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Encyclopedia Dubuque



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Aerial view of the Dubuque Packing Company. Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
The early Dubuque Packing Company. Photo courtesy: Bob Reding

DUBUQUE PACKING COMPANY. Once one of Dubuque's largest employers, the Dubuque Packing Company began with the merger in June 1891 of the Dubuque Butchers' Association and the Dubuque Packing and Provision Company. The new corporation, named the Dubuque Packing Company, began business on July 1, 1891, with a capitalization of $50,000. The directors were Charles J. W. SAUNDERS, C. Steiber, L. Reinecke, and Christian Schmidt.

In 1931 the local meat supplier was purchased by H. W. (HARRY) WAHLERT and St. Louis interests from the Christian Schmitt family for $180,000 when it employed only sixty people. The new firm was incorporated for $400,000 with $300,000 in common stock and $100,000 in preferred. (1) Harry Wahlert was the president, B. M. Paar was vice-president and treasurer, and Fred Krey of St. Louis was another vice-president. (2) Before its reopening, the plant underwent a massive renovation including the installation of special tables with "mono-metal" tops, extra windows, extra refrigeration, and the construction of rooms where hides and other inedibles were kept from separate from the other parts of the building. (3) Growing rapidly through the Great Depression, largely through Wahlert's guidance, "the Pack" produced canned hams, the first American food product to be exported after WORLD WAR II. Dubuque also became one of the largest producers of kosher meats in the United States.

Photo courtesy: Jim Massey

By the 1950s, Dubuque Packing Company was the second largest employer in the city. In the 1960s the company's workforce reached 3,500. Annual sales in the 1970s supported a payroll of $20 million. The end of the 1970s saw thousands of people dependent on Dubuque Pack either directly or indirectly, and wages won through negotiations were among the highest paid in the city. In 1978 the company was listed in an issue of "Dun's Review" as the fifteenth largest private company in the United States. Annual sales were estimated at $796 million.

Dubuque Packing Company advertising. Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
Employee identification badge.
Other facts about the company were equally impressive. Dubuque Pack was the first United States producer to export food products, canned hams, to Italy following WORLD WAR II.

Canned hams produced by Dubuque Pack won the first gold medal for the best hams at the 1960 and 1961 California state fairs. During peak production, nine thousand hogs could be processed daily. A little known fact was that Dubuque Pack was one of the nation's largest producers of kosher meat. The address in 1941 for the meat market in Dubuque was 799 E. 16th.

In 1980 "the Pack" was a major force in the economy of Dubuque, one of nine cities nationwide in which the company had plants. Workers "on the line" earned an average of $25,000 in annual wages plus an additional $11,000 in fringe benefits according to company estimates. This included an average of five weeks of vacation per year.

Letterhead: Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
Years of service pin.
In 1980 the company claimed to have lost $9.9 million primarily through its beef operations. Of the 115 men working in the beef kill, the youngest had 21 years of seniority resulting in a large number of benefits the company had to pay. The company wanted the production standard increased from 115.8 head of cattle per hour increased to 160. Union officials noted that with incentive pay, the workers were already slaughtering more than 115.8 but not 160. Union officials acknowledged that the company could build a one-story facility increasing efficiency over the five-story Dubuque plant were carcasses had to be moved from floor to floor. They also agreed that the company would probably gain from property tax concessions from any community near a new plant and that younger workers would cost less.
Company police badge.

Blaming a changing market, high wages, and inefficient equipment, the company asked for wage and benefit concessions and closed parts of the Dubuque plant promising only to "maintain a presence" in Dubuque. The hog kill was closed in 1981 with a loss of 1,400 jobs.

In April 1982, officials of Dubuque Packing Company announced they would close the Dubuque plant on October 16th. This action had the potential of creating unemployment for 1,200 workers and possibly raising Dubuque's unemployment rate to 17.3 percent.


News of the closing caught city officials by surprise. Union workers at the Pack had taken a 15.8 percent cut in pay and health insurance and given up some vacation time in October 1981 to keep the plant open. The City had given the company a 20 percent reduction in its property tax assessment on buildings in addition to a 38 percent reduction in its machinery assessment. Company officials would not discuss potential sale of the plant in the announcement.

Dubuque Pack being demolished in May 2006

In the fall of 1982, amid charges of union busting, the company sold the pork operation, Dubuque plant, and fleur-de-lis trademark to Robert Henry WAHLERT and the newly created FDL FOODS INC., for $30.5 million. The sale resulted in approximately five hundred employees being forced to accept lower wages or early retirement.


After the sale, Dubuque Packing Company moved its offices to the DUBUQUE BUILDING and kept a low news profile. Arguments continued with Local 150 over health insurance and pension benefits.


Playing card showing the California branch of the company
Tie tack service award.
Paper hat worn by employees. Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
Bridge score pad. Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
Napkin. Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
Metal tag. Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
Railroad car bearing the Dubuque Packing Company advertisement.
Image courtesy: David Atchison
Dubuque Pack was the "Home of the Plumper."
Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
Unique packing container.
Cloth ham bag.
Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
Advertising paper hat.Photo courtesy: Bob Reding



1. "Packing Firm Incorporated for $400,000," Telegraph-Herald and Times-Journal, July 12, 1931, p. 4

2. Ibid.

3. "Dubuque Packing Company Plant is Scene of Great Activity," Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, November 1, 1931, p. 19

'The Pack" Changes. Quad City Times, July 20, 1980, p. 9a