Commentary: Meat plant to ‘meat market’

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“The location was prime. The clientele was select. The product was choice.

“Unfortunately, the business just didn’t cut it.”

That was the snappy lead to an interesting story written by Mark Price, a talented reporter writing in Ohio’s Akron Beacon-Journal newspaper about the history of a local landmark that’s now a health club where people pay to sweat.

click image to zoomThe old meat plant sits abandoned in the 1950s, only to be resurrected as a health club 30 years later.

Few Akronites realize that a century ago in that same building, people got paid to sweat—only their “exercise” consisted of butchering hogs and cutting up beef, sheep and lamb carcasses, rather than a spinning class or a session on a cable TV-equipped elliptical trainer.

Most people these days only dimly recognize Akron, a city of about 200,000 people some 30 miles south of Cleveland, as the hometown of NBA star LeBron James. Yet in its nearly 100-year history Akron was once known as the Rubber Capital of the World, with Firestone, Goodyear and General Tire operating plants that manufactured tires, zeppelins and blimps—those plants are long gone—and was the original site and still the host of the Soapbox Derby (albeit under a different name now).

And as was true of so many mid-sized cities in the early 20th century, Akron had its share of meatpacking companies, one of the most ambitious being the Portage Packing Company, the subject of Price’s story.

According to his research, Portage Packing was founded in 1917 as “a lead-pipe cinch for stockholders,” a “safe, conservative investment—the kind a man can honestly recommend to his best friend.”

At the time, Akron was a growing city of 150,000 people who, the investors speculated, would always demand meat. Besides, the new business could cater to a customer base of more than 300,000 people in a 30-mile radius around Akron.

“You eat meat, your neighbor eats meat, practically everybody eats meat,” the company stated in its stock offering. “And when they do, they are increasing the demand of the packing company. If you have stock in a packing company, you don’t need to worry as to whether or not the public will support it. They must, if they expect to live.”

Can you imagine a meat company attempting to launch a new business with that line today?

Activists would be firing back in a nanosecond with a variation of Goldfinger’s famous retort to James Bond: “Expect to live? No, Mr. Meat-Eater, I expect you to die!”

Cork, and lots of it

But things were different in 1918. With World War I still raging in Europe, demand for meat to feed the troops overseas was skyrocketing. Portage Packing’s officers, John R. Bliss, president; Irvin R. Renner, vice president; Clyde S. Burgner, secretary; and W.C. Crow, treasurer; all predicted “a brilliantly successful future with handsome profits for all shareholders.”

They sold stock for $25 a share (about $380 today) and began construction of a three-story, 38,000 square-foot brick-and-concrete building on the outskirts of the city along the B&O Railroad (of Monopoly fame) tracks. Interestingly, Price noted, the walls were two feet thick and insulated with eight inches of cork.

When it was completed, the plant butchered and dressed 5,000 hogs, 1,200 cattle and “proportionate numbers” of sheep, lambs and calves a week, according to company documents. And as is often forgotten by us modern consumers, an equally important (and profitable) output were the “byproducts:” Hides for leather, hair for upholstery, bones rendered into bone meal fertilizer and collagen extracted from hooves and connective tissue for gelatin and glue.

As the business grew, shareholders doubled the company’s capital stock to $500,000, then doubled it again to $1 million. For three years, the plant sold fresh and cured meats to local butcher shops—until a series of setbacks struck. Price picked up the tale in 1920:

“First, the trade journal United States Investor published an unflattering item that questioned the value of the company’s stock. ‘Very little appears to be known about Portage Packing Co.,’ the journal stated. ‘It has marketed its own stock for some time past in a rather unsatisfactory manner, and we would advise leaving it alone.’

“In 1921, the business became enmeshed in a fake securities plot in which a Chicago gang flooded the U.S. market with $10 million in bogus stocks, forged certificates and stolen bonds from more than 30 companies, including $50,000 in fake notes from Portage Packing. Investors fled the company in droves. The timing was terrible, because the company already was reeling from the Depression of 1920-21. Wholesale prices plunged, and unemployment surged.

“Portage Packing limped along for another year or so before falling into receivership, bringing an abrupt end to the former lead pipe cinch.”

Since then, the sturdy building as changed hands numerous times, first as a mushroom-growing plant in the 1920s, then for years merely an abandoned warehouse, “dark and desolate, looking like an ancient ruin,” Price wrote. “Vandals smashed its windows and ripped down doors. Trees grew out of the roof.”

The old plant was bought for $3,500 in 1946, cleaned up, fitted with new windows and remodeled as a warehouse, with the ground floor occupied, ironically enough, by Aster Meats. The building was later acquired and used for furniture storage, then abandoned again until its resurrection in the 1980s as a Vic Tanny health club, complete with swimming pool, running track, racquetball courts, steam bath, aerobic exercise rooms and separate gyms for men and women.

After changing hands several more times, the building remains today a functioning fitness club with all the modern amenities.

Doubtful that too many other former slaughterhouses could boast that kind of a second life.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.


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