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The Milwaukee Packers

Sweet smell of the stockyards

Jan. 26, 2010
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When a pair of nostrils least expects it, a gentle breeze will drift through Milwaukee’s Menomonee River Valley and waft the foul stench of the Cargill Taylor Beef processing plant throughout the city. During the 1850s and ’60s, when Milwaukee’s first meatpacking plants and stockyards were being established, that repugnant odor was the sweet smell of success.

According to Paul E. Geib, author of a 1994 Wisconsin Magazine of History article called “Everything But the Squeal: The Milwaukee Stockyards and Meat-Packing Industry, 1840-1930,” when Milwaukee was incorporated in 1846, the butchering and processing of livestock existed only on a very small scale. Farmers generally raised enough hogs or cattle for their own consumption and for sale at local markets, and local butchers working out of small shops would process the livestock. Three of these small-time butchers—John Plankinton, John Layton, and Layton's son Frederick—capitalized on Wisconsin’s agricultural resources, combining them with the expanding railroad and new refrigeration techniques to gain command of Milwaukee's meatpacking industry within a few decades.

Within a year of arriving in Milwaukee from Delaware in 1844, Plankinton owned one of the largest butcher shops in the country. In 1852 he partnered with Frederick Layton, an English immigrant who owned a meat market with his father on East Water Street. The pair opened a packinghouse on what is now Plankinton Avenue and began to process large numbers of cattle and hogs. A few years later, Layton and Plankinton looked to the low and flat swampland of the Menomonee River Valley to build a sprawling complex of slaughterhouses and packinghouses.

According to John Gurda,author of The Making of Milwaukee, Layton left the partnership to form his own company in 1863. Plankinton operated on his own until 1864, when he took on Philip Armour as a junior partner. Their firm became one of the nation’s largest meatpackers specializing in pork, and their Menomonee Valley facilities covered 14 acres. Much of the company’s success was attributed to the pair’s superintendent, a young Irishman named Patrick Cudahy. When Armour left to pursue business interests in Chicago in 1885, Plankinton made Cudahy his partner.

At the Plankinton Packing Co., “everything but the squeal,” as Upton Sinclair wrote in The Jungle, was used. Meat was the principal product, but packing also produced intestines for sausage casings; blood and bone for fertilizer; fat for lard, bristles for brushes, and feet for glue.

It all added up to a very lucrative business. The meatpacking industry proved to be a boon to the economic development of early Milwaukee, and it grew as quickly as the city’s expanding population. According to Gurda, the number of hogs disassembled in Milwaukee climbed from 88,853 in 1866 to 225,598 in 1876, and 553,077 in 1886, with Plankinton’s firms generating the most business. Milwaukee was generally the fourth- or fifth-largest meatpacking industry in the country during the 1870s and ’80s. According to figures from the Milwaukee Chamber of Commerce, in 1879 meat was, by value of product, the city’s most important industry.


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