Destiny and dedication: Bryce Purkey

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RBC | “With my dad being a butcher and both my grandads being butchers, I guess I was destined to be a butcher,” said Bryce Purkey, reflecting on his 88 years of history in Meeker, raising his family, running the Purkey Packing plant, developing strong community bonds, and persevering through adversity.

Four generations of Purkeys stand in the front room of the Purkey Packing Plant. From let to right are Madee Lyn, Jason, Jay and Bryce Purkey. | LUCAS TURNER PHOTO

“Meeker’s always been a hick town, you might say, a small town,” said Purkey, noting that the town hasn’t changed much over the decades, aside from an increase in population. “Back then everybody knew everybody, and what was goin’ on, and everybody was friendly,” he added.

After getting married in Rifle in 1927, Bryce’s dad John Purkey took up his own butchering practice, taking trips out to local ranches to slaughter animals since there weren’t any processing facilities around yet. The work was supplemented by John Purkey’s other business, a small sale/auction house in Rifle.

Eventually he leased a building from the Sheridan family for a number of years until he could build the original Purkey Packing Plant three miles west of Meeker, just across the street from where the current plant is located to this day.

An older sign from the early days of the plant, listing a phone number of “319-W”. | LUCAS TURNER PHOTO

“At that point [we] started not only slaughtering but processing, cutting, wrapping and sharp freezing of both domestic and wild game,” said Purkey.

For the next 18 years, the Purkeys got to work in the new facility, kicking off a longstanding family tradition of working together to make a living.

Bryce Purkey says he remembers working with a few of his brothers, even quitting school in his sophomore year to help run the operation. “I didn’t like school anyway so I just quit and went to helpin’ my dad,” said Purkey. “He was butcherin’ and trading cattle and doing whatever he could to make a living”

PERSEVERANCE & COMMUNITY SUPPORT

Bryce traveled away from Meeker in 1955 to serve in the US military. Upon returning to Colorado in the late 50s, he set up shop at his dad’s old auction house/sale barn in Rifle, hoping to run the operation there. Unfortunately the venture fell through when Purkey’s financial backers left him hanging. “So I didn’t have any place else to go but come to Meeker,” he said. Around that same time he traveled to Alaska for two summers, and while he was away from home, disaster struck.

A fire burned inside the family’s packing plant, putting them out of business. Despite the loss, the family persisted, reopening a rebuilt facility in 1963, just one year after the fire

LUCAS TURNER PHOTO

“We’ve been here ever since,” said Purkey, reflecting on how a few generous community members made the reopening possible. “I didn’t have any money. I didn’t have any money of any kind, and three people who are all deceased and gone now had faith in me, to loan me enough money to put this packing plant on the ground,” he said, adding that they continued backing him until the operation got on its feet, “I was never on time with payment till hunting season, and they backed me and kept me goin’ until I finally got on my feet.”

Purkey said over the years other community members and business partners helped the plant become what it is today. “All the farmers and ranchers pitched in here and bought me beef, bought me hogs, and helped me out,” he said.

Bryce Purkey and family worked hard to keep the doors open for the next 15 years, even picking up other work when necessary. “I hauled hay or stacked hay all summer long, and then [was] tickled to death when I had a beef to butcher,” he said.

The family also operated “White River Roustabouts” in the late ’70s, employing up to 14 workers who worked both in the oil patch and the packing plant.

Bryce Purkey | LUCAS TURNER PHOTO

Unfortunately, despite the contributions from the community and the family’s strong work ethic, the Purkeys still had another trial ahead.

In 1978, following the upgrades to the plant including a few brand new freezers and a new processing room, fire struck again.

“This plant caught fire on the second day of deer hunting season, destroyed 152 deer, two elk, two antelope and a beef,” said Purkey, emphasizing just how bad the timing was. “It was devastating to us, because hunting season is our big payday.”

“Everything was destroyed, all the carcasses were smoked, gone. We lost all our equipment except for one freezer, but everything else was destroyed,” he said.

The family was forced to scramble that year, setting up tables in a still-intact portion of the building, with no heat. They tracked down one grinder, and a saw, and were able to process about 150 animals.” Fortunately White River Roustabouts still had work at the time, which also helped. “On the days when it was slow on the roustabout business, we brought our roustabout crews in here and dismantled the whole building down to the bare iron, and put it all back,” said Purkey, adding “When you fall down you damn sure better get up and go back, go to work.”

A FAMILY TRADITION

Following in the footsteps of his dad John Purkey, Bryce and family reopened the plant one year later in 1979, where it still stands to this day. “We had to go on or give up, I didn’t wanna give up, it’s all I’ve known,” he said.

He handed over the operation to his kids and grandkids 14 years ago, but in the Purkey tradition, Bryce says he still works and helps out where he can.

“My grandad Jim Purkey had a slaughter house in Bloomington, Illinois. And my mother’s dad was a butcher for Safeway in Rifle,” said Purkey, pointing to his young granddaughter Madee Lyn and adding, “there stands the sixth generation right there.”

LUCAS TURNER PHOTO

By LUCAS TURNER | lucas@ht1885.com

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