History of Cedar Rapids meatpacking plant recalled as demolition nears

Christmas hams roll down the packaging lines at Farmstead Foods in Cedar Rapids, heading for holiday tables. Operating t
Christmas hams roll down the packaging lines at Farmstead Foods in Cedar Rapids, heading for holiday tables. Operating the Festival ham line here are El Westpfahl (left), of Cedar Rapids, and Garrett Heins, Atkins. Farmstead officials say that in the six weeks prior to Christmas the total number of hams produced at the plant will reach around 2 million. It is the busiest season of the year for the ham department. December 17, 1987.

Listen to a group of Farmstead Foods retirees tell their stories, and life at the former meatpacking plant sounds rather spirited.

There was the time a cow escaped to the Cedar River and was finally caught near the Shack Tavern. Another cow made it to the roof, where it was shot and lifted off with a crane.

Then there were the practical jokes, occasional smuggled beer and camaraderie that made work at the plant more lively.

“Everyone had nicknames,” said Jessie Taken, 74, who began at the plant, then called Wilson & Co., in 1957. “We were all family down there. We had a wonderful group of people.”

That’s not to say the work was easy.

Employees worked full days on assembly lines, cutting bones and other parts from dead cattle, pigs or, at one time, sheep. Some worked on the “kill floor”; others labored in frigid temperatures or did heavy lifting.

Memories of that work — whether fond or bitter — will soon be nearly all that remains of the plant, which started as T.M. Sinclair & Co. in 1871.

Demolition is slated to begin in the near future on most of the 27 buildings remaining at the sprawling, fire-damaged complex.

Twelve structures, including the 100-year-old smokestack, were eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, pointing to the significance of the plant’s history.

Large numbers of Czech

immigrants were recruited to work at the site in its early years.

Newspaper articles from that time detailed the hazardous nature of the work. One man fell to his death in a vat of boiling water; another died after being caught and mangled in a shaft.

Still, the plant prospered, becoming one of the four-largest meatpacking plants in the world. Wilson’s certified hams, MOR canned products and Bif chopped beef were among products produced there.

Women became a major force at Wilson’s during World War II.

Marjorie Blevins, 86, of Cedar Rapids, who worked at the company for 30 years, said she was able to put her three sons through college on the wages.

“It was one of the best-paying places in town at one time,” said Helen Persson, 87, who trimmed loins during most of her 27 years at the plant.

Employees’ children often spent college breaks working for the company.

At times, the Cedar Rapids plant employed 2,500 workers and was the city’s largest employer.

Strikes dotted the plant’s history. Members of Local P-3, who still meet to operate bingo in the union hall, 116 14th Ave. SE, recall food served to the picketing workers from Kacere’s Cafe.

Marvin Krotz, 68, of Western, and Darrell Goetzinger, 75, of Marion, leafed through a binder stuffed with articles and newsletters from their former employer.

Goetzinger, a skilled ham-boner who put in 35 years at the plant, started in 1956 at $1.49 per hour.

“That was good money back then,” he said.

Krotz, who worked in several positions, recalled water “fights” employees waged when temperatures on the beef kill floor rose above 100 degrees.

Taken recalled the other extreme — temperatures that dipped to 37 degrees — as well as her first job, stuffing cotton up the noses of dead hogs.

“It really wasn’t that bad,” she said. “There were showers.”

Workers on the kill floor had to change jobs every three weeks, “so they didn’t go off the deep end,” Taken said.

Some former workers are not as sentimental about the pending demolition as they were about the plant’s closing, which left 1,600 people unemployed in 1990.“It was a good place to work,” Blevins said. “I’m sorry that it’s gone.”

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