Updated Thursday with better quotes...
I've been meaning to read James C. Hormel's memoir, "Fit to Serve," for a few weeks, mostly to pluck out what he has to say about his Austin years but also because he's had a fascinating life. The grandson of Hormel Foods founder George A. Hormel, James Hormel went on to become a diplomat in the Clinton administration and has been throughout much of his life a prominent gay rights activist.
This weekend he's in Austin to sign books, so my window of opportunity for writing a book review has just about closed, but here are a few excerpts from the early chapters, regarding his childhood in Austin.
(When I was a boy) there was a sense, even among my fellow 8-year-olds, that I should be treated differently. In Austin there were the Hormels, and then there was Everybody Else. And I could never, ever be Everybody Else.
Two dominant smells came from the Hormel packinghouse. The first was the aroma of a smokehouse -- woody and sweet and very pleasant.
The second was altogether different. It came from a dark place known as the Hide Cellar, a giant room at the lowest level of the packinghouse that was filled with thousands of cowhides...they gave off the putrid, indescribable smell of decaying flesh. When the wind blew the wrong way, the odor swept over Austin and everyone in town moaned and groaned until the breeze changed direction.
One particularly glorious spring day, as I recall -- it must have been around 1940 -- I sat with two dozen or so other second-graders in my class at Sumner Elementary School. Our lovely young teacher, Miss Silseth, was writing spelling words on the board. She had opened the classroom's tall, wood-framed windows as wide as they would go...
Cutting to the chase on this one, the putrid packinghouse smell enters the room and a kid teases him that "Old Man Hormel's got his feet out the window again."
When I was a child, Austin was far less than a city but a bit more than a town. Most of its 18,000 residents descended from Norwegian, Swedish and German immigrants who had made farms of the flat meadows and prairies in the century before...in the middle of Main Street was a town square dominated by a magnificent Victorian building of red brick trimmed in white, with a single green-domed tower.
My family lived on the eastern edge of town on a 200-acre estate, several miles from the neat, tree-lined neighborhoods where all the other kids lived...in total, the house had 26 bedrooms and 25 bathrooms, including the powder rooms.
Daddy was born Presbyterian and Mamma a Catholic, but neither went to services on Sunday. When she married outside the faith, Mamma was excommunicated, and she spent much of her middle years trying to get back in the good graces of the Church. (She went so far as to become a major benefactor of a second Catholic church and school in Austin, Queen of Angels.)
One of the occasional visitors was Oscar Mayer, inventor of the famous Oscar Mayer wiener, whose company was a Hormel competitor. He was friend with my grandfather and then my father, whom he affectionately called the Duke of Austin.
OK, that's ripping off about as much as I should, but Hormel has a lot to tell about his youth, and much more as the subtitle suggests: "Reflections on a Secret Life, Private Struggle and Public Battle to Become the First Openly Gay U.S. Ambassador." The headline on the jacket flap: "One man's gripping story of freedom and determination in a heterosexual world."
It's co-written with Erin Martin, and among other Spamtown tidbits, Hormel describes the night his father, Jay C. Hormel, died at the Hormel mansion; how the "Mayos in Rochester" gave the family a dog for Christmas one year; details on the origin and early popularity of Spam; and the pressures of growing up with the expectation that he and his brothers would one day take over the family business.
By coincidence, one of the men who later was in charge of Hormel Foods, former CEO Richard Knowlton, also will be the focus of a public event in Austin this weekend: the renaming of a street in his honor.
Hormel will read from his book and sign copies from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday at the Coffee House on Main, 329 N. Main St., Austin. The Knowlton street dedication will be at 1 p.m. Sunday along the boulevard at Sixth Street and 16th Avenue Northeast, near the Hormel Institute and the Hormel Foods Corporate North building. A public open house will be from 1:30 p.m. to 3 p.m. at the Hormel Institute.