The Man Behind a Meatpacking Empire

By: Kristin Sheppard

Most take for granted the ability to walk into any grocery store and purchase fresh meat. But as far as innovation goes, the ability to transport refrigerated meats is a little more than a century old. Before Chicago entrepreneur Gustavus Franklin Swift championed the modernized refrigerated rail car, meat was packed in barrels of salt for shipping or cattle were shipped alive. And while live cattle afforded the ability for fresh butchering at the destination, it was an expensive method of transport, and many often did not survive the journey.

So what led Swift to the groundbreaking notion of mobile refrigeration? Money, namely. He loathed waste of both product and cash, and his visionary theories of self-supply and efficiency were what we now call vertical integration, of which he was a pioneer.

The concept of the refrigerated car was not immediately embraced, and Swift faced barriers of public mistrust and safety concerns of dressed meat. Railroads charged exorbitant fees and formed a cartel against Swift in retaliation for losing the large freight revenue of shipping live cattle. In response, Swift financed his own railroad line to transport the meat, with much success.

Swift also developed methods of utilizing the animal byproducts that were previously discarded, up to 40 percent of the cow. Years later, these practices by Swift & Company would inspire Upton Sinclair’s muckraking novel The Jungle, which not only illuminated the exploitation of immigrant workers, but prompted public concern about health violations. Swift’s Yankee status brought about further scorn. What did a Massachusetts man know about beef?

Gustavus Swift was a 19th Century entrepreneur that pioneered the refrigerated rail car and centralized the meatpacking industry by vertically integrating his supply chain. 

Gustavus Swift was a 19th Century entrepreneur that pioneered the refrigerated rail car and centralized the meatpacking industry by vertically integrating his supply chain. 

A second-generation butcher, not only did he know about beef, but his business skills blossomed early. He took the skills his father and brother Noble taught him along with a $25 loan and began to build his empire by his 30s. Swift & Company was founded in 1878 in Chicago, but quickly put down roots in Texas after new Fort Worth Union Stockyards owner Greenlief W. Simpson beckoned Swift and fellow meatpacking giant Armour and Company closer to the source of the livestock. By 1904, the inaugural year for the Swift and Company plant, the Fort Worth Stockyards  had become one of the country’s largest livestock markets.

Rapid expansion and increased demand saw unprecedented growth in a seemingly unstoppable market. However, in 1906 Congress began putting some industry laws in place to limit the influence of the meaty titans. And as all good things must come to an end, the Fort Worth plant started its decline in the ‘50s before eventually shuttering in 1971.

Swift’s legacy remains, for better or worse, in the mass raising, slaughter and consumption of cattle today. The diversity of cuts of meat as well as widespread accessibility means that most of us can find whatever we want, whenever we want it. Not only that, but Swift is one of history’s entrepreneurs who explored vertical integration in the food industry, which allowed more accessible and affordable food — much like the A&P supermarkets that emerged in the early 20th century. In a time when food costs consumed more of a family's income than housing, the affordability piece was particularly impactful during this period. Swift centralized meat production and fully embraced the new technology of railways and telegraphy to cut costs and inefficiency. His discoveries were not only technological, but logistical and financial.

Swift’s mark, too, on Texas is indelible. Austin’s own Swift’s Attic is named for the historic building in which it resides. The later-named Swift’s Premium Food Co. established an office there in 1905, just a couple years after Gustavus Swift’s death. Those who dine at the 315 Congress Avenue restaurant can catch glimpses of the past in details like the original floors or the historic railroad map on the brick wall in the bar. Customers might not realize the innovative, resilient, yet politically fraught steps the building’s namesake took to bring the 20th and 21st century patrons their burgers. Yet, with a little digging, you find legacies such as Swift’s in the subtlest of names and symbols. Perhaps there are more threads that bind the old and new in Austin--and other cities--than we realize.

Read More: Where some livestock are still transported live for fresh butchering