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Economic Development is . . . (increasing the flow) of capital through the community and reducing its leakage.

A Cattle Buyer Story

I heard a good cattle buyer joke out at the sale barn. A cattle buyer was checking into the hospital to undergo a minor surgical procedure.   The admissions nurse was filling out the admissions forms and was asking numerous questions about his health, medical history, and other personal information. Finally, the nurse said, “Sir, this is the last question.  In the event of an emergency, who should we call?” After several seconds of deep thought, he replied… “911”.

As a boy growing on a farm in Massachusetts, Gus took little interest in his studies and consequently left the nearby country school after only eight years (bold but not uncommon back in the 1850’s). During that period he was employed in a number of jobs, finally finding full-time work at the age of 14 in his older brother Noble’s butcher shop. Two years later, at the age of 16, he opened his own butchering business with the help of one of his uncles who loaned him $400.

Gus started small by purchasing cattle at the market in Brighton and drove them to Eastham, a lengthy  ten-day journey. With times being tough – necessity became the mother of invention – he began denying his herds water during the last miles of the trip so that they would drink large quantities once they reached their final destination, effectively boosting their sale weight and enhancing his profit.

An astute cattle-buyer, Gus followed the market steadily westward, risking it all by moving his business in 1875 – to join the influx of meat packers setting up shop in Chicago’s sprawling Union Stock Yards. Starting from scratch he grew his business again and established himself as one of the dominant figures of “The Yards”, and his distinctive delivery wagons became familiar fixtures on Chicago’s streets.

It would have been easy to “ride off into the sunset” with all his company’s success, but he again risked it all and doubled down to develop the first practical ice-cooled railroad car which allowed his company to ship dressed meats to all parts of the country and even abroad. This ushered in the “era of cheap beef” in the United States.

Gus’ meat packing plants were among the first to utilize assembly-line (or in this case, disassembly-line) production techniques. Henry Ford stated in his autobiography My Life and Work that it was a visit to Gus’ Chicago slaughterhouse where he saw the benefit of using a moving conveyor system and fixed work stations.

Gus sought innovative ways to use previously discarded portions of the animals his company butchered. This practice led to the wide scale commercial production of such diverse products as oleo margarine, soap, glue, fertilizer, hairbrushes, buttons, knife handles, and pharmaceutical preparations such as pepsin and insulin.

When Gus died in 1903, his company was valued at between $125 million and $135 million, and had a workforce that was more than 21,000 strong. What an amazing journey by a 16 year old with an eighth grade education and a small $400 loan. As we build our economy here in Tama County through innovation, I salute the most famous cattle buyer in our nation’s history: Gustavus Franklin Swift.


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