OAKLAND — Josh Witten remembers waiting at the corral on his grandparents’ place for the mobile slaughter truck. He said he was intrigued by the process of turning a beef animal into a carcass and then later enjoying a steak or hamburger on his dinner plate.
“It was not gruesome to me,” said Witten, who hunted and fished at a young age in the Oakland area and processed the deer and fish he tagged.
Several years later, Witten decided he would make a living out of wielding the knives and saws used in the meat-cutting business. Now 39 and the owner of Oakland Lockers, he’s the one visiting numerous corrals and pens around Douglas County and elsewhere to process beef, pork or lamb for his customers.
“Probably the No. 1 thing I enjoy the most is going out to someone’s place and meeting the rancher or owner of the animals,” Witten said. “I’ve made a lot of friendships around the area.
“I feel like I’m helping feed the local folks,” he added. “It is satisfying to put in a good hard day’s work and then knowing people are cooking a steak you processed for them.”
It’s a role reversal for Witten, who on several occasions as a kid watched Rollie Williams kill, gut and skin a beef for his Oakland-area grandparents, Jack and Pat Ross. The carcass was then hauled off to Oakland Lockers, a business Williams and his wife, Lue, had established in 1965 at 133 S.E. Fourth St. After being cut and wrapped, the beef came back to the Ross house in white packages labeled as “steak,” “roast” or “hamburger.”
Jerry and Diane Harris purchased Oakland Lockers from the Williamses in 1991. Witten was hired by Jerry Harris as the “cleanup kid” in 1993. It was part-time work, but nine months later, after completing the school year at Umpqua Community College, Witten started working full time at the shop as an apprentice meat cutter. Harris had experience in teaching a young person the meat-cutting trade, having been an instructor at a Cottage Grove meat-cutting school in the early 1980s.
“Cutting meat was something Josh was interested in,” Harris said. “He had tried UCC and the mill and those just didn’t work for him. The meat business was a good fit for him and for his family here in Oakland.”
The Harrises owned the shop until 2000, when they sold it to Justin and Michelle Morejohn. Two years later, Josh and Sara Witten purchased the business.
“I wanted to one day own this place,” Witten said. “The Harrises encouraged that. I kind of went through a transition from employee to owner.”
Jerry Harris sold the business in 2000 because he was involved in coaching sports and needed more flexibility in his schedule. He’s now an employee with more time for other pursuits.
“I think it’s great he still wants to be a major part of the business,” Witten said of Harris. “I feel very fortunate to have him here. I still learn from him.”
In addition to Witten and Harris, Oakland Lockers employs one meat wrapper year-round. During the busier months, June through December, the business hires two more meat cutters, two more wrappers and an assistant to help Witten on the mobile slaughter truck. Witten has driven the truck and taken his knives as far north as Coburg, south to Glendale, west to Reedsport and east to Tiller.
Sutherlin-area rancher Ray Hambrick has been doing business with Oakland Lockers for 30 years. He’s had beef and hogs slaughtered, cut and wrapped by the shop.
“They do a fantastic job, really,” Hambrick said. “They do a good job keeping the animals clean. They’ve done a lot of butchering for me and I’m very pleased with the work they’ve done.”
Witten said on slaughter jobs, especially during the summer, he’ll leave the shop at 4 a.m. in order to begin work at first light when the temperature is still cool. The goal is to get the carcass refrigerated before the outside temperature gets too warm.
“At first, it was hard taking a life,” Witten admitted. “Now I just look at it as a business, it’s what you do. The customer raises the animal, they’re doing the majority of the work for what they want to eat. We just provide the service of processing the meat for them. There’s a lot of quality animals in Douglas County, a lot of grass-fed, fat cattle that provide good meat.”
Witten said it’s common for some animal owners, both men and women, to leave the slaughter site because they’ve become emotionally tied to the animal and don’t want to watch the end. But picking up the white packages of beef, pork or lamb a few weeks later helps ease the emotions.
“You do things for people the way you’d want to have it done for yourself,” Witten said. “Customers will be eating on that meat for a year or whatever, and you want to try to do the best you can with what they’ve raised.”
• On Biz is not an endorsement, only an introduction to businesses in the community. Reporter Craig Reed can be reached at 957-4210 or email@example.com.