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Compton merchant finds worms wonderful

Fred Rhyme has long run a booming business raising the critters, plus crickets and roaches, at his complex of former houses.

December 13, 2009|By Ruben Vives
  • A sign greets visitors to East Spruce Street in Compton, site of Rainbow Mealworms.
A sign greets visitors to East Spruce Street in Compton, site of Rainbow… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

On the fringe of Compton's manufacturing zone lies a row of boarded-up single-family homes that shelter not humans, but a billion-bug-and-worm breeding enterprise. It's nicknamed "Worm City," and Fred Rhyme is its mayor.

Mealworms: An article in the Dec. 13 California section about a Compton worm farm incorrectly attributed a quote to Rosa Gomez. It was Daniel Cervantes, a resident near the farm, who was washing his car when he said, "They've been here all these years before I moved here in 2004." —

For more than 50 years, Rhyme, founder of Rainbow Mealworms, has been raising colonies of crickets, Madagascar hissing cockroaches and the star product of his business, mealworms -- piles of squishy, wiggly, red-orange mealworms.

Each day about 2 million to 3 million of his worms are packaged and distributed across the country, a highly desired commodity for major zoos, bait shops, pet stores, bird and reptile enthusiasts, and on occasion, Hollywood.

"I love my worms," Rhyme said. "They've been good to me."

Rhyme, 84, has known the value of worms since he was a boy digging for tasty fishing bait. He began buying the beige bungalows in the 100 block of Spruce Street, less than a mile from the Compton Courthouse, in the early 1960s. Soon after, his business took off and he made enough money to buy the whole row of houses.

He stripped the structures down to the walls and boarded up the windows. In came wood racks that hold row upon row of plastic trays that are his worm breeding grounds, where the cycle of life churns in industrial-strength numbers.

Rhyme, wearing a brown shirt and white cap, describes nature's delicate course with a husky voice. It starts with a female beetle, which lays hundreds of tiny eggs before it dies. The eggs hatch into mealworms, which begin to scavenge for food, molting as they eat and grow into pupae, which then emerge from cocoons as beetles, starting the cycle anew.

"Altogether, the process takes about 80 days," he said.

Rhyme raises more than a billion mealworms a year. His bounty also includes about 120 million worms that he keeps in a cold storage room, which keeps them in their adolescent stage, he said. In addition, Rhyme breeds about 40 million crickets annually in nearby buildings. And like a good businessman seeking to diversify, he also raises about 10,000 Madagascar hissing roaches each year.

The roaches have appeared in the film "Men in Black" and on television's "Fear Factor." In 1999, 15,000 of his roaches were among 20,050 dumped on "Jungle" John LaMedica, Rhyme said, reportedly setting a world record.

But worms are the bread and butter of Rhyme's business. With such a massive colony, he thought it would be funny to put up "Welcome to Worm City" signs at each end of the block. He also placed a mailbox on top of a flagpole.

"Oh, that's where I get all of my air mail," he chuckled.

Born in 1925 in Hutchinson, Minn., Rhyme was the youngest of three. Growing up in the "Land of 10,000 Lakes," he took up fishing as a hobby, digging out earthworms from his mother's garden for bait.

At age 7, he realized he could make money off the worms. So he began trailing farm tractors that mixed the soil for cultivation. Rhyme would pluck off the earthworms and sell them to local bait shops. To help support his family, he also raised chickens and sold their eggs.

"Working is all I've ever known," he said.

Unable to make a $9 mortgage payment during the Great Depression, the Rhymes lost their home. So they packed up and moved to California.

Instead of enrolling in high school, Rhyme, then 17, joined the merchant marine during World War II, delivering aviation fuel and oil to aircraft carriers. Rhyme said he lied about his age to be accepted.

Three years after the war ended, he moved to Cudahy, where he continued doing what he knew best: He bought a small worm farm from his brother's friend for $900.

"That's how it started," Rhyme said.

He sold his worms from his garage to every bait shop he could find in the phone book, all the while working for General Motors in South Gate as a maintenance painter.

But when his business began to take off, he quit his day job.

"It just got bigger and bigger," Rhyme said. "It was then when I told my mother I was going to raise worms for the rest of my life."

She thought he was crazy.

But Rhyme continued, and his business flourished. He purchased an old machine shop in Compton and converted it into a worm farm. He named his business Rainbow Mealworms.

"I was always told there's always a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow," Rhyme explained. "Whenever I'd see a rainbow as a little kid, I'd ride my bicycle with a shovel and try to find out where the rainbow ended."

And Compton is where his search ended, where he founded a multimillion-dollar business that has allowed him to raise three daughters and live in a 5,000-square-foot Lakewood home decorated with his prized collection of paintings by Thomas Kinkade.

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