Former packing house workers invited to share photos at collection event
By Cindy Hadish/Save CR Heritage
CEDAR RAPIDS — For more than a century, the T.M. Sinclair & Co. Packing House — later known as Wilson & Co. and Farmstead Foods — was intertwined with the fabric of Cedar Rapids.
The packing house was, at times, the largest employer in the city and was once the fourth largest meatpacking plant in the world.
Farmstead Foods closed its doors in 1990, but a new effort to gather and digitize artifacts from the company will ensure that the plant will retain its place in history.
The city of Cedar Rapids is working with the city’s Historic Preservation Commission and Brucemore to preserve those historic artifacts, with the public invited to bring items during a collection walk-in from 2-7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 6, in the lower-level training room of City Hall, 101 First St. SE.
“We’re looking for anything people might have that relates to (the plant,)” said Jessica Peel-Austin, manager of interpretation and collections at Brucemore, a National Trust Historic Site at 2160 Linden Dr. SE.
That could include photographs, blueprints, letters, newspaper clippings or other items, said Peel-Austin, who will evaluate the materials to see if they should be included in the collection.
Most items will be scanned and returned on-site during the event. Over-sized items may require additional time to scan or may be photographed for inclusion in the collection.
Brucemore’s relationship with the Sinclair plant stems back to the estate’s original owner, Caroline Soutter Sinclair, who built the mansion between 1884 and 1886.
She and her husband, Thomas McElderry (T.M.) Sinclair moved to Iowa in 1871, when Mr. Sinclair expanded a successful family meatpacking business by opening his own plant in Cedar Rapids. During an inspection of the plant in 1881, he fell into an open elevator shaft and died shortly after.
A widow with six children, Caroline Sinclair began construction of the three-story, 21-room mansion for her children.
Artifacts already in Brucemore’s Sinclair & Co. collection are being digitized as part of the project, said Peel-Austin, who put the collection’s size at 6.5 lineal feet in boxes.
Some items, including a hog brain bucket, are in Brucemore’s permanent exhibit in the Visitor Center, located in a restored 1911 Carriage House. The exhibit is free to view during regular hours (9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday.)
Peel-Austin asked that people call ahead, at (319) 362-7375, if bringing something along the lines of a hog brain bucket, or large pieces of equipment, to the collection event at City Hall.
She said that photographs, especially of the interior of the plant, and documents from the Sinclair period are among the most sought-after items for the collection.
Anne Russett, planner in the Cedar Rapids Community Development Department, said the goal is to have the collection publicly available online through the city’s website and Brucemore’s website, by late February 2015.
Russett noted that the project is part of a mitigation agreement related to the demolition of historic structures at the plant at 1600 Third St. SE.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, in consultation with the State Historical Society of Iowa, determined that eight structures on the former packing house site were individually eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, she said.
Those eight structures, among more than 20 that were razed, received FEMA funding for demolition after flooding in 2008 and damage by two subsequent fires.
Russett said the agreement to digitize the packing house collection was made to offset the losses from those federally funded demolitions.
“The starting point for the digitization efforts is Brucemore’s collection,” she said. “We are hosting the public event in case there are other resources out there that could contribute to this collection.”
Documents from the State Historical Society of Iowa’s Iowa Labor Collection in Iowa City note that Sinclair & Co. began operating as a hog slaughtering and processing plant, and employed between 300 and 450 people through the late 1800s.
In 1885, beef slaughtering and processing became part of the plant’s operations. The company became affiliated with Wilson & Company in 1913, but kept its Sinclair name until 1935, according to the records.
Large numbers of Czech immigrants were recruited in the packing plant’s early years and at times, the Cedar Rapids site employed 2,500 workers, making it the city’s largest employer.
The Historical Society records note that the Wilson name was removed from the Cedar Rapids plant when the business was sold to Keith Barnes in 1984, after which the plant produced meat under the new Farmstead Foods label. The Farmstead plant permanently closed in 1990, causing about 1,400 people to lose their jobs.
“I miss the people there,” said Darrell Goetzinger, 79, of Marion, who began 35 years of work at Wilson’s in 1956.
That work wasn’t particularly easy. Employees cut bones and other parts from dead cattle, pigs or sheep on assembly lines, while some worked on the “kill floor” and others labored in extremely hot or frigid temperatures and did heavy lifting.
“We could see our breath all the time in ham-boning,” Goetzinger said of the piece work he performed, taking bones out of hams.
The plant’s history was dotted by union strikes, but former workers like Goetzinger often refer to the family-like camaraderie among employees. Part of that family nature was real.
Goetzinger’s son, John, worked at the plant, as well, which was a common practice.
“They hired a lot of family,” he said. “We were pretty close.”
Hard times fell on the workers even before the plant closed, when wages were cut, said Goetzinger and his wife, Shirley, who lost their family’s acreage and moved to town in the 1980s. After Farmstead closed, Goetzinger began a new career at the Duane Arnold Energy Center in Palo, but he and other Farmstead retirees often would visit at the Local P-3 Hall in Cedar Rapids.
The building, along the Cedar River, was restored by a group of retirees, but was bought-out by the city of Cedar Rapids and later demolished.
Goetzinger and his wife said many of their friends from the plant have died, and both wished the efforts to collect its history had taken place sooner.
Brucemore’s Peel-Austin said she knows that the packing plant touched many lives, but has no idea how many people might attend the collection event.
“It played such a major role in the formation of Cedar Rapids,” she said. “We definitely don’t want to lose those stories.”
FYI: Members of the public are invited to bring in personal historic items that may add to the Farmstead Foods collection during a walk-in collection period on Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2015, between 2–7 p.m. at City Hall, 101 First St. SE, in the lower level training room. For questions about the event, contact Anne Russett in the Community Development Department at (319) 286-5075 or firstname.lastname@example.org