When a meat-packing plant was proposed on St. Paul’s doorstep a century ago, the citizenry put up a stink. If that hadn’t happened, one can only imagine how different this area might be today.
The year was 1909, and the controversy over a planned Armour & Co. plant “at New Brighton” reached the boiling point, with St. Paul civic leaders wanting no part of being downwind from such an odiferous enterprise.
“The day has gone by when any man or aggregation of men, no matter how rich or how powerful, can disregard the rights of 200,000 people,” declared Mayor Daniel Lawler. He led a delegation that delivered a 26,000-signature petition against the project to the state Capitol.
And Lawler implied that Minneapolitans–that community’s businessmen and allied newspapers were enthusiastic Armour backers–ought to wise up. “It will ruin the residence section of East Minneapolis, just as the Swift plant at South St. Paul has ruined Dayton’s Bluff, five miles distant,” he predicted.
Besides, the mayor pointed out, the Armour plant really wasn’t going to be at New Brighton. The site under consideration was, in fact, considerably closer to St. Paul, only a few miles from the University of Minnesota’s agricultural college, the State Fairgrounds, “our beautiful Como Park” and “the best residence section of St. Anthony Park.”
New Brighton had been home to the Minneapolis Stockyards Co. in the 1890s, but by the time J. Ogden Armour, the company’s chief executive, made an inspection tour in 1906, the yards were underutilized and several small packing plants shuttered.
“Armour Plant Means Greater Minneapolis,”exulted the Minneapolis Journal, noting that Armour had taken an option to buy 800 acres and pledged a $5 million investment in the new plant.
Upton Sinclair had recently published The Jungle, his exposé of the meat-packing industry, but the newspaper was undismayed, distancing the proposed facility from the “stigma of Chicago.”
‘Far above criticism’
The paper assured its readers that “. . . at a time when packers have been subjected to severe criticism and closest scrutiny with regard to cleanliness and hygienic arrangements, it goes without saying that every known device for making its food products far above criticism will be employed.”
On the other side of the river, opposition to the plant proposal included many prominent St. Paul citizens, politicians and officials, the only woman among them being Mrs. F.H. “Nettie” Snyder, well-known for bringing Grand Opera and greats like Enrico Caruso to town.
“It’s an outrage to even propose to put a packing plant so close to the city,” she said. “I know from frequent visits made to Chicago that these vile odors are far-reaching. In the summer especially, when people want to enjoy life in the country, the odors would make the Midway district intolerable.”
As it happened, Snyder had a personal interest in the matter, because she and her husband had recently built a lavish summer home on the southwest corner of Snelling and Larpenteur avenues.
The St. Paul newspapers joined the fray, with headlines such as “Will Not Let Stench Make City Victim.” The St. Paul Pioneer Press: “It is contended that the sewage will be unobjectionable. If this is true, [the proponents] will not object to emptying it into the river above Minneapolis, instead of below Minneapolis as is now proposed.”
Several bills were introduced in the 1909 legislative session to block the plant, but none passed.
A prominent farmer near Thief River Falls protested to his local newspaper that the controversy was not merely a dispute between the two cities, because rural interests had a stake in the outcome, as well.
Fear of market dilution
“What the stock raisers want is a concentration of the industry at one point, a good competitive market,” he said, implying that the Armour plant belonged in South St. Paul.
In the end, that’s what happened. Armour had had buyers in the South St. Paul stockyards since 1897, purchasing cattle, hogs and sheep to be shipped to Chicago for processing. With the start of World War I in 1914, the federal government began to offer subsidies to ramp up food production in order to feed the troops if the country was drawn into the war.
Such subsidies, along with the offer of free land and financing, finally convinced Armour to build in South St. Paul. The plant opened in 1919 and operated for the next 60 years.
Back “near New Brighton,” Armour & Co. sold some acreage on St. Anthony Boulevard to the City of Minneapolis, and Armour Golf Course opened in 1925. The course kept that name until it became Francis Gross Golf Course in 1948. (And across the street, Armour developed Sunset Memorial Park cemetery.
At the formal dedication ceremony in 1928, the state attorney general spoke—as did the mayor of Minneapolis—and music was provided by the chorus from Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis.
And all those harsh words of 20 years earlier were forgotten.