Porkopolis: Cincinnati's Pork-Producing Past

Cincinnati's pork-producing past still influences the city today.

Today, Cincinnati is known as "The Queen City," but in the 1800s, Cincinnati was "Porkopolis" -- the largest pork-producing city in the world.

After the Revolutionary War, many Americans headed West with their cattle and hogs, across the Appalachian Mountains and along the Ohio River. Beef and pork were shipped down the Mississippi River from Cincinnati to New Orleans as early as 1803, the meat packed on flat boats in the river. In 1818, Elisha Mills opened the first modern-day pork-packing plant in Cincinnati, stuffing the meat in brine-filled barrels for preservation. Salt pork quickly became a U.S. food staple.

Readily available salt, a large immigrant workforce and the system of canals down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers helped the city cement its place in hog-producing heaven. In 1833, more than 85,000 pigs were processed in Cincinnati, and by 1844, 26 different meat-processing plants were located here. Cincinnati was the biggest city in the West by 1850 and quickly earned the nickname "Porkopolis."

The availability of pork byproducts brought other industries to the booming city. Small companies sprang up to process pork by-products into soap and candles, including a little company called Proctor and Gamble that has branched out quite a bit since its founding in 1837.

But the pork industry, while profitable, wasn't always pretty. The canals ran red and German immigrants came home covered in blood. There was no need for trash collection; swine roamed the sidewalks in the Packing House District, eating all the debris.

Cincinnati remained high on the hog until 1862, when Chicago took the lead in pork production. With the Civil War under way, Cincinnati could no longer use the Mississipi River and its canals as a delivery route. Chicago, with its superior rail system, could deliver huge quantities of "the other white meat" to Union troops more quickly.

To remain competitive, some of Cincinnati's pork investors organized the Union Railroad Company Stockyard in 1871, a 50-acre facility that could hold 75,000 animals. Four other leading companies followed suit in the next two years, building adjoining stockyards. Despite the city's efforts, Chicago retained the edge. After 1920, pig packing numbers started to drop off, and the Cincinnati Stockyards finally closed on December 5, 1980.

Just as the pork-producing industry wound down in Cincinnati, Robert Glier created a new pork delicacy -- goetta. When he returned from World War II in 1946, Glier, who trained at his family's butcher shop and apprenticed as a sausage maker at H.H. Meyer Packing Co., opened his own meat shop. He began to sell a version of a traditional German peasant food made of ground meat and pin oats called stripgrutze, literally translating to "dunking grits." Glier added more meat and made the mixture thick enough to sell in a loaf. He called it "goetta," and the breakfast food caught on fast with the locals. Today, Glier's Goetta produces more than 1 million pounds each year -- around 99 percent of which is consumed in greater Cincinnati.

Though the city's stockyards are gone, pigs are still a well-loved symbol of the city. Pigs started to wiggle their way back into Cincinnati culture in 1989, when artist Andrew Leichester proposed a new gateway for Sawyer Point Park to commemorate the city's bicentennial -- a four-winged pig atop a suspension bridge.

People all over town erupted in debate over the suggestion. Were pigs a symbol of the stinky, dirty industry that the city had outgrown? Or were they a whimsical, witty way to capture the city's spirit?

When the city council met to vote on the project, at least three city council members donned pig snouts to show their support. In the end, the idea won out. Pigs can fly -- at least in Porkopolis.

The city was ready for more flying pigs by 2000. After Stockholm and Chicago both did public art projects involving hundreds of decorated cows, Cincinnati-based company Artworks got the idea to do the same thing in Cincinnati -- with lots of decorated pigs to honor our hog-slaughtering heritage.

Local artists and schools decorated 400 4-foot-high fiberglass porkers (many of which had wings), and gave them eye-catching designs and tongue-in-cheek names like Roy Lichtenswine, Alan Greenspam, Elvis Pigsley, Albert Swinestein and local favorite "Phantom of the Slopera." The pigs were bolted all over Cincinnati, Covington and Newport -- sidewalks outside of businesses, inside corporate lobbies and art institutions -- and all the locations were charted on a walkable pig map.

When the Big Pig Gig officially ended in 2001, the city held auctions on E-bay and locally, raising a total of $839,000. "Topigary," which gained notoriety after it was stolen, damaged, recovered and repaired, took top dollar on the local auction block with a $37,500 selling price.

A few of the pigs still decorate the city, and several make the return trip to Porkopolis in spring to greet runners along the route of the annual Flying Pig Marathon -- just one of many more pig-themed events in the Queen City's future.

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