Area’s first slaughterhouse drew surprising response
Published 6:30 pm Tuesday, February 15, 2022
The juggernaut of federal meat inspection was on track to change the historic relationship between Smithfield’s meat packers and area farmers when the year 1936 dawned. It would be two more years before the Meat Inspection Act was amended to include on-farm slaughter of livestock, but there was no time to waste in preparing for it.
P.D. Gwaltney Jr. and Co. had begun constructing its modern abattoir on the north bank of the Pagan River the previous year and expected to open it before the year ended.
On Feb. 9, however, P.D. Gwaltney Jr. died, and events occurred quickly that would dramatically shape Smithfield’s future.
At the time of Gwaltney’s death, Joseph W. Luter Jr. worked for Gwaltney and was his plant manager, deeply involved at that point in the new plant construction.
With Gwaltney’s death, leadership of the company passed to his three sons, P.D. III, Howard and Julius.
There would be little future for Luter with the company and he left. Within months, Luter and his father, Joseph W. Luter Sr., had formed a new corporation, the Smithfield Packing Co.
The Luters opened a packing plant on Smithfield’s wharf down the street from Gwaltney’s in 1937 and began competing for area hogs. Luter’s plant was of the old style, accepting carcasses and butchering them for hams and other meat cuts.
The future was in slaughtering animals under uniform inspection procedures, however, and the new Gwaltney plant was headed in that direction.
Looking back, it would seem natural for everyone in and around Smithfield to have been delighted when P.D. Gwaltney Jr. and Co. opened a federally inspected slaughterhouse.
The Smithfield Times proclaimed the plant opening in its Oct. 22, 1936, edition, calling it a major business development, which it certainly was — the first federally inspected abattoir to be built east of Richmond, in the region that had become Virginia’s peanut-fed hog belt. It was the answer to a dilemma that the region faced. Federal inspection of all hogs slaughtered for resale was soon going to be required. With that change, the system of on-farm commercial hog slaughter was about to end.
Local hog producers reacted with something less than enthusiasm, however. Little more than a year after the October 1936 Gwaltney plant opening, area farmers were meeting with each other and with state extension specialists to talk about the current “crisis in meat marketing.”
While The Smithfield Times never described the “crisis,” on Dec. 9, 1937, it did publish the following on Page 1: “In view of the present situation concerning the sale of farm slaughtered hogs, several prominent Isle of Wight and Nansemond farmers have gotten together to investigate and consider the possibilities of a cooperative slaughter plant in Smithfield.”
Some preliminary plans were made. The farmers were told they could erect a slaughterhouse with a 200-hog daily capacity for $25,000 and could be financed through a Baltimore bank set up specifically to underwrite cooperative ventures, which were all the rage at that time. There was a Virginia Peanut Growers Cooperative, a Cooperative Wool Marketing Program, and plans that also didn’t materialize for a Cooperative Peanut Plant in Smithfield to compete with Suffolk shellers.
The idea was to have hogs slaughtered in an inspected plant. Once the slaughtered hogs had been inspected, farmers could then sell the carcasses to the packing plant of their choice. Though never spelled out in the stories, it had to have been an effort to prevent the Gwaltney plant from becoming the sole purchaser of market hogs in the area, a position that would allow one meat packer to set the regional price of hogs.
In 1938, Congress amended the Meat Inspection Act to include farmers, butcher shops and retail meat dealers. The battle wasn’t over, however, and regional farmers, backed by aggressive — and effective — members of Congress, managed to get temporary exemptions for farm-slaughtered hogs. With the exemption in place, the winter hog kills continued for the time being.
During the period between when the Gwaltney plant opened and the on-farm slaughter was temporarily revived, the idea of a cooperative slaughterhouse appears to have died, for there was no further mention of it in the local paper.
While the Gwaltney plant had opened in 1936, the company was still accepting farm-slaughtered animals and would continue to do so until a plant expansion was built in 1939.
The future was taking shape, but it wasn’t yet fully formed.
John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.