From Razorbacks to Refrigerated Steaks: Early Meatpacking

Interior of meat shop, circa1912William Patterson was tired of farming. He had been in the Iowa country since 1836 running a hotel and farming at the little settlement of West Point in Lee County. He decided to move to the village of Keokuk, where he could open a store to supply river boats with provisions. The city of Keokuk was located on the Mississippi River, the main transportation route for the still new Iowa Territory.

Trading Hogs for Sugar

Business was as good as William Patterson had hoped. Boats going up and down river stopped at Keokuk and bought provisions. Farmers from miles around traveled by horse and wagon to trade at Patterson's. Because there was little paper or coin money on the frontier, people were in the habit of trading one thing for another. So it was natural for many farmers to bring their hogs to William to trade for coffee, sugar and other things they couldn't grow or make at home. Some of the hogs were brought in alive. Others already had been killed and the meat salted or smoked to keep it from spoiling on the trip.

Half-Wild and Skinny

The hogs raised on the frontier were different from the rounded, short-legged hogs seen in Iowa today. The frontier hog was half-wild and skinny with long, strong legs. These hogs were called "razorbacks." Farmers let them run loose in the woods and fields, where they ate nuts and roots. In the fall after the corn ripened, the razorbacks were rounded up and fattened for slaughter.

Herding Hogs

Farmers who had many hogs to sell drove them in a herd to the nearest meatpacking town—sometimes more than a hundred miles away. Hog drives were much like cattle drives. But the razorbacks were more unruly and wild than any cattle. Some men made a business of buying hogs at the farms and driving them to the packer.

As Lee County grew more populated, William received more and more hogs. At the same time, the demand for pork in the eastern and southern states was increasing. William decided that the best business would be just buying hogs and selling the meat. So he set up a slaughtering and packing shed and began to buy all the hogs he could find.

No Spoiled Hogs

The early meat packers built plain wooden sheds at the edge of town. There the hogs were slaughtered and dressed. The meat was soaked in brine and salted down or smoked to keep it from spoiling. Then it was packed for shipping in wooden barrels. All this work was done during the cold winter months so that the meat would not spoil. When the river thawed in the spring, the barrels were shipped out on riverboats.

William was right about his chance for success in Keokuk. Soon there were several packers in each of the towns along the Mississippi River. Packers built larger buildings of stone and brick to replace the small, smelly shacks on the edge of town.

Meatpacking in Western Iowa

On Iowa's western border the packing business began in a different way. In 1870 a steamboat loaded with wheat ran aground near Sioux City on the Missouri River. The wheat became wet and was useless for flour. A general merchant, James E. Booge, bought the wheat to feed to hogs. James didn't own enough hogs to eat up all the wheat, so he traveled around and bought as many hogs as he could.

When the hogs were fattened, James built a small slaughterhouse and killed and dressed 870 hogs. He packed and shipped most of them down the Missouri River. In 1873 James killed and sold 13,000 animals. By the 1890s several Chicago packing companies had built plants in Sioux City, which was on its way to becoming the largest packing center in Iowa.

The Railroad Brings Change

The post-Civil War railroad boom pushed railroads into every part of Iowa. By the 1880s there was no town in the state more than 25 miles from a depot. Railroads were changing the way people lived and did business all over the nation. Once a railroad line arrived in town, the farmer no longer had to drive his hogs or cattle to market. He simply took his animals to the nearest depot and put them on a train to the packer. With railroad transportation available, the packinghouses no longer had to be on a river to ship out their barrels of meat. Packers could build their plants closer to where the livestock was being raised. Ottumwa, Waterloo, Cedar Rapids, Des Moines, Mason City, Atlantic and Marshalltown all became busy meatpacking centers. Even small towns like Red Oak often had a couple of packing plants.

More Corn Means More Hogs

Another event which boosted Iowa meat production was the wheat failures of the 1870s. Most Iowa farmers switched their land to corn, which could be fed to their own livestock. The more corn raised, the more hogs got fattened. During the 1880s the amount of pork packing in Iowa doubled. Pork from Iowa was shipped as far as England.

Refrigeration Comes to Packinghouses

It was only with the development of mechanical ice making that meatpacking became a year round business. Ice was used to cool the buildings where meat was stored and put in the railroad cars to keep the meat good during its journey from packinghouse to buyer.

In the 1880s fresh meat replaced salted pork and beef in the diet of Americans. Larger meat packers built their own refrigerated cars to be sure the meat arrived unspoiled at the buyer's end.

Changing an old packing plant to refrigeration methods was expensive. Many of the older and smaller packers sold their plants to larger companies.

Meatpacking had come a long way since a farmer slaughtered a couple of razorbacks and brought the meat to Patterson's general store to trade.

Adapted from an article printed in The Goldfinch 2, No. 2 (April 1992). Iowa City: State Historical Society of Iowa.
© State Historical Society of Iowa

 

 


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