizations well.
John and Anna Wohrle celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary with a party at Turn Hall on Seymour Street in 1947. The Eagle did an article about it. The holiday included a celebration of 25 years of activity. The Wohrles gave gifts to their employees. The Wohrles also received gifts. A turkey meal was served. The dance followed.
“He loved to have fun,” Pickwell says of his father. She herself keeps a painting on the wall of her office of Frankfort sausages on skis, rolling down a mountain – because, why not?
Perhaps the most famous, Wohrle, in the early 1940s, took inspiration from German recipes to develop what has become a Pittsfield classic for blue collar workers – a smoked hot dog 4 1/4 inches long, half beef, half pork in a natural casing (aka, the Frankfurt Baby, a bestseller).
The old clock kept ticking
In 1957, Wohrle purchased the US Beef and Provision Corp. building. at 1619 East St. It has since been Wohrle’s home port and includes the retail store. Over the years, a meat smokehouse and processing plant have been added, along with new offices, freezers and warehouses to accommodate an expanded wholesale business. Wholesale customers include restaurants, schools, nursing homes, prisons, camps and hospitals.
Among Wohrle’s 32 employees are three generations of descendants of the man who started it all. The Pickwell’s son, Jon, recently retired. Their daughter, Lynn Kessler, and her husband, Rob, now run the business. In 2014 Luke Kessler, great-grandson of John Wohrle, joined the team.
Barbara Pickwell does the math. Wohrle survived the stock market crash of 1929; The great Depression; rationing of food and fuel during World War II; the skyrocketing interest rates in the 1980s; closing small grocery stores; and a pandemic. Not to mention a devastating fire at the facility in 1995, delivery truck breakdowns, changes in US Department of Agriculture rules and regulations, etc.
“The numbers tell the story,” she says. Wohrle’s achieves more than $ 10 million in sales per year.
“Thank you good God,” she said, hastening to add, “what makes us most proud is that we’ve been able to keep the business going through thick and thin, with now the fourth generation. It’s something that I’m sure my dad would like.