Pork packing and its related businesses were an important part of Madison’s economy from its earliest days. In the mid 1830s Madison processed about 15,000 hogs but only 10 years later that number increased to more than 63,000 and it was still a growing business.
In the early days, and before the railroad, hogs were allowed to run wild foraging in the woods. They existed on what was called “mast,” a combination of nuts and acorns and anything else they could found on the forest floor. It took considerable time to fatten a hog on mast, but as one farmer remarked, “What’s time to a hog?” In the fall, when the weather turned cold, a farmer would gather as many suitable hogs as he could find and head them towards the packing houses in Madison. Some traveled from many miles away and as they traveled they often combined with others to form herds of hundreds of protesting hogs. Dogs were usually employed to help keep the porkers in line and by the time they reached Madison, the results was a gathering of cranky pigs, snapping and snarling hounds and exhausted farmers. They proceeded right through town where the hapless hogs were put in holding pens to await their fate. When the railroad lines came into being the process was simplified. Farmers only had to meet the lines and load their charges into waiting cars.
Madison’s pork houses
Between 1847 and 1857 something like fourteen slaughtering and pork packing houses were located in Madison:
- Thomas and Elijah Paine were on Main Street (now Jefferson Street) near the head of Crooked Creek. The spot was once called the “Old Mire” before the creek was straightened.
- Near Fifth Street between Broadway and Elm, A. McNaughten ran a pork house. It later became White, McNaughten and Company and it was quite successful. By 1854, however, it was run by O’Neill, Bayley and Irwin.
- The Mammoth Cave was built by David White and it was known as White and Cunningham Company. It was located on the far east side of town near the river at Fulton and Ferry Streets.
- Godman and Sons along with Samuel Sering had an extensive plant in North Madison. It was located on the railroad tracks near the railroad complex and was built of stone (above). The windows were mere slits, perhaps to retain heat as the butchering was done during the coldest months. Godman also built a slaughter house on Crooked Creek in 1855.
- Perhaps the most famous business was the Jenny Lind Pork House, so named because, much to her consternation she was required to sing there or forfeit the ticket money. It was located on High Street (now Second Street) and Mulberry.
- William Clough who was later affiliated with the building of railroad cars, operated a pork concern on Central Avenue.
- Jonathan Fitch for years packed pork from the building on the northwest corner of Main Cross and Walnut Street.
- A. W. Flint ran a pork house at the foot of Vine Street which later became the depot for the P.C.C. & St. L. rail line. (The highlighted section of the photo was the original pork house)
- There were other pork houses owned by Washer and Wharton; Powell and Hubbard; D. Blackmore; C. Friedersdorff; and Shrewsbury and Price, this one located on the river front on the curve of the railroad tracks near to the Palmetto Mills.
As many as 152,000 hogs were slaughtered and processed during Madison’s peak processing years. Considering these pork houses only worked, at most, four months of the year that was quite a feat. On Dec. 31, 1855 the Madison Courier reported:
“To show to some extent the magnitude of the business in this department of the trade of the city (pork packing), we enumerate a part of shipments made during the current week. On Friday the steamers North Star, Bay City, and Chicago loaded here for Pittsburg and Wheeling, with pork, lard and bacon from the pork houses of O’Neill, Bayley & Co., E.S. Baker & Bros. and David White. The steamer N.W. Thomas, on the same day, loaded three thousand bbls. and tierces of pork, lard and hams for Boston and New York via New Orleans. The Wisconsin No. 2 starts for Wheeling today with two thousand five hundred barrels of pork, lard and hams for Baltimore. Other boats have taken away large amount of freights this week. The shipments of the last two days comprise about 6,600 bbls. and tierces pork, lard and hams, 1,000 boxes long middles and 60,000 lbs. tallow. Not a pound of this freight lay over from last week.”
All of these pork houses fell by the wayside as time went by. There were several reasons for their demise. As towns in the interior grew, they built their own processing centers. Ever increasing railroads offered more direct and convenient transportation. Railroads also transported the pork all across the country, making it unnecessary to rely on river transportation to move the product. The reasons were many, but one old timer offers an additional reason that is perhaps overlooked. It seems Madison failed to embrace year-round slaughtering early on, perhaps resisting the cost of some means to keep the meat cool and free of spoilage. Hog producers naturally started shipping to cities that offered year-round service. No matter what reason or reasons were responsible, and no matter how she tried to make amends, Madison never regained her prominence in the pork packing field.
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