Things That Matter: Wisconsin’s First Farmers’ Packing Cooperative

Things That Matter: Wisconsin’s First Farmers’ Packing Cooperative

From the From Tribune files: Things That Matter in La Crosse County history series
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Things That Matter: Wisconsin’s First Farmers’ Packing Cooperative

In 1914, La Crosse was home to Wisconsin’s and one of the nation’s first meatpacking cooperatives.

In the 1910s, many farmers were dissatisfied with the percentage of commissions that the large packing companies were taking. They felt they received little profit for their hard work.

In the late 1910s, cooperative packing companies were organized in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan and the Dakotas to keep more profit with the farmers.

In 1914, the Farmers’ Cooperative Packing Co. of La Crosse was created. The La Crosse Tribune featured advertisements describing the purchase of stock in the company as “the best 6% investment ever offered to the merchants of La Crosse.”

In June 1914, Albert Miller, a local farmer and livestock buyer, purchased two $100 shares of the company. Miller’s stock certificate pictured here has a fanciful border and a scene of farm animals with the corporate seal of the packing company in the bottom left corner.

More than 2,100 farmers like Miller purchased stock in the company.

The company took over the space formerly used by the Langdon-Boyd Packing Co. at 300 S. Front St., which is the location of The Waterfront Restaurant. The area surrounding Riverside Park was very different from what we know today, with this slaughterhouse next-door in an industrial area.

At the time, revitalizing a former packing plant seemed like a wise decision for the newly formed cooperative. During the summer of 1914, the company appeared to be a great success. Each week the company slaughtered about 300 hogs, 60 cattle, 100 calves and 100 sheep.

Priority was given to shareholders, but any farmer in the area could bring livestock to the cooperative for a better price.

However, the Farmers’ Cooperative Packing Co. of La Crosse closed in December 1916.

After the purchase of the old packing plant, the cooperative found the building and its machinery were in disrepair. The new company paid nearly $125,000 for a structure that apparently was worth less than $30,000. During the first two years, the company spent a great deal of capital on maintenance and repairs. Their funds went dry in 1916.

In 1920, the Farmers’ Cooperative Packing Co. of La Crosse sued the Langdon-Boyd Packing Co. and its significant shareholders for the cost of the plant plus interest for selling the plant at an exorbitant price.

The major shareholders included some well-known La Crosse figures: George Burton, Frank Hixon, Joseph Funke and Carl Michel. Judge Higbee of La Crosse County Circuit Court sided with the La Crosse Farmers’ Cooperative.

But the defendants appealed, taking the case to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

There it was decided that the cooperative had multiple opportunities to inspect the Langdon-Boyd building beforehand and see that it was not worth the sale price. The defendants were found not guilty of the charge of conspiracy and fraud, and Higbee’s verdict was reversed.

The cooperative’s failure was not unique.

Many of the early 20th century packing cooperatives in the United States failed. Some of the packing companies never opened to the public, and others only lasted a few years. A few of the reasons for failure include limited capital, lack of experienced management, and irregular livestock supplies.

Miller’s stock certificate can be seen in the La Crosse County Historical Society’s online collections database.

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