A sure thing: Kansas City’s livestock and meatpacking industry

Armour Company plant It was a sure thing, the Times editors believed as the year 1893 opened: Kansas City would soon “strip from Chicago the proud plumage of first place in the live stock world." 

All the signs were there: big meatpacking interests were investing in the city. The Armour company had recently finished construction of a new meat packing plant in the Armourdale area of Kansas City, Kansas, at the junction of the Kaw and Missouri Rivers. 

The paper gave some numbers for the Armour facility: 3000 employees, eight buildings, 7 million bricks used in their construction. The oleomargarine building alone, responsible for transforming beef fat into "Butterine," measured 100 x 175 feet. There were thirty boilers and fourteen ice machines.

Swift’s, Fowler’s and Kingan’s companies – the latter about to be renamed Reid Bros. -- were expanding operations. Altogether, said the Times, about 10,000 men worked in the packing houses of Kansas City, Kansas, in addition to a large number of U.S. government meat inspectors: “the capital employed in carrying on theReid Brothers packing plant 1895 business is practically without limit.”

The Journal reported that a major New York company, Schwarzschild & Sulzberger, had bought the Phoenix Packing Company and planned major improvements aimed at increasing the export trade: “Chicago, Omaha and all the other packing centers were considered, but it was finally decided that Kansas City offered superior advantages over any other place….” 

The first shipment of beef for export to Europe went out in early February, the Times reported: “To see 2,784 halves of dressed beef, representing animals which averaged 1,400 pounds weight before being dressed and 802 pounds after that process, is no common thing.” 

Kansas City was believed by its boosters to have unique advantages that would guarantee its becoming “the greatest packing center of the world,” in the words of a Times editorial. The paper reprinted a New York Times article reporting that Kansas City beef had been found to have a higher “percentage of flesh and fat over beef killed in New York or Chicago,” since theyKansas City Stockyards 1895 were “fresh from the grasses of Texas, Colorado and Nebraska and had not been subjected to the worry of railroad jolting.”

Kansas City’s advantage was, the Times argued in an ecstasy of hyperbole,  “the result of an unrivalled geographical location in a region that has only begun to grow…. every foot of the territory to which Kansas City looks can have rails laid upon it at reasonable cost. These rails will point to Kansas City as surely as all roads pointed to Rome…. Thousands of cattle are day in and day out marching from the southwest to the Kaw’s mouth. Every railroad in the western empire looks this way.”

The city was “plainly shown to be the agricultural center of the country and of the world…. No rival can figure out a bad future for this metropolis,” the editors believed. “The sign is right in the industrial sky. No commercial center ever had such a mighty start or such a glorious prospect. The growth is steady and it will be unending, gathering force as it proceeds.”

The Journal ran a feature in March on the growth of Armourdale, commenting that “No part of the consolidated city has a more promising outlook or more substantial evidences of coming good times, advancement and commercial growth.” That part of the city “has four of the six packing houses of the city, besides extensive railroads, terminals, elevators, and various other of the large enterprises that go to make up the importance of the city at the Kaw’s mouth.” Stockyard Exchange Building

The hopeful reference to “coming good times” hints at economic problems that were becoming evident in March and would lead by the middle of the year to the financial panic of 1893 and a prolonged depression. Nevertheless, the emphasis in the Armourdale story was on “enlargement or improvement” of the packing houses and stock yards, “the basis of a growth the present year that promises to be phenomenal and bring with it happiness and that degree of prosperity that is the commensurate reward of honest toil and persistent effort.”

Many packing house employees lived in the Sixth Ward, as the Armourdale district was also known, and were described as “united and harmonious in efforts that tend to advance or encourage public matters. All public enterprises meet with encouraging recognition and prompt assistance….” The two City Councilmen representing the Sixth Ward were both packing house employees.

The Journal was even more boosterish than the Times when it came to Kansas City’s abattoir future. Taking offense at the “sneers and jibes” of eastern papers that made fun of Kansas City as a “backwoods town with pretensions far beyond its deserts,” the Journal offered in reply a feast of pretension, describing the city as “the veritable queen of the plains ….With the greatest cattle and live stock market in the world… the greatest packing industry in the world and the greatest tributary territory in the world, there is nothing that stands in the way of her becoming the greatest city in the world.” 

The city’s “natural advantages” combined with its position as a railway center, assured its future, said the Journal writers in another editorial: “year by year, it is pushing on with resistless certainty to the first place. It is not necessary to tell the intelligent reader who has taken the trouble to consider the matter why this can be stated as a fact. But it is a fact, and it is because the territory in hand comprises the greatest pastures in the world on which stock can be raised and afterwards fed for the market.”

The July half-year business summary in the Journal,  retained the sunny tone despite the late June stock market crash which presaged five years of the worst economic depression the United States had experienced. The first six months of the year had been “the busiest ever known among the beef and sheep men here,” the paper reported cheerily, “and the killing of hogs was only limited by the supply…. Labor has been given to a largely increased number of hands, employment to much new capital and a better home market to tens of thousands of cattle and sheep that heretofore have found a market east of this point….”

The “limited” supply of hogs was no accident, though the Journal editors wouldn’t know it for another month. In August, the price of hogs suddenly fell by almost half, marking the beginning of a series of disasters for Kansas City’s livestock and packing industries. “Wealthy firms and individuals were bowled over like ninepins and the prices of hog products went tumbling like an avalanche” said the Times of events at Chicago’s Board of Trade.

The cause was the attempt of a cabal of traders to corner the pork market. The group included “Jack” Cudahy, described in the Times as a “great packer and daring operator in provisions,” and “a man interested in the packing trade in a half dozen States…. a man whose wealth had been recently estimated at no less than $18,000,000….”

The hog collapse was followed by the failure of Cudahy’s North American Provision Company. “No one pretends to estimate Cudahy’s losses,” the story concluded.

Later in August, a general strike of packing house workers loomed after the three largest companies, Schwarzschild & Sulzberger, Swift and Armour, began to cut wages by ten percent, as well as reduce hours and lay off large numbers of workers. The companies claimed the depression had slowed business to such an extent that the only alternative to a such measures was closing the plants, although a top Armour executive reportedly  told a committee of workers that the company had made the cuts because it “had the power to do so.” He later denied having made the statement, admitting only that he had told the men that “reductions were becoming very fashionable.”

The pay cut scheme differed between plants. Armour proposed to cut the pay of some employees getting over $2 a day by 25 cents a day, and all over $1.50 by 15 cents a day, but exempted the butchers. At the Armour plant, machinists and steamfitters struck, reported the Star. At Swift’s and Schwarzschild’s, the butchers struck since their pay was to be cut, although in the latter firm, they agreed to remain at work until the current lot of export cattle had been dispatched.

The Journal pointed out that packing house workers represented numerous trades – machinists, carpenters, pipefitters, blacksmiths, butchers of sheep, hogs and beef, lard renderers, and canners, among others – and were therefore “more widely apart in their ideas and associations than the men of most large house, and there is no organization or union that acts for the whole.” The Swift & Company butchers had only recently organized the Kansas City Beef Butchers’ Union No 1.

The companies immediately began issuing assurances that business was proceeding as usual, alternating with threats to close down the plants, or bring in replacements for striking workers. Schwarzschild & Sulzberger announced that “there is no likelihood of the company giving in.” The managers of the packing houses, reported the Journal, “do not fear a general strike. They say they have too much confidence in the good judgment of their men to believe that they will not be able to see that the reductions made are forced upon the houses, and that the men have nothing to gain and everything to lose by quitting work at this time.”

The manager of the Armour plant told the Journal reporter that there would be “no trouble in getting men” to fill the places of the striking machinists. A Schwarzschild manager likewise thought there would be no strike and offered a pitiless analysis of his employees’ plight: “I think that they will see that it is much better to stand a 10 per cent cut during the hard times than to throw themselves out of work when there is no chance of obtaining other work.”

On the third day of the strike, Swift’s butchers remained out; the company told them, according to the Star, that “it would be useless for them to kick against the reduction, and that they would have to accept the new schedule of wages or quit work.”

Nevertheless, “When the whistle blew at 7 o’clock this morning all the cattle and sheep butchers refused to enter the gates, and the killing operations of the plant are practically suspended. The butchers are well organized and they declare they will stay out a long time before they will return to work at reduced wages. There are no idle butchers in the two Kansas Citys, and as they have advised their fellow workers at Chicago and St. Louis not to come here, they say it will be impossible for the company to get enough butchers to run the plant.”

The striking butchers were remaining “quiet and orderly,” reported the Star, and were “keeping away from saloons and liquor joints. This morning at 7 o’clock, however, the presence of about twenty-five Italians at the gates applying for work roused their indignation and a small sized riot was witnessed. With boards and sticks the irate butchers moved upon the Italians and drove them across the Union Pacific railway yards and sent them across the river to their homes in ‘Little Italy’ in this city.”

With the strike in its fourth day, 800 members of the Kansas City Beef Butchers’ Union assembled for a march through Armourdale, their numbers, reported the Times, “continually reinforced all along the line by sympathizers until they reached Hickory street in Kansas City, Mo., where they were met by the butchers from Armour’s and the other institutions. This swelled the procession to nearly 1,800 men.”

It was, the Times said, “the greatest labor demonstration every held in this vicinity:”

          The procession was led by a big, strong man carrying the American flag. Then    came the Third Regiment drum corps of this city. The drum corps was followed       by the boys and young men employed at the various institutions, and then came   the butchers. They carried a transparency on which was inscribed:

                        ‘United we stand, divided we fall.’

                        ‘No 10 per cent cut goes.’

                        ‘We demand and must have our rights.

                        ‘The Beef-Butchers union, Kansas City No. 1’

The demonstrators marched to an assembly hall, where the 10 per cent reduction at Swift’s and Schwarzschild’s was discussed:  “the men stood solidly against returning to work at the proposed price.” Men from other unions gave speeches, including the secretary of the Horse Collar Makers’ Association and Major W.G. Winfield, a union leader who referred to the “panicky” times they were living in and the threat of the oncoming winter. He promised strikers the “support of all union men in the city” if an agreement could not be reached with the two companies, thus raising the specter of a general strike.

By the strike’s sixth day, the Swift and Schwarzschild butchers were all out on strike. The Journal reported that no compromise or agreement seemed possible; both firms declared they would not rescind the cut and would resume slaughtering animals using foremen and “men who they have been able to press into service.”

For their part, the butchers in turn remained confident the companies would yield; a banjo playing striker composed a song on the theme:

It’ll be ‘Come back, come back!”

You’ll hear Eddie Swift say ‘Come back.”

‘Will you come back?’ ‘Will you come back?’

That’s what you’ll hear him say.

The next day the Schwarzschild butchers were recalled to work at the old wages; “No demonstrations were made over the victory by the strikers,” reported the Times, “except that each wore a smile of satisfaction….” The plant manager grumped that it was “not much of a victory for the boys after all… as their wages would have been restored anyway within a few weeks….”

Swift continued to refuse to rescind the pay cut, until union switchmen threatened to refuse handling the company’s refrigerated rail cars. The prospect of a widening strike was something that capitalists greatly feared, believing it would attract the dreaded anarchists. A few days later, Swift’s butchers returned to work, telling the Journal that they had been promised their old wages. 

Later the same week, the Butchers’ Union joined other unions in the Labor Day parade. The Journal reported  that of the 7,000 to 10,000 working people in the parade, “the best showing in point of numbers was that of the butchers and packing house employees. Fully 1,000 of the workers were in line.”

The strike over, the papers returned to their optimistic line even as the financial crisis deepened: “The full resumption of activity at the packing houses which now seems to be assured, will exert a highly stimulating influence upon local trade,” commented the Star. 

A Star article in October celebrated Armour’s achieving the “cattle killing record of the world” by the slaughter of 3,218 cattle in eleven hours, an average of “five steers slaughtered every minute….. This will be a great year of killing at Armour’s,” the paper reported, adding, with its usual fondness for statistics, “it is said that it would require 2 1/4 million acres of pasture to maintain the number of cattle that will be killed at the plant this year.” October would be a “corker for beef killing,” said the same Armour Superintendent who had described worker pay cuts as “fashionable.”

As the “leading industry in Kansas City,” commented the Star, meat production is “an industry to count on…. susceptible of almost limitless possibilities. It is less subject to fluctuation than any other industry. Food is a prime necessity under all circumstances, and the demand for it continues active, whatever may be the situation in the monetary world. For this reason, Kansas City will always have the advantage, during seasons of general depression, over those communities which depend upon other manufactures.”

Pin feather girlsAnother Star article celebrated the inauguration of a new feature of the industry: the shipping of fowls and game:  “The business of killing chickens, turkeys, ducks and geese has grown amazingly,” the paper reported. The Armour plant also shipped Mississippi and Arkansas deer, black bears, suckling pigs, mallards, teal, and prairie chicken to markets in the east and south. The Star reporter saw “canvasbacks, jack snipe and quails… in piles like coal, and close against the wall wooden pails were piled full of frozen water in which were dozens of frogs legs.”

In its end of the year report, the Journal commented that the packing industry had continued to grow in spite of hard times and “the general depression in trade throughout the country. People will eat, panic or no panics.” The Times continued to assert that Kansas City would overtake Chicago as a live stock and packing center “during the present century,” pointing to investments made by the Armour, Swift, Fowler, and Schwarschild companies. Reid Brothers was erecting a “large poultry slaughter house, to be operated in connection with its immense plant….” Kansas City, Kansas, is “all right,” the paper believed, even as “the country at large is crying hard times….”

Fifteen months later most of the great Reid Brothers packing plant went up in smoke after a fire started in the hog slaughtering building. The New York Times called it a “million dollar fire,”  watched by thousands of people standing on the west bluff above the Bottoms. The fire department, hampered by low water pressure – a major political issue in the city – could only save one building. The storage building was “packed from top to bottom with pork…. The floors and walls were soaked with grease and burned like tinder. It was only by concentrating the strength of the Fire Department and Armour’s water tower that the beef building was saved.”

Eight years later, in 1903, Armourdale was flooded. As the Star [Kansas City Star, May 30, 1903] reported it:

The city of Armourdale, that had yesterday a population of 16,000 people, is1903 Kansas City flood to-day overflowed and almost depopulated. Its houses stand in a lake. Its streets are rivers upon which boats ply. Ten thousand people there and in Argentine and vicinity are homeless to-day. Nearly 10,000 men, many of whom live in Missouri, are thrown out of work by the flooding of all the packing houses and factories in Armourdale.

Another flood in 1908 drove almost all businesses, including the city’s main train station, out of the Armourdale-West Bottoms area. Major meat packing operations, including Cudahy, Swift, and Armour suffered major water damage to their plants and stock yards. Thousands of animals died in the stock yard’s pens.

The run of bad luck was not yet over for Jack Cudahy of the prominent meatpacking family. In 1910, he returned unexpectedly to his Kansas City home and found his wife in company with a banker. Cudahy attacked the man; his wife called the police, telling them a man was being murdered in her home. According to a story in the New York Times, the police found the banker bound on the floor, “covered with blood and moaning,” with Cudahy bending over him, his hands covered with blood.

Jack Cudahy suicide storyAlthough Cudahy was apparently not charged in the assault, his wife divorced him. Two years later they reconciled and were living in California in what the paper called “one of the most imposing mansions in the exclusive West Hollywood section” when Cudahy, his reputed $18 million fortune gone and unable to secure a $10,000 bank loan, shot himself. 

By the 1960s, after yet another disastrous flood in 1951, most packing companies had departed. The Cudahy Packing Company plant never reopened after the 1951 flood. The greatest of them all, the Armour Plant, closed in May, 1965. The Kansas City stockyards were officially closed in 1991.

Kansas City’s livestock and packing industry never surpassed Chicago’s.


June 3, 2013