Archived Story

Rise and demise of a major industry

Published 8:40am Friday, July 8, 2011

Column: Between the Corn Rows

Just a decade ago a fire resulted in a real change for Albert Lea’s economy and employment. The details of this event are now being featured in a series of articles by Sarah Stultz and the outstanding photos taken by Jeff Mulfinger, the Tribune’s photographer in July 2001.

As part of my coverage of this really destructive fire, I wrote a history of the development of meat processing in Albert Lea. Here’s a summary of this part of local life for 124 years.

The long history of meat processing in Albert Lea started with the Brundin Meat Market on Broadway Avenue in 1877.

A slaughter house was set up a few years later at the east end of Charles Street near the channel between the lakes.

In 1898 the Brundin Packing Company was organized, and the slaughtering operations were moved to a site at the corner of Newton Avenue and East Main Street.

This firm was incorporated in 1908. Then it became the Albert Lea Packing Co., the Soth Packing Co. in 1910, and resumed the Albert Lea Packing Co. name in 1912.

The present plant site was set up in 1912. By 1914 the firm had financial problems and was sold to Sulzberger and Sons of Chicago. In 1916 the Sulzberger firm was taken over by Wilson & Co.

During the era between World Wars I and II, the Wilson firm expanded its Albert Lea operations to include all phases of meat processing. Thus, cattle and hogs came into the stockyards at the south end as live animals and left via the loading docks in both refrigerated rail cars and later semi-trailers as hanging carcasses or boxed meat products. Also, during this era and even later after World War II, the Wilson plant became the city’s largest employer and an important part of life for several generations of area families.

On Jan. 31, 1970, the plant became a part of Wilson-Sinclair, one of several names used in the firm’s reorganization.

Three years later the name of the Albert Lea plant was changed back to Wilson & Co. Then, in October 1976, still another name change was made to Wilson Foods Inc.

The Wilson firm encountered severe financial problems in 1983 and declared bankruptcy. In March 1984 the Albert Lea plant was sold to Keith Barnes, a former Land O’Lakes executive. His original corporate name was CornBelt Meals, which was soon changed to Farmstead Foods. Barnes also acquired the Wilson & Co. plant in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Farmstead Foods filed for bankruptcy in March 1990 and closed the Albert Lea plant.

On Dec. 4, 1990, the Farmstead plant was purchased by the Seaboard Corporation of Kansas and reopened. This firm retained the Farmstead label for meat products. Five years later the Albert Lea plant was purchased by Farmland Foods of Kansas City, Mo.

Within two years after the fire the entire plant area was demolished. Today there are very few reminders of the era when so many area folks depended on the packing house for their livelihoods. The former places of memories at what’s now Blazing Star Landing include the power plant, shop, ice house, stockyards, sewage plant and pond, office building, assembly room, hog kill, beef kill, loading docks, main gate and even the big coal piles.

What’s now left are portions of the fences, a paved roadway for the sewage plant and Gate Three (the stockyards entry) and a roadway on the east side near the corner of Garfield Avenue and Eberhart Street.

There’s still an interesting reminder of the century-plus era when meat processing was a major part of life in Albert Lea. It’s the special exhibit in the lower level of the Freeborn County Historical Museum on North Bridge Avenue.

Cornstalk comment

Next week’s column is based on nearly forgotten aspects of the area now known as Blazing Star Landing.

With just three exceptions, Ed Shannon’s column has been appearing in the Tribune every Friday since December 1984.