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Columns

Fox River ice provided 'elegant solution' to meat spoilage problem

Esch Brothers & Rabe's massive ice houses, located just above the Park mill dam at Oswego, as they appeared about 1885. In all, there were 20 structures that housed tons of ice harvested from the Fox River. The ice was then loaded into insulated railcars on a special siding and shipped to market. In August 1880, the company shipped 124 railcars of ice from its Oswego siding.
Esch Brothers & Rabe's massive ice houses, located just above the Park mill dam at Oswego, as they appeared about 1885. In all, there were 20 structures that housed tons of ice harvested from the Fox River. The ice was then loaded into insulated railcars on a special siding and shipped to market. In August 1880, the company shipped 124 railcars of ice from its Oswego siding.

We’re right in the middle of winter here on the northern Illinois prairies.

Sometimes during a hot summer afternoon, I’m sure a lot of us think it would be nice if we could just preserve some of this cold winter weather for later use to make an Illinois August day a little cooler. Our ancestors undoubtedly had the same feelings. Interestingly enough, in the end, they actually did something about it.

By the last quarter of the 19th Century, food preservation technology had been stalled for hundreds of years. Food could be preserved by drying or salting or pickling, or it could be canned in metal cans or glass jars. Unfortunately, the canning techniques of those 19th Century years used lead-based solder for can joints, making eating tinned food a sometimes dangerous pastime. Canning in glass jars was also an iffy proposition during that era. And in fact, the lack of food preservation techniques was having a serious impact on Illinois’ economy during those years.

Chicago had all the ingredients to be a major player in the meat packing industry. It was the nation's busiest railroad hub (just as a century later it would become the nation's busiest air hub) and so had easy access to all manner of foodstuffs. That included pork and beef on the hoof, either driven to market from Chicago's own near hinterland or hauled there from the great far hinterland areas to the west on the new rail lines that were being extended farther each day.

After the end of the Civil War, the Chicago Union Stockyards was built on the city's south side to handle the growing livestock traffic. It was a joint venture of the city's major railroads and the Chicago Pork Packers Association, and was laid out by the chief engineer of the Chicago & Alton Railroad on a 160 acre site west of Halsted Street.

The yards were a marvel of their time, and within a few years were able to handle 21,000 head of cattle, 75,000 hogs, 21,000 sheep, and 200 horses in 2,300 pens built on 60 acres.

While a fair percentage of the livestock arriving in Chicago was slaughtered for local use, the main market Chicago stock dealers eyed lay to the east in New York, Boston, and the other great seacoast cities. Because of the lack of adequate preservation technology, instead of slaughtering cattle and pigs in Chicago and sending butchered carcasses east, entire animals had to be shipped to the eastern market. And that was expensive because it wasn't just meat that was being shipped when live cattle and hogs traveled by rail. A large percentage of each animal was, at that time, unusable, including hooves, viscera, and bones. In addition, to guarantee live animals arriving at their destination, trains had to stop periodically and allow stock to be watered, creating further delay and costing more money.

Then in 1875, a young New Englander by the name of Gustavus Swift, arrived in Chicago with the goal of supplying his family's eastern butcher shops with live beef. But he experienced heavy losses through the death of animals when they were shipped, so he looked for a better way. In the winter of 1877, he experimented by sending two rail car loads of butchered beef carcasses back East. Since refrigerated cars didn’t yet exist, he had the meat loaded in stripped-down express railcars with their doors left open to naturally refrigerate the meat as the train traveled to its destination. The experiment proved a financial success, so Swift began looking for a way to refrigerate rail cars so dressed carcasses could be shipped east at any time of the year.

It wasn't that refrigeration experiments hadn't been tried using blocks of ice. But when meat touched the ice, it froze, causing discoloring and spoilage. That problem was solved by hanging carcasses from the ceiling of the rail car, but several thousand pounds of dressed beef or pork swaying as the train took a curve created problems, and not infrequently resulted in derailed cars and train wrecks. Packing in more carcasses reduced swaying, but it also stopped the circulation of cold air from the ice blocks.

A Swift employee soon solved the air circulation problem by building large, vented compartments at the front and rear of each refrigerator car, and packing the compartments with ice and salt brine. Outside vents in the compartments used the train's forward motion to force outside air through the ice-brine compartment, cooling the air, and forcing it past, over, around, and through the packed carcasses and into the car by inside vents. The improvements were a great success, and Swift's competitors, including Philip Armour, quickly adopted the new rail car design.

During the winter of 1883-84, the number of dressed carcasses shipped east from Chicago for the first time exceeded the number of live cattle shipped, and the trend never slowed after that.

All those rail cars hauling raw beef and pork required a lot of ice—about 700 pounds per railcar per trip—and that's where the Fox Valley came in. Soon after the Ottawa, Oswego and Fox River Valley Rail Road was completed in 1870, companies soon began harvesting ice up and down the Fox River, including at Oswego and Yorkville in Kendall County. Hundreds of tons of ice were harvested each winter from the mill ponds behind the Fox River’s dams and then stored in gigantic ice houses on the river bank for later shipment. By 1880s, Esch Brothers, Rabe & Company owned 20 huge ice houses just north of Oswego and another dozen in Yorkville. In September of 1880, according to the Kendall County Record, the firm shipped 124 rail cars of ice from its Oswego operation alone, a lot of which probably helped chill beef and pork shipped east in the rail car Gustavus Swift's inventive employee perfected.

Our inventive ancestors had a problem that needed an economical resolution, so they devised what engineers like to call an "elegant solution"—they learned to harvest the winter and use it to hold off summer.

Interested in more local history?

Visit http://historyonthefox.wordpress.com/

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