by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As the United States experienced exponential growth in the late 19th century, including waves of immigrants from many parts of the world, including southern and eastern Europe and Asia, there were many areas of agricultural and industrial expansion, including the burgeoning food industry. One of those that largely existed under the heading of “out of sight, out of mind,” was large-scale meat processing, the kind of industry that was grueling labor for many of those migrants seeking a better life in America.
Anyone who has read Upton Sinclair’s stunning 1906 novel, The Jungle, has a powerful idea of just what the meatpacking industry was like, at least in his visceral telling of conditions in the South Side of Chicago. Sinclair’s work was a major contributing factor to food and drug laws that were passed in Progressive-era America At that time, a major player in that industry was the Cudahy Packing Company, which was formed by Irish emigrant brothers who met Phillip Armour in Milwaukee in the 1860s.
When Armour relocated to Chicago, the Cudahys followed and began running small meatpacking plants in the Windy City. Backed by Armour, who became a dominant figure in that world, the trio opened a facility in Omaha, Nebraska in 1887. Three years later, Michael Cudahy acquired Armour’s interest and reorganized under his leadership.
Cudahy moved aggressively to expand in the eighteen years before his death in 1908, with branch plants throughout the nation, including, in 1891, the acquisition of a local meatpacking plant in the small, but growing industrial section of Los Angeles on the east side of downtown along the Los Angeles River.
Greater Los Angeles, as has been mentioned many times here, experienced its first large boom period in the late 1880s when William Henry Workman, nephew of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman, was mayor. This followed the December 1885 opening of a direct transcontinental railroad line by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. That foundational transportation improvement cannot be overstated in its importance and, even as the boom inevitably went bust by the end of the decade, growth still continued, albeit at a less frenzied pace.
So, when Cudahy decided to establish a branch in the city, he also, very shortly afterward, invested $160,000 in cash for nearly 2,800 acres of the Nadeau Ranch, part of the Rancho San Antonio, which bordered Los Angeles to the southeast. Though the ranch was basically used as a preparation ground for animals before they were taken into town to be slaughtered and processed, it later was subdivided and a small part of it became the city of Cudahy.
But, in 1891, before the nation fell into the grips of one of its worst economic depressions in its history two years later and just after the collapse of the boom of the 1880s, the arrival of Cudahy and his big plans for meat processing and the acquisition of the Nadeau Ranch property were hailed as a watershed for Los Angeles and its rise from the bust following that boom.
The news was announced in early July, so that the Los Angeles Herald of the 8th noted that the firm purchased the packing plant of Robert Eccles, with that facility, located on Aliso Street, a major thoroughfare east into the San Gabriel Valley, and near the river, costing over $70,000 when built. Very soon after, the first beef shipments for the plant were expected and “it is the intention of the purchasers to do all their hog killing here as soon as the market will permit.”
What that meant was the encouragement of local farmers to raise hogs, as well as associated feed like alfalfa and barley, to supply what was expected to be an enormous output from Cudahy, already one of the largest meatpacking firms in the world with a reported $17 million in business conducted in 1890.
By mid-year 1892, a $6,000 addition was being made at the plant and later that year, the firm bought adjacent property “near the junction of the different railroads,” on which “to erect an extensive establishment for the storing, packing, and handling of their products.” At the end of the year, the firm announced that it was actively moving towards a major expansion, stating, “we shall employ 400 men and increase the capacity as rapidly as we can get the products.”
To do this, however, required amending the city’s ordinance on slaughterhouses, which meant no small amount of aggressive lobbying, even in that day of laissez faire business attitudes and practices. It asked the city to grant a permit to operate a greatly expanded plant “near Macy-Street bridge” and to have enough water from the river for washing purposes, though that water was to be returned to the river after use in washing. A major concern raised with any such facility was the powerful smell that emanated from the slaughterhouses, but the manager claimed that
the model packinghouse now reduces the odor [of hog slaughtering] to scarcely a trace by condensing all the grease, blood and offal and using the same as fertilizer. It will be no more offensive than the soap factory here and that is not regarded as a nuisance. There is more or less odor from the cattle, but this can be reduced to a minimum by proper handling.
In mid-February 1893, the writer of a lengthy piece in the Los Angeles Express observed that, when he arrived in the city in 1880, there was a small pork-processing plant on Aliso Street and one by Eccles in the new town of Westminster, in what became Orange County in 1889. A lack of hogs from local farmers limited the output of these facilities, however.
W.H. Maurice, a Los Angeles commission merchant became the Cudahy regional agent for ham and bacon, and discussed with Cudahy the idea of establishing a branch in the city. While Cudahy empowered Maurice to acquire the Eccles plant, purchase nearby property, and begin the establishment and expansion of the packing plant, he visited at the first part of the year.
That led to the acquisition of the Nadeau Ranch and visions of a far more expansive operation than originally conceived, especially after Cudahy, as so many others did before and after him, spent time in the region and was entranced by its commercial and other possibilities. This included the purchase of a $12,000 residence in Pasadena and other investments totaling some $350,000.
The Nadeau Ranch purchase, however, wasn’t just about supporting the packing house, but also meant conceiving of future subdivision for town lots “where employees can build homes, churches, schools, etc. making, with stores and other business enterprises incidental thereto, a town of many thousand population.” It was anticipated that, when a large plant was built at the ranch, the Los Angeles facility would be a cold storage unit.
As for that property near the river, there was some detail given, including the sizes of buildings for cold storage, the slaughterhouse, smoke houses, the office, the shipping rooms, a hay shed, stables, the box factory and more. Eleven hog pens would have a capacity for 1,500 animals. An unloading yard was next to the Santa Fe line and operations were to commence in June, with an expected initial capacity of 500 hogs daily.
Statistics for 1892 showed that there were 2,500 employees; sales of just under $20 million; the slaughtering of 620,000 hogs, over 150,000 cattle and 18,000 sheep; and enormous quantities of pork, beef, lard, sausage, and fertilizer. The Los Angeles plant was expected to add materially to these statistics and become the hub of a rapidly expanding market on the Pacific Coast and Southwest.
Advertisements were taken out inviting ranchers to supply hogs for the packing house expected to have a “killing capacity” of up to 150,000 animals annually and the target was that 500 a day mentioned above. To assist local farmers, the company offered to provide information “regarding the successful breeding and growing of hogs.”
A representative who combed Orange County looking for potential suppliers commented to the Los Angeles Herald that “this county is admirably suited to hog raising, for you produce the finest of hog food,” adding that there would be no issue with Cudahy being able to process whatever quantity of animals Orange County ranchers and farmers could supply.
By early May, the company advertised that it would “commence killing” at the first of the following month and offered 7 cents per pound for 20,000 hogs delivered to the packing house between mid-May and mid-June. That day, the 4th, the Express proclaimed that “the raising of hogs promises to become one of the leading industries of Southern California.”
It added “it is doubtful if another section exists in the United States where the business could be more profitably conducted than in Southern California, where the climatic conditions and everything else are most favorable.” It was noted that the firm sold 2,000 sows to locals to encourage breeding—one who went in “whole hog” was Daniel Freeman of the Rancho Centinela (in the 1870s he was a partner of F.P.F. Temple and William Workman in the short-lived townsite of Centinela) and a founder of the boom town of Inglewood.
A reporter toured the facility, which had 75 workers but expected to double that soon, and provided extensive details about it and noted that the bacon and ham shipped in was kept in brine on the train trip and then smoked for four days and the plant. There was also the preparation of lamb meat, which was then frozen for shipment to markets in the east. Some information was given about the slaughtering facilities in preparation, but other articles in the local papers went into more and very explicit detail about that gory process.
On 1 June 1893, the Express ran another long feature titled “The Hog to the Front” and noted further that the economic drain of imports of hog products was an incentive to localize the supply for animals and their processing at the Cudahy plant. It added that Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada should also be ready markets for meat and other products from the facility and others like it in greater Los Angeles.
Notably, the piece referred to the belief that the climate was not amenable to the best quality pork, but it averred that the problem was a lack of understanding about the process of properly breeding and feeding the animals and of curing the meat. It also alleged that “pioneer porkers” brought to the area were the wrong breed. In the 1870s, in fact, F.P.F. Temple spent significant sums in importing well-bred hogs as he tried to establish an entry point in the industry. Raising hogs on alfalfa and fattened, or “hardened,” with barley, was said to be better than the corn-fed process of the Midwest in terms of leaner meat.
The paper claimed that
With such an establishment as the CUDAHY packing house turning out first-class meats in large quantity, it will not be long before Southern California becomes famous for the excellence of her pork products, and in time a large export trade will be built up. In a few years the best hotels of Chicago may have “California ham” and “California bacon” inscribed on their bills of fare as table delicacies.
The highlighted artifact from the museum’s holdings for this post is an undated and unattributed cabinet card photograph showing the greatly expanded plant, perhaps from the early years of the 20th century. Several large multi-story brick buildings, smaller wooden sheds, and other elements are next to the rock-lined steep bed of the river and a railroad track runs along the opposing side where the photographer stood.
Cudahy subdivided what was known as “Cudahy Ranch” just prior to his death in 1910 and the following year the firm’s headquarters were moved from South Omaha to Chicago. Massive growth continued and, during the 1920s, the firm became one of the biggest food production firms in the country, reaching more than $200 million in sales each year and employing some 13,000 people.
As with so many American industries, the Great Depression greatly affected the company’s operations and sales, but it continued to be a major name. After World War II, the headquarters were returned to Omaha and then, anticipating major growth in Phoenix, it was placed there in the mid-1960s. After the acquisition of the company in the late 1970s, it was incorporated into its new owner, General Host.
The gradual industrialization of Los Angeles, beginning with such enterprises as the Cudahy Packing Company at the end of the 19th century, quickened in the first decades of the 20th, including expansion to what became Vernon, City of Commerce, the South Bay near the Port of Los Angeles and, later, suburban industrial communities like the City of Industry.
This photo is an early representation of that transformation and Cudahy was a forebear of such meat processing plants as Farmer John, long a fixture in a corner of Los Angeles and which has been controversial for a variety of reasons including a recent COVID-19 outbreak at the plant, which is not far north of the City of Cudahy, the second smallest, but one of the densest in population, city in the county and incorporated in 1960.