by Thomas Petraitis
In the 1960’s, a large sign surrounded by a landscaped park welcomed visitors to East St. Louis and proudly proclaimed the city to be the “Hog Capital of the Nation”. Today, academics and historians are trying to justify the immense decay of this city by blaming the factories and packinghouses that closed over 40 years ago for the problems of the city today. They look at ruins like the Armour Packing Plant in National City and see only death and despair in places that were actually triumphs of the human spirit.
It is no great societal conspiracy when a building is left to decay: The owners and inhabitants just didn’t want to be there any more, so they left. But an abandoned building is defenseless. Anyone can make up stories about it, usually to create a myth justifying the abandonment. We pretend that any abandonment has some sinister, explainable cause because we want to believe that our own new happy buildings, filled as they are with our own dreams and emotions, will last forever. We don’t want our buildings to become obsolete because that may mean that we can become obsolete.
Nowhere is the idea of a building more important than in the buildings that comprised the stockyards and packinghouses of National City (and Chicago). When you look at these ruins, you are looking at ideas and innovation that live on in virtually every manufacturing facility around the globe. What happened there changed the face of America. The East St. Louis workers who struggled mightily to better themselves amidst the difficult and dangerous working conditions were not victims. They were proud participants in an extraordinary American drama.
Who was Philip Armour?
Philip Armour was a Chicago industrialist who mechanized the processing of hogs in a time before refrigeration. The process had to start with hogs because, without refrigeration, much of the meat needed to be preserved in the form of salted meats such as bacon and hams before it could be shipped. The term “packinghouse” comes from the process of “packing” salted pork (and a beef-jerky-like salted beef) into barrels. Fresh beef posed a very difficult problem in that it could only be shipped short distances without refrigeration. Packinghouses needed large urban areas like St. Louis nearby in order to sell the fresh beef before it spoiled.
Location of stockyards near rail centers was always shrewd and logical, particularly in East St. Louis. Lacking a bridge over the Mississippi River, cattle from the western states were being unloaded at stockyards in St. Louis and then ferried across the river to be kept in East St. Louis until they could be shipped to eastern cities on many different railroads. With the opening of the Eads Bridge in 1874, the railroads and their eastern investors decided to eliminate the inefficiency of having stockyards on both sides of the river by building a large stockyard near their East St. Louis rail center.
Live cattle were expensive to ship (which the railroads liked), and it made sense for the railroads to gather the cattle from the western states to be sold from centralized locations. From these central hubs, the cattle could then be shipped to the major eastern cities. By controlling the cattle markets through their stockyards, the railroads could keep shipping rates high and control a major revenue stream for their investors.
Initially only local packinghouses were located next to the stockyards because meat had to be processed and sold quickly before it spoiled. Most of the cattle were shipped from the stockyards to packinghouses and butchers in distant cities that would then kill and process the cattle for their local markets. Eventually, though, packers like Morris, Armour, and Swift (the “Big Three”) realized that they could make a great deal of money if they could kill and process the meat in a centralized location. First the railroads centralized the stockyards, and then Morris, Armour and Swift centralized the nation’s packinghouses. Since more than half of a butchered cow was unsaleable waste, it made business sense to slaughter the cows in a single centralized location near the stockyards, discard the waste, and then ship only the saleable meat to local butchers. It was this concept of transportation efficiency that spawned the huge packinghouses of Chicago and National City.
The Armour Packing Plant in 2004.
Philip Armour took that initial idea and then expanded it in ways that further revolutionized the business world. Many people think that the buildings at plants like those of National City were giant killing machines, but they were not. The buildings were merely shelters for an army of unskilled workers organized by Phillip Armour and his colleagues. The people formed the killing machine — not the building. It was the organization of workers that was the genius of Philip Armour.
Taking a concept that originated in a crude form in the packinghouses of Cincinnati (when that city was known as “Porkopolis”), Mr. Armour organized his workers on a scale and in ways the world had never seen before. He “de-skilled” the work by dividing the processing of meat into steps that any unskilled laborer could follow. U.S. packinghouses were the first industry to create assembly lines (actually “disassembly” lines), allowing an animal to be killed, dismembered, cleaned and dressed at extraordinary speed. Tourists actually came from around the world to see Midwestern packinghouses in action.
The pivotal concepts of modern production: division of labor, mass production, standardized units of production, continuous flow, and efficiency were pioneered in these packinghouses. Philip Armour and his colleague Gustavus Swift were true founders of some of the great modern business practices that remain in use today around the globe. (Henry Ford later used these same principles to develop an automobile industry “assembly” line and is wrongly credited for many of Armour’s ideas.)
It is also interesting to note that the business practices pioneered by Armour and Swift had a direct impact on the nation’s skylines. Besides the army of workers in the packinghouses, men like Armour needed armies of clerks and managers to run their business. These employees needed office space and many of the Chicago skyscrapers were developed to house these newly created “office workers”. It was the disdain that Chicago industrialists like Armour felt toward needless ornamentation in the workplace that led to the development of the “First Chicago School of Architecture”, a style of building that made structure and function its primary goal. Members of the first Chicago School included Louis Sullivan, Daniel H. Burnham, John W. Root, Dankmar Adler, and William Le Baron Jenney, the “father of the American skyscraper”.
It is no coincidence that Swift & Company packinghouses were located near Armour and Company facilities. Many different packinghouses were established in the area around the stockyards. Armour, Swift, Hunter, Morris, and others had packinghouses in National City, but, while Armour began with the processing of hogs, Swift found a way to ship refrigerated beef all the way to the major east coast cities.
This was no small accomplishment. The railroads did not want to lose the fees associated with shipping live cattle and fought vigorously to stop the use of refrigeration by Swift. Ice often “burned” the meat. Meat often spoiled in transit. Local butchers spread rumors and organized fierce opposition to the dressed meat. Unions, politicians, and competing industries fought Swift’s innovations just as they would later fight Sears and Montgomery Ward mail order goods and Wal-Mart superstores today. Undeterred, Swift ultimately developed rail cars capable of keeping meat fresh over long distances and thereby increased the demand for and feasibility of processing beef in centralized areas. Swift and Armour used their refrigerated rail cars to ship their meat around the country, and they used their innovative production methods to dominate the meat-packing industry.
Of course, most people know that Swift and Armour went further than just saving shipping fees by shipping dressed meat instead of whole animals. Seeing the immense amount of unsaleable meat by-products, they developed ways to capture and sell these scraps for other uses. Eventually, the by-products were more profitable than the dressed meat and generated the famous expression that Armour sold “every part of the pig except the squeal”. In fact, even today’s Dial soap was one of Phillip Armour’s products, a by-product of the packinghouses.
Suddenly stockyards were surrounded not only by packinghouses, but by hundreds of spin-off industries that used animal by-products as their raw material. Fertilizers, gelatin, poultry food, dog food, buttons, sausage casings, glue, hairbrushes, knife handles, fertilizers, perfume, cleansers, soap, felt, leather, mattresses, margarine, lard, cooking oils, tallow, chemicals, medicines, combs, and shoes were just some of the products made with the animal by-products. Armour even pioneered the use of refrigerated rail cars to ship fruit from California to the Midwest, creating yet another industry.
The Hunter Packing Plant in 2005.
People came from all over the world to work in the packinghouses of Chicago and National City. You needed no skills and you didn’t even have to speak English. Waves of immigrants settled in the neighborhoods and parishes of East St. Louis and supported themselves in the packinghouses and factories surrounding the stockyards. They built homes. They raised children. They created new lives for themselves and their families. One founder of our Lithuanian parish in East St. Louis is said to have walked 300 miles along the railroad tracks from Chicago to East St. Louis because he heard that there were jobs and opportunity to be found there.
It wasn’t easy work and it was not initially well-paid. Packinghouses were extraordinarily brutal, polluted, dangerous places. The workers resisted the dehumanizing aspects of the assembly lines and the hellish environment. The other story of the stockyards is the story of labor strife and violence that lasted for decades.
People like to judge the famous Race Riot of 1917 in terms of current day values, ignoring the fact that the African-Americans living in East St Louis at that time were unskilled laborers imported from poor southern states by local industrialists specifically to compete with existing workers and to serve as strike-breakers. Of course, there was racism, but this riot of 1917 could very properly be called the Labor Riot of 1917 because of the untenable labor conflicts that preceded the violence. “Race” was not always black and white like it is today. Battles between the Irish and the Germans or between Ukrainians and Poles were all called “race riots” a century ago.
The fact is that Armour and many other industrialists of the time had an enormous fear of a unified labor force and liked their labor force to fight among itself. Armour, in particular, encouraged the hiring of diverse, non-English speaking ethnic groups. He saw racial and ethnic tensions, combined with language problems, as a way to prevent his workers from uniting against him by forming labor unions. That was the theory in importing blacks from the south as strike-breakers: increase tensions so that the labor force would fight among itself instead of fighting against the employers.
The violence did not stop in 1917. Life was hard. People struggled. Health care was poor. A job could literally determine whether or not your family lived or died. People fought each other for jobs until they ultimately banded together in labor unions and began to fight the companies. By the 1950’s, the railroads, the packinghouses, and virtually every major industry in East St. Louis was unionized, paying workers significant wages plus benefits.
East St. Louis became known as a tough union town and strikes at the many industrial plants were often violent and protracted. The ruins at National City are much more a result of the labor strife and resulting increase in wages and benefits, than from any huge conspiracy by the industrialists. These plants ran on cheap, unskilled labor. When the cost of labor ultimately exceeded profitability, the packinghouses moved to Iowa and Nebraska where they continue to thrive using cheap unskilled immigrant labor. The “ideas” pioneered in the Midwest live on, only not here, and we don’t miss them.
Armour Institute of Technology
Philip Danforth Armour may not have been generous to his workers, but he had a strong belief that education could change the circumstances of any man.
In 1881, Philip Armour, along with a bequest from his late brother Joseph, established the Armour Mission to teach manual skills to children for free without regard to race, creed, or class. In 1890, Philip Armour heard his pastor in Chicago declare in a sermon that if he had a million dollars, he would open a school to help people who wanted to better themselves. Armour promptly gave his pastor $1 million to establish a manual training school to be known as the Armour Institute of Technology and open to all, regardless of social class. Working with the pastor, Armour declared his wish that the Institute become the finest technological school in the world.
The Armour Institute was a monument to the practical educational needs of a new world. It included departments of engineering, architecture, library science, and chemistry. It opened in 1892 and merged with the Lewis Institute in 1940 to become today’s Illinois Institute of Technology.
Students of architecture may find it interesting to discover that Philip Armour funded one of the very first architectural schools in Illinois. Many Chicagoans who studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris returned to the Armour Institute to teach. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe directed the architectural program at IIT from 1938 to 1958 and designed the 120 acre main campus and many of its buildings. The campus is recognized by the American Institute of Architects as one of the 200 most significant works of architecture in the U.S.
In 2003, a new student center designed by Rem Koolhaas opened on the main campus as did a new dormitory designed by Helmut Jahn. IIT seems to have fulfilled Philip Armour’s wish to create one of the finest technological institutes in the world. It is now a full university with approximately 6000 students and with programs in engineering, science, psychology, architecture, business, design, and law.
Meat Packing Today
The business models pioneered by Armour and Swift remain very much alive in the meatpacking industry today. The organization of armies of low paid, unskilled immigrant workers into assembly lines remains unchanged. The dynamics of shipping expenses and refrigeration also remain as key components of this industry.
Refrigerated trucks and the interstate highway system helped kill the packinghouses of National City. With the new highways, packers no longer needed the railroads to bring live cattle to centralized stockyards to supply their needs. Instead, the packers could break free of the railroads and deal directly with the farmers. Following Swift’s ideas, the companies saved enormous sums by locating the packinghouses closer to the sources of the live cattle. With refrigerated trucks, there was no longer a need to locate their facilities near expensive unionized urban centers.
Again following Swift’s ideas, the packers saw that even shipping dressed carcasses in refrigerated trucks resulted in huge waste. The carcasses were oddly shaped. There was too much empty space between the carcasses in the trucks. So the packers started shipping “boxed beef”, beef already cut and prepared and ready for sale. Instead of selling sides of beef to local butchers to be processed for sale in their stores, the packers did the work themselves. They could now load their trucks more efficiently and charge higher prices for their product.
Look at your supermarket meat section today. The fresh meat section is a fraction of what it used to be. Instead, you will find a huge assortment of frozen or marinated or vacuum-packed products, many ready for the oven or even pre-cooked. Your store may not even have a butcher. If it does, you can be sure that his job is more about opening boxes of pre-cut meats than it is about using his special skills to cut and trim a carcass.
Unfortunately, the location of today’s packinghouses also follows Armour and Swift’s paradigm regarding the use of cheap unskilled labor. Most meat processing is done in non-union states and the techniques of dividing the labor force by race, ethnicity and language apparently continues as a key strategy of these employers. The work remains unpleasant and dangerous. Migrant workers are hired to keep turnover high (turnover is reportedly up to 43% a year). Immigrant workers are also used, keeping alive the tactic of a labor force divided by language and race. It seems that the very worst ideas developed by Armour and Swift remain alive in the modern assembly lines that also demonstrate their genius.
Packinghouses remain huge, dangerous, unpleasant, low paid places to work. (The average wage in the meatpacking industry is approximately $10 per hour.) By modern sensibilities, these jobs may no longer be compatible with American standards of work or life. Knowing this, the companies are already moving some of their operations to places like Poland and South America.
See where meat is processed today:
I recently saw a photo of immigrant workers on the assembly line at a packinghouse in Iowa and was struck by how little the concepts pioneered by Armour and Swift have changed. The dynamics of location have changed, but not too much else. The concepts of division of labor, mass production, standardized units of production, continuous flow, and efficiency live on in today’s packinghouses. And the need for enormous amounts of non-unionized immigrant labor to staff these vast assembly lines remains unchanged.
Ultimately, the National City stockyards and packinghouses died, not because the industrialists abandoned the economics and ideas upon which these businesses were founded, but because the people who lived in the metropolitan St. Louis area abandoned those ideas. My grandparents’ generation tolerated the low wages and pollution and blood and gore and sacrifice because they had their own dreams, and saw the new industries as a means to better their lives and support their families. My parents’ generation, as well as my own, had too many other options.
There are recently published articles and books on East St. Louis blaming all the problems of decay in this city on the mean old eastern industrialists who abandoned the city and left an entire city of victims doomed to suffer forever. What nonsense! And what disrespect these revisionist historians have for the people who lived the drama of East St. Louis!
Let’s set the record straight: We weren’t victims of the industrialists who built the factories and packinghouses that made East St. Louis great. We were their students and we learned well. We saw the power of their dreams to create wealth and we moved on to create lives and wealth based on our own dreams, not theirs. We simply got busy educating ourselves and developing skills that we could sell for higher value. They, however, stuck to their original ideas of low cost, low wage production and found themselves out of touch with their labor force. Unable to adapt to the changing environment, they had no choice but to relocate to places more receptive to what they had to offer.
They didn’t abandon us, we abandoned them.
Dates and Statistics
The “Saint Louis National Stock Yards” opened in 1873 and incorporated as “National City, Illinois” in 1907. The National Stock Yards closed in 1997 after a devastating fire. As part of the closing, the estimated 50 residents of National City were evicted and the village was dissolved.
Nelson Morris Packing opened in 1889, closed in 1935;
Swift Packing Company opened in 1893, closed in 1967;
Armour Packing Company opened in 1903, closed in 1959;
Brooklyn Packing Co. (later to become Hunter Packing Co.) opened in 1903, closed in 1982. (Hunter is a regional brand, unique to St. Louis, and now owned by John Morrell & Co., a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods.)
Estimated peak employment: Armour (4500); Swift (4000); Hunter (1500).
The National City Stockyards encompassed 650 acres and had enough pens to process 30.000 cattle, 50,000 hogs, 20.000 sheep, and 8,000 calves daily. Until shortly after WWII, the yards were the largest horse and mule market in the world. In 1954, the yards surpassed Omaha and Chicago to become “Hog Capital of the Nation” and the largest hog market in the world.
The Armour smokestack is 210 feet tall and is the largest structure in the East St. Louis area.
A new $1.6 billion bridge has been designed and may be built during the next two decades over the Mississippi River just north of downtown St. Louis. The plan is to re-route Interstate 70 and relieve traffic congestion on the Poplar Street Bridge. It is hoped that the new bridge will serve as a catalyst for development in what is being called the National City Redevelopment area.
In anticipation of the inevitable redevelopment, the toxic pollution remaining on the packinghouse and stockyard sites is being evaluated for clean-up. Within another generation, it is hoped that the ruins and debris on the National Stockyards land will be swept away and replaced with new ideas and dreams every bit as exciting as those brought to us a century ago by industrialists like Armour and Swift. East St. Louis is also evaluating the annexation of the National City property so that any redevelopment would increase the city’s property tax base.
Thomas Petraitas is author of Growing Up Lithuanian in East St. Louis. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.