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Swift Revolutionizes Meatpacking Industry

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Historical reproductions by Dick Perue

Last week, we posted a brief history of the meatpacking industry. This week, we share more of what we found on the internet. 

            During the 1850s, when he was still a teenager, Gustavus F. Swift started to work in the beef business in Massachusetts. In 1875, Swift began buying cattle in Chicago to send to his family’s butcher operations back East. 

            He quickly revolutionized the meat industry by using newly developed refrigerated railcars to ship fresh meat from Chicago to eastern markets and eventually throughout the nation.

            The company soon set up a national network of branch offices, which allowed it to control the distribution of its meat across the country. By 1886, when the company slaughtered more than 400,000 cattle each year, Swift employed about 1,600 people. Between 1887 and 1892, new packing plants were opened in Kansas City, Kan., Omaha, Neb. and St. Louis.

            By the time the founder died in 1903, his company grossed $200 million in annual sales and employed about 23,000 people across the country, including over 5,000 workers at its slaughtering plant in Chicago’s Union Stock Yard. 

            In 1908, Swift plants across the country slaughtered a total of about eight million animals. By this time, Swift owned a fleet of nearly 5,000 refrigerated railcars.

            Annual sales reached $700 million by the late 1920s, when the total workforce of the company, which ranked as one of the largest industrial corporations in the United States, consisted of about 55,000 people. Swift stopped slaughtering in Chicago in 1953, but its corporate headquarters remained in the city.            In 1973, by which time meat had become only one of its businesses, Swift became part of Esmark Inc., a holding company. During the 1980s, Esmark’s meat division was spun off and moved to Texas.

            Swift, once one of Chicago’s leading employers and largest companies, no longer has a presence in the city. From the early 1990s through the early 2000s, food conglomerate Conagra owned Swift’s operations. Swift and Company’s divisional headquarters were located in Greeley, Colo.

            By the 1920s, the Swift Refrigerator Line had over 7,000 reefer cars on rails across North America. We’ll pack that into next week’s “Postcard.”

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