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When hogs paid the mortgage and stockyards built the city

Mychal Wilmes recalls when pork was the most consumed meat and industries and cities were built up around stockyards.

Beef eventually outstripped pork of its popularity, but hogs were celebrated as mortgage lifters once upon a time, Mychal Wilmes says.
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Mother — who had knack the best syrup with the simplest of ingredients — had her hands full keeping up with pancake demand when her boys competed to see who could eat the most.

The record may have been a dozen, accomplished after an early morning spent loading stubborn market hogs for a ride to South St. Paul. Nothing was ever easy about loading hogs despite gates and advice to keep your legs together so that the pigs couldn’t send you teacup over tea kettle.

Dad’s estimate about how many hogs had reached 215 to 220 pounds was usually spot on. Close attention was paid to the noontime radio market report and to the mailbox that would eventually contain a check.

There were a few livestock haulers to pick from and they were ranked on their demeanor, reliability, and to an extent on the use of electric prods. Some farmers liked prods used as a last resort and not the first.

In their hay day, independent haulers made a good living hauling livestock and bringing back furniture and appliances back to Main Street retailers. Trucks could be washed in South St. Paul and coffee grounds spread on the floor so smells would not reach into furniture. Sawdust, it was said, didn’t work nearly as well.


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Mychal Wilmes

Checks Dad received were almost always less than expected.

Pork was once the most consumed meat in the United States. Before refrigeration was widely available, pork (mostly hams and bacon) was by far the most popular meat. Beef eventually outstripped its popularity, but hogs were celebrated as mortgage lifters.

Richard — a World War II veteran who grew up in Chicago and eventually became a farmer in Minnesota — recalled how the Chicago stockyards and the truckers who delivered livestock became good friends. In those days, Lake Michigan waters nearest the stockyards stunk to high heaven because processing waste was dumped directly into the lake.

The Great Depression was a tough time to grow up in and his only escape was to ride along with truckers who left the city to pick up livestock from farmers. Rides back and forth often took nearly a full day.

Because fruit and vegetables cost more to harvest than they were worth, a great deal was left to rot in fields. Richard said he earned money by picking what had been left and selling to door-to-door back in Chicago.

The humble beginning may have led him to a rewarding farming career in Minnesota after surviving the war. The U.S. government was interested in increasing food production in the war’s wake. Many European populations were short of food and on the brink of starvation.

The United States would become the world’s breadbasket. To make that happen, veterans who wanted to improve their farming skills were offered classes in winter in return for government checks. The $160 monthly check Richard received helped him, his wife and child get established.

The government also tried to help in another way. Veterans were supposed to get dibs on new farm machinery. Equipment was in short supply in the first years after the war as manufacturers made the switch back to peacetime production.


“It didn’t always work out that way," Richard said, remembering how some dealers worked around the agreement.

The food shortages that plagued France, Germany and other nations faded away. The success helped beat back a communist movement that threatened to overtake most of Europe.

For his part, Richard built a profitable dairy operation before converting to beef production.

The Chicago stockyards, which to an extent receive credit for building a great city, are gone. The South St. Paul stockyards have endured the same fate. The truckers who made a living by hauling livestock to the yards and appliances back are no more.

Mychal Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minnesota, with his wife, Kathy.

Opinion by Mychal Wilmes
Farm Boy Memories
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