As we drove home after camping at northeast Iowa’s Yellow River State Forest, a frustrating sign loomed on Highway 13.
It proclaimed yet another detour in a year when half the state’s roads seem closed for construction. This one turned into serendipity.
The detour routed us off Highway 13 through Edgewood, a town we’d always bypassed. We soon spotted the Edgewood Locker on the north side of the highway. Needing ground beef, we had planned to dash into a Cedar Rapids supermarket, but a dash into the locker would be quicker.
We’d vaguely heard about the Edgewood Locker so were curious. Our first impression was one of safety and cleanliness. It was the COVID-19 era, and we were pleased the business required masks. The small store was stocked with dozens of cuts of meat and cured meat products. Although we entered to only buy a pound of hamburger, we exited with a pork roast, bratwurst and a steak we tucked into our camping cooler.
Although brief, shopping there was fun. Owned by the local Kerns family, the Edgewood Locker has been in business since 1966. Some of their meat comes from animals grown by local farmers and processed in the back of the showroom. That we’d bought quality meat from a locally family-owned business made our day — or should we say made our meals.
Also, in this COVID-19-shy era, we prefer shopping in small stores where we can enter and leave quickly. We felt safe at the market.
Since that unexpected early summer shopping we’ve searched for other meat markets and lockers on the internet and visited them in Tipton, Solon, Parnell, Newhall, Cedar Rapids and Amana. Although we’re not heavy meat eaters and often go a few meatless days in a row, we have enjoyed grilling and roasting pork, chicken and beef purchased from these locally owned businesses.
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The meat business has changed dramatically since halcyon days when most people lived on farms or in small towns. Those were the heyday of meat lockers. Nearly every town had one or two. They were places where farmers could bring animals for slaughter (in the business they call this “harvesting”) and butchering. A cold locker could be rented to keep a large quantity of meat frozen and various cuts could be purchased.
Then began a long gradual change as animals were increasingly raised or fattened in vast cattle feedlots or confined animal feeding operations.
Newhall Locker owner David Sutton told us when he opened the business in 1983 there were six lockers in Benton County. Now his is the only one left. That’s happened throughout Iowa. Once nearly every small town had its own locker where animals could be taken for processing, cold storage lockers could be rented and meat products purchased. Because of consolidation, most of today’s meat comes from enormous operations, often many miles from home. They produce meat efficiently, but they drove many small local lockers out of business.
The Kerns Family owns the Edgewood Locker. Luke Kerns told us today the words “meat locker” and “meat market” are nearly synonymous, but traditionally a meat locker was a place where a person could rent a frozen cubicle, or locker, to store meat.
Today few businesses rent lockers for a variety of reasons.
“For one thing fewer people live in rural areas and small towns than years ago and many people today have large freezers at home,” Luke said. “The demand for locker space has dwindled.
“Also, years ago most farms raised cattle, hogs, chickens and sometimes sheep. Farmers would arrange for a locker to process their animals. Today, few farms have animals and just raise crops.”
When we poke around Iowa, we often combine a visit to a meat market with a walk or picnic at a natural area nearby. The combination makes an outstanding day trip. For example, on a brilliantly sunny November day, we stopped at the Newhall Locker, tucked our purchases into the camping cooler to keep them frozen, and drove south to picnic at Hannen County Park near Blairstown. Then, we enjoyed driving gravel roads through amazingly hilly terrain before circling back to Cedar Rapids on county paved roads.
More recently, we hiked in Backbone State Park before swinging by Edgewood on our way home. The locker is a few miles east of the park, giving us a chance to make it a circular day trip.
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Cook’s Market in Parnell is only a few miles south of the outlet mall in Williamsburg, and Ruzicka’s Meat Processing and Catering in Solon is tucked close to Lake Macbride and Coralville Lake. Visits to the Tipton Locker often include ordering ahead and picking up a meal at Mi Tierra Mexican Grill on the main drag and enjoying a tasty, authentic meal outside in the park across the street.
Fortunately, some meat markets not only survive, but are thriving. For several years there’s been a “buy local” trend and, in this COVID-19 era, many people would rather shop in small stores than enormous supermarkets. Many lockers are enjoying brisk business this year.
“One of the reasons the Edgewood Locker has done well is our many innovations and for being flexible,” Luke Kerns said. “My grandparents founded the business and as meat processing regulations increased, they invested to create a clean, sanitary and modern facility.
“Later, in the 1990s when Iowa’s deer herd exploded, we greatly expanded processing deer carcasses. As far as we know we’re the biggest processors of deer in Iowa.”
The Edgewood Locker also ships meat to all 50 states and sells it in a number of Iowa stores.
Meat markets offer a diversity of meats and other foods that are processed or cured in house. The Newhall Market offers an enormous selection. Owner Sutton is a member of the National Cured Meat Hall of Fame and became the first master meat crafter from Iowa certified by the University of Wisconsin. He’s won 28 medals from the German Butcher’s Cut.
When we complimented him about his bacon, he told us he cooks it at a higher temperature than what’s available in supermarkets.
“This makes it shrink less when you cook it at home,” he said.
We’ve bought bacon from a number of Iowa meat lockers and found it all outstanding. Our experience cooking it confirmed Sutton’s claim. It doesn’t shrink as much or bubble up like less expensive mass-produced bacon often does.
Although visiting a small-town meat market gives us a chance for an interesting day trip, a drive isn’t essential.
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Nelson’s Meat Market and Anvil Meat Markets are in Cedar Rapids. So is Big Boy Meats at New Bo. Although they don’t slaughter animals, they feature a wide variety of specialty meats and are locally owned. In addition to fresh and cured meats, they offer products small town lockers generally avoid, including poultry and seafood. For example, Steven Prochaska creates jaternice and klobusy, Czech favorites, that are sold at Anvil.
Nelson’s Meat Market has been a fixture in Cedar Rapids since it was founded in 1935 by Weir Nelson and later managed by his son, also named Weir. It’s now owned by John Moore. Shoppers leave the market with outstanding food purchased from a locally owned store.
A few years ago, we drove to New Jersey to visit relatives. One asked us to bring an Iowa leg of lamb. We bought a premium one at Nelson’s Meat Market that our camping cooler kept frozen during the long car trip. It made a delicious meal shared with relatives we hadn’t seen in months. Nelson’s sells a wide range of fresh and processed meats, seafood, and even ice cream and frozen soup.
Every once in a while, Rich visits Big Boy meats to buy a sockeye salmon fillet.
“It’s a special fish for me,” he said. “Years ago, I was a salmon biologist in Alaska and Big Boy’s fish were caught by the Popsie Fish Company near where I used to live and work. It’s the best salmon I’ve been able to buy in Iowa.”
If you want to buy chicken feet, emu, duck eggs, pheasant, bison, elk and even Iowa raised saltwater shrimp — yep, ocean animals raised in the Heartland — Big Boy sells them.
Anvil Meat Market and Deli in Czech Village has an old-world feel and Nelson’s sells some of the best meat we’ve ever eaten. Nelson’s and Anvil also offer delis.
When out on trips we often drive into small towns. We were fortunate to find the Edgewood Locker and perhaps we’ll discover other interesting food stores as we explore towns new to us.
For open hours, lists of products sold, and menus check out these websites:
Rich and Marion Patterson have backgrounds in environmental science and forestry. They co-own Winding Pathways, a consulting business that encourages people to “Create Wondrous Yards.”