Hams with a History
Much has changed since 1891 when Ed Drier, then 10 years old, was earning 25 cents a week plucking feathers from freshly butchered chickens at the Union Meat Market in downtown Three Oaks, Michigan.
Today, horse-drawn wagons no longer deliver their products on unpaved city roads. The farm and slaughterhouse Drier ran after buying the butcher shop in 1913 is long gone, and the store, which once also housed a buggy factory, is lit by electricity and not gas lamps.
But when customers enter Drier’s Meat Market, there’s still a family member to greet them. The store, now run by Drier’s granddaughter Carolyn and her nephew David Wooley, retains other remnants of history as well. The weathered wood building, built in the 1850s and now a National Historic Site, is fronted with the original four-paned windows that predate plate glass. Inside, wood-plank floors, squeaky and worn with age, are sprinkled with sawdust.
Tucked away on a shelf loaded with condiments and other edibles is a black and white photo taken by Edward Steichen of poet Carl Sandburg, who had a summer home nearby. There’s also a photo and letter from Larry Hagman of Dallas and I Dream of Jeanie fame, who ordered hams from the store.
Before Carolyn could drive she would ride her bike to help out in the store. After getting her license, her father opened another Drier’s in Sawyer, Michigan. Carolyn would load up her car on Saturday morning with hams and sausages and drive there to stock and open the store for the day. Later, it was lunch with her father and mother, June, at Schwark’s for 75-cent hamburgers and a bit of business advice from Ed Drier Jr.
“My dad always said to me, ‘If anybody asks, business is always good,’” she says.
Carolyn Drier also recalls stories about how her grandfather, a mainstream Republican and a local political powerhouse, was often visited by judges and other politicians who drank and discussed business in the back room.
“If you wanted the vote in this part of the county,” she says, “you came to Ed.”
But as much as her life was intertwined with the market, there was a time when Carolyn Drier didn’t work in the family business. Instead she earned a teaching degree and married. Years later, divorced and needing to support her three daughters, she wondered what she would do. Her father offered her work at the store, teaching her how to smoke hams and make sausages, including Drier’s famed bologna.
“It’s really 80/20 ground chuck with our own seasonings,” she says of the bologna, which is sold in large rings. “Our biggest mistake was calling it bologna because it’s not like any bologna you can buy anywhere else. We should have called it German summer sausage.”
Nevertheless, despite its name, Drier’s bologna along with their hams, hot dogs, freshly made brats and country pâté-like liver sausage are all popular.
“We probably sell hundreds of hams, particularly during the holidays,” says David Wooley, who started working at Drier’s full time when he was 19 in 1994 but helped around the store well before that—indeed, a photo on the wall shows him as a baby and he’s next to—you guessed it—a string of bologna.
Given how Drier’s sausages have become, in ways, synonymous with Three Oaks, this heritage was celebrated during the first annual Wurstfest last summer.
“When we opened our store, we wanted it to be like how Drier’s would have been a century ago, and Wurstfest is a fun event and a great way of celebrating past foodways,” says Ellie Mullins, who with her husband, Pat, owns Local, a butcher shop in the nearby lakeside town of new Buffalo.
“This place was my father’s passion,” says Drier. “and it’s mine, too. even if I was rich, I couldn’t see not working here.”
When Drier thinks about the past, she considers how difficult it was for her grandfather and father, who worked retail all day, made sausages and cured hams, and then at night butchered animals for the store. But despite all the hard work, she sees why they persevered.
Noting that they have three generations worth of customers, some of whom have been visiting the store for five or more decades, she says, “sometimes after a long hard day and i’m exhausted, someone will walk in and say how much they love the store. and that just does it for me.”
Drier’s Meat Market
14 S. Elm St., Three Oaks, MI
269.756.3101 | Driers.com
Reopens for season April 4
Dining Designed by Drier’s: Carolyn’s Collection, a cookbook of family recipes compiled by Carolyn Drier, is available at the store and from Driers.com.