New York native recalls her days with heroic sausage king

Published 12:00 am Saturday, February 1, 2014

MOCKSVILLE — Betty Schaller smiles a little when you mention the recent cold wave and the paralyzing effect of an inch or two of snow.
She spent most of her life in the Catskill Mountains region of central New York State. She knows about long winters and snow that blows and drifts.
Don’t misunderstand, Schaller loves North Carolina, where she retired several years ago to be with her daughter. But what a life she and her husband, the late John Schaller, built together back in little New York towns such as Stamford, Bloomville, Hobart and Bridgewater.
It was there John built a reputation for being sort of a sausage king — well, he really could do most anything with meat. Betty still marvels at his kielbasa, bologna, knockwurst, bacon and cured meats in general.
“He was a master,” Betty says. “He was an artist at it.”
John was an expert meat cutter, too. All of his skills were learned in communist East Germany, then perfected over his decades in the grocery stores and slaughterhouse he and Betty owned in New York.
But it’s best to tell this story from Betty’s point of view.
She grew up in a German household in Stamford, N.Y., once a resort community known as the “Queen of the Catskills.”
Her parents had immigrated from Germany in 1925. Through a four-year apprenticeship, Betty’s father had learned carpentry, plumbing and electrical work in Germany, but in his new country he washed dishes until grasping the differences between inches and centimeters.
Because he could fix or build anything, he eventually became a chief repairman for Sealtest dairies, covering a seven-state region. It meant he sometimes had to be away from home a month at a time.
Betty’s mother tapped into the resort business Stamford was once known for. In fact, she eventually bought a 40-room house, named it “Idlewild,” hand-sewed all the linens and was ready to open for business when fire destroyed it.
Betty’s father was able to build two houses out of the wood he cleaned and salvaged from the fire.
Her mother would go on to work with a woman who operated a 100-room establishment. At one time, Stamford had about 30 of these kinds of resorts for city dwellers looking to escape for a weekend or even a whole summer, Betty says.
Much of the responsibility for looking after Betty fell to her older sister by nine years, Loretta.
When she was old enough, Betty became head waitress at the Belvedere Country Inn, which is still in business.
The family of John Schaller, the oldest of 10 children, was caught on the communist side of Germany when it was divided up after World War II.
As a young man, John found ways to cross into the west, sell eggs and bring back stockings to barter with in East Germany.
But he also led close to 300 people to freedom across the border, Betty says. “There were so many stories he told me,” she adds in tones that describe a hero.
John had a three-year apprenticeship under a baloney maker but rather than wait 15 years to head his own business, he decided to secret his way out of East Germany with a heading for the United States.
In 1957, John Schaller found passage on a cheap boat to America. Those on board slept in bunks stacked five high.
John did not know English but found work on his arrival with an uncle, who had a farm in Bovina, N.Y., which is in the same county — Delaware County — as Stamford.
He lived and worked on his uncle’s farm until his uncle became too sick to continue the operation.
John then went to work at a local butcher shop because he already was skilled at slaughtering and cutting meat.
John first met Betty when he had some paperwork to fill out and needed help with the language. Friends directed him to Loretta, Betty’s sister, and Betty just happened to be there because she was taking care of Loretta’s infant.
Betty herself had learned “old-fashioned German” at home. “I can get along pretty good,” she says even today.
Betty and John met for the first time in 1958. They married in 1959, and by November of the same year, the ambitious couple had opened up a food market in Bloomville.
“We had hardly nothing, when I think back,” Betty says, shaking her head. “My goodness.”
But the Bloomville Food Market led to the couple’s move within two years to nearby Hobart and their opening of the 10,000-square-foot Hobart Super Market.
Built for convenience, the store had five rows of groceries, a deli, produce section and John’s meat department, with its beautifully displayed cuts.
While most stores might depend on their meats to account for 20 percent of sales, they provided 60 percent of the income for the Schallers’ Hobart Super Market.
At first, John and Betty ran things by themselves. But they eventually would add John’s sister Margaret, who came for a visit and never returned to her homeland.
She worked for the Schallers’ various businesses for 38 years.
Betty’s Uncle Carl also came to work for the store. And as Betty and John’s son and daughter grew older, they also were expected to work.
“It was just wonderful because everybody was helping everybody else,” Betty says.
The Hobart Super Market eventually would have 10 employees.
Meanwhile, John had to wait five years until he could become a U.S. citizen. “He was so pleased and proud that he had his own business and was an American citizen,” Betty says.
As he learned the English language, customers thought he was from the Bronx, Betty laughs.
While John concentrated on the meats, Betty operated the deli and dealt with all the vendors — 40 grocery salesmen and 10 soda, two ice cream, two dairy and two produce salesmen.
After the children were born, Betty started calling John “Poppa,” and all her stories today still refer to him as such.
Next to the Hobart Super Market, the couple also operated a clothing shop.
It took 14 years of working 80- to 100-hour weeks, but the Schaller family finally went on vacation — camping and picnicking, as Betty remembers it.
The Schallers actually became a victim of their own success. Their Hobart store offered little parking after some road changes, and the town could do nothing to help.
They closed up after 17 years and started over — this time with a slaughterhouse business — 70 miles away in Bridgewater.
“It was hard,” Betty says, “because I enjoyed the supermarket,and our kids were in school and they were happy.”
John’s expertise in the meat business made it work.
Small livestock farmers in Central New York came to depend on Schaller’s Slaughterhouse to cut and package their meat to specification — something the larger meat-packing plants would not do.
Restaurants bought Schaller’s hamburgers and sausage meat. John also would process more exotic things such as ostrich, buffalo and rabbit.
“I tell you, that guy didn’t stop,” Betty says.
Everything happened under the inspection requirements and regulations of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Schaller’s Slaughterhouse processed up to 40 pigs and 30 beef cattle a week. Betty worked everywhere, including the kill floor.
She remembers the machine that would split carcasses into four parts, the mixer that held 300 pounds, the meat grinder, the vacuum-packer and the 40-below-zero cold storage.
The couple regularly attended the Farm Progress Show and won awards elsewhere for John’s tremendous meats. In 1997, for example, their bacon won the Grand Champion Award at a seven-state convention for meat processors in State College, Pa.
Time caught up with the Schallers. Betty was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, and John couldn’t run the business without her, so they decided to sell and retire in 2003.
It was a sad day, Betty recalls, because the couple worried the buyers didn’t have the expertise to run the business — and they were right.
They moved to North Carolina and became Jehovah Witnesses, going door to door and telling people they met about a beautiful new world ahead of them.
John was a diabetic who, despite Betty’s protestations, would never give up his love of chocolate. He died from complications with the disease in 2012.
Betty, who is 73 and relies heavily on a walker now because of her Parkinson’s, sometimes brings out a photo album and newspaper advertisement pages she saved from the couple’s days in the grocery business.
She enjoys seeing the old prices, which seem ridiculously cheap today, and the faces of people who worked for the couple.
She points to old friends such as Lee, Ruthie, Don and Ellen as she thumbs through the photographs, and it takes her back to those days with Poppa.
Much like a winter snow.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or