Needham Sloan Stevens Jr. and his five sisters helped their father raise tobacco and corn in the warmer months and slaughter hogs and make sausage come fall.
In the late 1940s, Stevens’ father began trolling the country stores that once dotted the landscape, traveling in his pickup truck to sell sausage made from a recipe perfected through the generations. Stevens Sausage Co. was founded in the 1940s, and “N.S.,” as the son was called, saw it through the 20th century.
His own three sons took the helm of what is now one of the largest meat producers in the state. N.S. Stevens Jr. died in May at 85. He had been delighted when his grandson, Sloan Stevens, recently joined the family business as a fourth-generation family worker.
N.S. served in the military, but when he returned from the Korean War, it was clear he would join his father in the sausage endeavor, said Stevens’ sister, Joyce Underwood of Raleigh. She suspects that having five daughters and only one son played a part in her father’s efforts to get out of the tobacco game. Slaughtering hogs and curing meat was an extension of their rural life, as commonplace as growing tobacco, but requiring a lot less overhead.
N.S. took on the distribution responsibilities, spending much of his time driving around the eastern part of the state. As the business grew, so did the catalog of products. Stevens eventually peddled country ham, hot dogs and red hots. At his death, the company had added chili, souse and chitterlings and was also producing meats for national distribution chains, going far beyond supplying the hot dogs served at the Dog House in Durham and Snoopy’s in Raleigh.
Each week the company, now employing approximately 100 workers, puts out some 400,000 pounds of meat, and its markets have extended up and down the entire East Coast.
A mentor to many
Stevens met his wife of 60 years, a nurse named Carolyn, while visiting a friend in the hospital.
“He was very dedicated. He didn’t take much time off,” Carolyn Stevens said.
They quickly had two sons, and a third followed a few years later. All of them spent time working at what had become a meat processing plant located just a few hundred yards from the home in which they were raised, on land the Stevens family had owned since 1742.
The sons were grinding sausage in their early teens. The oldest son, Mike Stevens, remembers when one of his father’s drivers fell ill. It wasn’t long before the 16-year-old had his driver’s license and immediately started driving the routes himself.
Mike Stevens recalls learning much about how to run a successful business. He is the vice president of sales and his brother David is vice president of purchases. But other lessons from N.S. Stevens were far more important.
“He taught me how to get along with folks,” Mike Stevens said. “He really taught us how to treat people – anywhere you go, from the person sweeping the floors to the back doors.”
N.S. ate nearly every day at The Coffee Pot, a diner in Smithfield. He got to know Carolyn Artis when she started as a dishwasher there in 1980. He watched her rise to manager, then cook, and when she was presented with the opportunity to buy the place, she turned to N.S. for advice.
“He said, ‘Carolyn, you could do it.’ He was a real, real, real friend to me,” Artis said. She attributes part of her confidence in taking the plunge into ownership to the support from N.S. As a widow with seven children, she didn’t enter into it lightly.
“He encouraged me to keep going,” she said.
Committed to giving back
The success of Stevens Sausage Co. allowed N.S. to support his community, and he did so in sponsoring numerous sports teams ranging from local youth baseball to the Carolina Mudcats. In recent years, the company also sponsored Smithfield’s Ham & Yam Festival.
The long-term success of Stevens Sausage Co., paired with his community involvement, won recognition from the Johnston County Farm-City Week Committee as a key agribusiness in the area.
“The business that Mr. Stevens started and that his sons carried on with, it’s been very important here in Johnston County. It’s been very important in the Smithfield area,” said Bryant Spivey, director of the Johnston County Cooperative Extension Service.
N.S. was also granted lifetime membership in the Greater Smithfield-Selma Area Chamber of Commerce, of which he was a charter member.
“He was just a fine person, a smart businessman, very generous in his community,” said Rick Childrey, the chamber’s president.
His friends remember a man who was humble, yet quick to laud his family.
“He was a modest man,” said Knox Jenkins, a retired superior court judge and longtime friend. “He was real proud of his sons.”
His middle son, Tim Stevens, has been president of the company since N.S. turned it over. But N.S. Stevens never really detached from the daily operations of the company. In his “retirement,” he was able to focus on hobbies such as restoring antique cash registers and coffee grinders and researching the family’s genealogy.
But since he lived across the road from the plant, N.S. walked over most days, just to check on things and say hello