Jerome Kee (J. K.) Southerland was a regionally important leader in the poultry business as it emerged as an important industry in the state during the post–World War II years. At one time, his poultry enterprise was the second largest in the state.
J. K. Southerland was born on September 22, 1903, in Banner (Cleburne County) to James Walter Southerland and Maleta Kee Southerland. His mother died when he was about twelve, leaving his father with four sons and a daughter. After completing school at Banner, he enrolled in school at Sulphur Rock (Independence County) to get a teaching certificate. He then returned to farming and raising cattle in Banner and nearby Floral (Independence County).
On June 2, 1928, Southerland married Cleo Clarabell Ferguson of Floral, a former school teacher. She became an active partner with her husband in business and philanthropy. The couple had three daughters. Cleo was the daughter of Lislie Brown Ferguson. Cleo’s uncles, Bird and Claud Brown, owned a store in Floral and were helpful to Southerland’s career as a poultry entrepreneur.
Southerland started in the poultry business in the 1930s with a dozen baby chicks on a small mortgaged farm in Floral, where he also raised cattle. His first step toward building a viable enterprise was opening a feed store and hatchery in Floral. Following the success of the store and hatchery, he moved the base of his operations in the early 1950s across the river to Batesville (Independence County), first building a feed store, a small processing plant, and a hatchery.
Southerland contracted with growers throughout Independence and surrounding counties to raise chickens. He soon established feed mills in other towns and cities, opening a similar enterprise in Clinton (Van Buren County). His Clinton operation included production, milling, and processing. Southerland helped provide badly needed jobs in the county and also promoted the Batesville area and the White River valley as ideal locations for industry.
Southerland’s chicken operation, J. K. Southerland, Inc., had ten employees in 1940. When he merged with F. M. Stamper/Banquet Foods in 1969, his enterprise had 800 employees. Southerland also helped to found Citizens Bank of Batesville in 1953. He became bank president and later served as chairman of the board of Citizens until his death.
Southerland was noted for his philanthropic endeavors, such as a gift of more than $500,000 to what is now Williams Baptist College; he had been a supporter of the college since its founding in 1941 in Pocahontas (Randolph County). Southerland also supported the White River Medical Center in Batesville, local and state chambers of commerce, the Poultry Federation, the Arkansas Livestock and Poultry Commission, the Arkansas Cattlemen’s Association, and the National Broiler Council. He received many civic awards, including a Community Development Award from the Arkansas Chamber of Commerce and a Citizen of the Year Award from the Batesville Kiwanis Club. He was inducted into the Arkansas Agriculture Hall of Fame in 1998.
Southerland died on December 5, 1981, in Batesville. He and his wife are buried in Oaklawn Cemetery in the city. On April 23, 2013, his family gathered for the dedication of the J. K. Southerland Board Room as part of Citizens Bank’s sixtieth-anniversary celebration.
For additional information:
Barger, Carl J. Cleburne County and Its People. Vol. 2. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2008.
Dowdy, Nancy Patrice. “J. K. Southerland: From Check-R-Mix to Fancy Pack, Pioneering the Poultry Industry in North Central Arkansas.” PhD diss., Arkansas State University, 2015.
Startup, Kenneth M. The Splendid Work: The Origins and Development of Williams Baptist College. Walnut Ridge, AR: Williams Baptist College, 1991.
Strausberg, Stephen F. From Hills and Hollers: Rise of the Poultry Industry in Arkansas Fayetteville: Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station, 1995.
Van Buren, Arkansas