My grandfather never finished the ninth grade. His family pulled him out of school to work the family farm during the Great Depression. He never went back. He wound up at Rath Packing Company in Waterloo, Iowa, from before World War II to 1964.
By the time my grandfather walked onto the factory floor, Rath was an empire.
The company opened in 1891—paying workers fifteen cents an hour—and fifty years later, it was the nation’s single largest meatpacking facility. By some reports, it was the largest multistory, single-unit meatpacking plant in the world. At its height, it employed 8,500 people, was famous from coast to coast for Black Hawk Bacon and Tend’r Ham, and turned Waterloo into “Factory City.” It supplied the armed forces in WWII, pioneered sliced bacon, and advertised in Life, McCalls, and Reader’s Digest.
The company opened in 1891—paying workers fifteen cents an hour—and fifty years later, it was the nation’s single largest meatpacking facility. By some reports, it was the largest multistory, single-unit meatpacking plant in the world.
So many of Iowa’s cities grew with their meatpacking plants, even before the Civil War. Keokuk, Burlington, Davenport, Dubuque, Cedar Rapids, Sioux City—even the tiny island town of Sabula, floating on the Mississippi. But perhaps Waterloo had the most to lose, and that’s why its workers spent years trying to save it.
The company roared through the ’40s and ’50s despite union strikes and riots. By the ’60s, it was struggling. Pork was falling out of fashion and labor-management relations were dire. To make matters worse, multi-story complexes like Rath—the abattoir on the top floor, cooking and smoking somewhere in the middle, packaging and distribution from the ground level—had proven to waste time. Single-story packing houses were on the ascent.
Thousands of jobs were cut, including my grandfather’s. Despite that, Rath remained a local icon. A union lifeline. An identity. When employees learned in 1979 that Rath was going bankrupt, they bought a controlling interest. They surrendered wages and raises. Some knowingly refused other jobs as the boat was sinking. The company continued to bleed millions of dollars and cut positions each year. Employees raised money for the company with $100 buttons that read “We’re Fighting Back.”
In 1985, the year my grandfather died, the doors closed for good. Locals vented their anger at the city, which claimed the facilities to cover unpaid taxes. When the city’s liquidation sale funded a greyhound-racing site, they slapped on bumper stickers that read “Rath Went to the Dogs.” A few, well into middle age and without other job prospects, killed themselves. Underneath their anger and despair, former employees held out hope that something would return.
It hasn’t. Not yet. The administration building—state-of-the-art when it was built, with an elevator and acoustic ceilings—has been empty now for thirty-five years. The last remnants of a bloody empire loom over Sycamore Street, boarded-up windows and crumbling brick contrasting carved stone. Though the construction only deteriorates with each year, that hope remains, even in my generation. We look at that dilapidated, turn-of-the-century behemoth and wonder, “What if?”