31: Lloyd Hall (1894-1971). As we saw in some of our recent posts, the pork industry became centered in the upper midwest, well away from the nation’s population centers. That brought thousands of workers to rapidly-growing towns such as Kansas City, Omaha, Sioux City, Sioux Falls, and others. Even today, I-29, the highway linking those cities, serves as a dividing line between the east and west. You don’t have to drive too many miles west from any of those towns to see the transition from baseball caps, t-shirts, and sneakers to cowboy hats, plaid shirts and boots.
The Swift packing plant in Sioux City, Iowa, c.1917, one of several large meatpackers in the city.
Meatpacking both built and shaped the region. Sioux City, for instance, had grown rapidly. By 1910, it was the second largest city in Iowa. By 1920, it had creeped into the 100 largest cities in the country. By 1930, the population had nearly doubled from 1910, and the town was remarkable in Iowa for its ethnic and racial diversity. 38% of its population was either foreign-born or of foreign parentage. A thriving Jewish community had established five synagogues and supported at least one kosher meat shop. The Greeks and Syrians had established churches, as well as Lithuanians and Poles living in the “Polack Hill” neighborhood.
In the “South Bottoms,” neighborhood, the Methodists founded a mission that included a chapel named the “Church of All Nations,” intended to reflect the diversity of the area. (My mom lived in that neighborhood for a few months when my Grandma, a young widow, came down from South Dakota to help her sister run a cafe in the neighborhood.)
The Bottoms neighborhoods, South and East, were named as such because both were built on flat, low-lying ground around the stockyards and the meatpacking plants. Both areas were subject to flooding from the Missouri and the small but deadly Floyd river. There was no such thing as segregated housing in the Bottoms, and Russian Jews, African Americans, Native Americans, Mexican and Syrian immigrants, and many others all lived in close proximity.
The South Bottoms neighborhood, 1937, dissected by the nearly-finished Grand Ave. Viaduct, a WPA project. The sprawling Swift plant is at the top of the photo
The ethnic and racial diversity that gave Sioux City a flavor it still retains was not accidental, however. Since 1904, when the Cudahy plant broke a strike, many of the foreign-born workers had been brought in as strikebreakers; while other plants encouraged immigrants and migrants from the South because they were willing to work for lower wages. That, in turn, is why many of them had to live in the Bottoms neighborhoods.
Even by 1890, the South Bottoms had been described as “drab and cheerless,” and by the 1930s, city planners judged the area to be a slum of “small, wooden houses on dirt streets surrounded by the thick smells and sounds of stock yards, packing plants, and railroads.” (The city’s “dream” of clearing out the area finally materialized in the 1960s in the form of a flood control project that went straight through the heart of both Bottoms neighborhoods.)
At the same time, however, in the 1950s and 1960s, the labor movement had gained enough solid footing that meatpacking jobs could secure a respectable middle-class lifestyle. I grew up not far from the John Morrell complex in Sioux Falls, S.D. Many of my friends’ fathers worked there, and earned enough that many of their moms could afford to stay home and be full-time homemakers. It was, as people said back then, “good money.”
The John Morrell plant in Sioux Falls. I went past this every day on my way to elementary school.
But it was also hard and dangerous work. I knew people who were suffering from repetitive stress and strain injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome. Just at the point where people were looking forward to retirement, they found themselves scrambling around for new jobs, no longer able to do the cutting and slicing required in meatpacking
Worker safety has never been a priority in the meatpacking industry, then or now. In the 1960s, Iowa Beef Processors (now part of Tyson) started building new plants in small towns across the upper midwest, in large part to break the labor unions and cut pay. Without strong union protection, safety standards also fell. (The trend continues: Meatpackers spend millions a year in bribes to members of Congress, in the form of campaign donations, and in return, Congress continues to weaken worker and food safety rules.)
The calendar has now been turned back a hundred years. Thanks to low wages and dangerous working conditions, the industry depends once again on immigrants, now coming mostly from Latin America, southeast Asia, and east Africa. Some are here legally, some not. Either way, the average consumer doesn’t care what happens to them on the job.
But people do care about the quality of the meat they eat, and from time to time, outbreaks of food poisoning force the industry to give lip-service to product quality.
Such was the case in the early 1900s. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle exposed conditions in the Chicago plants, and the uproar forced Pres. Theodore Roosevelt to act. In 1906, the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, and the Meat Inspection Act were passed, putting various stages of food production under either the F.D.A. or the Dept. of Agriculture (USDA).
Enter Lloyd Hall. His family had deep roots in Chicago. One of his grandfathers came to Chicago in 1837, and became the first pastor of the historic Quinn Chapel A.M.E. church, the first African American church in the city. One of his grandmothers had come to Illinois on the Underground Railroad. Both of Hall’s parents finished high school, unusual for most people in those days, and even more so for African Americans.
Hall was born in Elgin, and grew up in Aurora. In high school, he was an honor student, captain of the debate team, a multi-sport athlete, and graduated in the Top 10 of his class. He went to Northwestern on scholarship, earning a B.S. in Pharmaceutical Chemistry in 1916, followed by a master’s at the Univ. of Chicago.
His degrees were still no protection against racism. After graduation, he was hired by Western Electric after a phone interview. When he showed up for his first day of work, a personnel officer saw him and said, “We don’t take niggers.”
Over the next few years, Hall held a variety of positions, including chief chemist for the Chicago Dept. of Health, and an explosives inspector for the U.S. Ordnance Dept during World War I. In 1919, he married Myrrhene Newsome, a teacher, and the couple settled in Chicago. Finally, in 1925, he became chief chemist for his college lab partner’s company, Griffith Laboratories. He stayed there until his retirement in 1959.
Lloyd Hall (far right) with colleagues at Griffith Laboratories
At Griffith, Hall developed a better way to cure meat, so that the curing process wouldn’t foul the taste, and so that it would be preserved in better condition. He found a way to cure bacon faster–reducing the time from days to hours–and make it taste better in the process. He also worked on ways to preserve spices so that they wouldn’t harbor bacteria. The method is still used to sterilize medical instruments. He also developed ways to keep fats and oils from going rancid. In all, Hall patented dozens of inventions.
In short, if that next bacon cheeseburger doesn’t poison you, thank Lloyd Hall.
Hall wasn’t just a science nerd. He served on the Chicago boards of the NAACP and the Urban League, working for civil rights. After retirement, he served as a consultant to a U.N. food program in Indonesia, and then served on Kennedy’s American Food for Peace Council. He died in Altadena, California, and is buried in the famous Forest Lawn cemetery.
Lloyd Hall is part of the “Products of a Creative Mind” exhibit at the African American Museum of Iowa, in Cedar Rapids.