Now is the time to record your memories

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 27, 2002

Do you remember the story of three blind men trying to describe what an elephant looks like? One was touching the thin ropelike tail, another the wide leathery side, and another the round coiling trunk. As I read the memories that have been submitted to the museum regarding work at Wilson’s/Farmstead, I feel like one of those blind men. We have only bits and pieces and not the whole picture.

Over the years thousands of employees worked at the plant in hundreds of departments, and each of those people saw their own job differently &045; some in a positive manner as a part of the whole process of providing meat on the family dinner table, others only counting the hours until check-out time. Some felt a part of a family and others were loners. The meat packing plant was a community within a community, and the following stories attest to that.

For some time now, we have been asking people who were employed in the local meat packing industry to share their experiences. We have been collecting artifacts as well as memories, because the plant has been a major part of our town for a hundred years, and as such, it deserves a major place in our exhibits and archives.

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The following are excerpts from the stories that have already been submitted. I hope that they will trigger your own memories, and that you will take the time to sit down with pencil, or typewriter, or computer, and share your thoughts. For the time being, we will place them in the archives, and following your wishes, they will be made public now or at a future date.

Story #1: &uot;I guess I would have to say that I liked working there because I was making enough money to support my family with the necessities of every day life. Like most people I wished at times that I didn’t have to go to work. But one did what one had to do. I liked being a smoker because I started at 8:00 in the morning and finished the day at 4:00 in the afternoon, but there was a lot of overtime on Saturdays and Sundays, depending on if and when product was prepared for smoking. Most holidays, had to go in and work for 4 or 5 hours to finish getting the product out of the smokehouses into the coolers … I remember the summer of 1983 1 worked thirteen weeks in a row without a day off. This was when I was running the smokehouses. We were smoking a lot of bacon then. I didn’t care for that but I didn’t have much choice. By the way, there were three of us that were smokers since the smokehouses went 24 hours a day…&uot;

Story #2: &uot;Both my dad and I worked at Wilson’s. He worked in their hide cellar &045; heavy and hard work. I worked there 48 years. The first 25 years &045; no absenteeism and never late and walked 2 miles to work, starting at 6 a.m. approximately 8-10 hour day. My first job, sliced bacon, wore white uniforms and nurses caps and hair nets … &uot;

Story #3: &uot;The jammed parking lot at Seaboard-Farmstead today (1993) gives no feel for the numbers of workers who walked to Wilson’s, lunch buckets in tow, a half century ago. The standard attire was bib overalls, a garment common to the farms of Southern Minnesota on which so many Wilsonites got their starts. Because so many walked to work, the North side was a prized residential location. While workers lived all over, their North Side density was extraordinary … Wilson’s was a microcosm. It employed its dandies and pluggers, its nice folks and its rascals … I found the opportunity to work there a blessing. It taught me respect for men (and women) who work with their hands and who work well. It taught me that there is more to the world than classrooms and offices and professions and the white collar. In another era, people I knew at the plant would have been successful attorneys, physicians, teachers, and business people. They had the ability, but they never had the chance…&uot;

Story #4: &uot;Nicknames have always been popular at the plant. Dozens of names you never forgot, even though you might not have known their real ones. Two of my favorites were ‘Pig House Pete’ and ‘Packinghouse Tillie.’ Tillie was before my time, but my uncle had ‘run ins’ with her. Working in the stockyards at various jobs were fairly safe, but you had to be alert and cautious when driving hogs or cattle. Hogs would pile up against a gate, and you’d have to get them unpiled fast before the bottom ones suffocated. Your legs would get beat up at times. You had to watch so the cattle wouldn’t kick or squeeze you against the walls or corners. The goats were the chute drivers’ best friends. Sheep are stubborn and being in a strange noisy place they move with difficulty, or not at all, without a lead goat. We had 5 or 6 goats. Even though their names should all have been ‘Judas,’ they had other names. The ones that did not move any better than the sheep had special names. They enjoyed two unusual treats, cigarettes and carbon paper. They would eat all you would feed them. We did not treat them too often or they would not work…&uot;

Story #5: &uot;In the fall of 1959 we did go on strike. It was one of the worst strikes in the history of Minnesota … This was a strike where brother fought brother and father was against son, as in all strikes some people crossed the picket line. As people got hungry more people went in to work … As the strike went on fighting broke out in town and the National Guard was called out and they were here for several months. When it was Christmas time, it was a very unhappy Christmas … The strike lasted over five months…&uot;

There are thousands of stories out there. They will remain in your minds and in your hearts forever unless you take the time now to record them &045; whether you worked on the hog kill, or packaging bacon, or on the sales force, or the cafeteria, or office, or if you are a local farmer who once brought produce to the plant.

Like those three blind men with the elephant, future researchers will have very little idea what life in the meatpacking industry in Freeborn County was like, unless you choose to share your stories. Please give it some serious consideration.