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Encyclopedia Dubuque


"Encyclopedia Dubuque is the online authority for all things Dubuque, written by the people who know the city best.”
Marshall Cohen—researcher and producer, CNN

Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.


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Aerial view of the Dubuque Packing Company. Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
New refrigerated railroad cars introduced by the company in 1952. Photo courtesy: Telegraph Herald
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. (1) 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. (2) Harry Wahlert was the president. (3) 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 separate from the other parts of the building. (4) 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. (5)

Photo courtesy: Jim Massey
Photo courtesy: Jim Massey

By the 1950s, Dubuque Packing Company was the city's second largest employer. (6) In the 1960s the company's workforce reached 3,500. Annual sales in the 1970s supported a payroll of $20 million. (7) The end of the 1970s saw thousands of people dependent on Dubuque Pack either directly or indirectly; wages won through negotiations were among the highest paid in the city. 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. At its peak, the company's sales approached $2 billion and it had 12 plants. It was the 3rd largest beef slaughter in the United States. (8)

The company was also recognized for the quality of its products. In 1960 and 1961 the company won gold medals at the California state fairs for their canned hams. The company also became one of the largest suppliers of kosher meat in the United States. (9)

Dubuque Packing Company advertising. Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
Employee identification badge.
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 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 where 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 including a reduction of base pay from $10.69 to $9.00. When the union allowed a deadline to pass without voting on a previous wage-cut proposal, the company laid off 530 workers. Union officials charged the company with unfair labor practices and filed suit with the National Labor Relations Board. (10)

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.

On May 12, 1982 United Food and Commercial Workers Local 150-A members voted to reject the company's latest 11-point benefit and concessions package. Mel MAAS stated the workers "had enough and decided the company was going to close the plant regardless." After the vote was taken, company president Chuck Stoltz was nearly hit by an eleven gallon pail of dye as he walked from the headquarters. The concessions would have included a drop of base wages from $9.00 to $8.00, a loss of a week in vacation time, a limit on yearly vacations to three weeks, and an increase in worker payment of their medical insurance. (11)


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 the 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 in Rochelle, Illinois and Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Dubuque plant; and fleur-de-lis trademark to Robert Henry WAHLERT and the newly created FDL FOODS INC., for $30.5 million. (12) 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. Arguments continued with Local 150-A over health insurance and pension benefits.

In 1984 a district court ruled that the company had to pay full retirement benefits to eligible employees. When the company was sold, officials indicated that they wanted to take away some of the employees health, medical, and insurance benefits. The court ruled that the company should comply with an arbitrator's decision in 1983 and pay the fees of the attorney representing the union. (13)

In 1985 the headquarters was moved to Omaha, Nebraska to be more centrally located to its other plants which were processing primarily beef at that time. The company again flourished and was later sold in a leverage buyout to BeefAmerica, a firm controlled by Eli Jacobs. Its gelatin operations were sold to the French company SANOFI BIO INDUSTRIES. BeefAmerica went out of business in 1998 following a recall and a strike.

America's unions received an important announcement on June 14, 1991 as a result of company actions taken at the packing company. The National Labor Relations Board, in a unanimous ruling, found that the Dubuque Packing Company had violated federal labor law by refusing to negotiate with union workers over the movement of the hog kill operations from Dubuque to Rochelle, Illinois. (14)

The U. S. Court of Appeals said that the case posed "hard questions--some of the most polarizing questions in contemporary labor law." It then referred the case back to the NLRB for clarification of the bargaining obligation issue. The ruling placed the burden of proof on the employers as to why they should be free of bargaining with their unions when they chose to relocate. (15)

FDL officials announced in July, 1993 that there was an agreement to supply Hormel Foods Corporation with pork products through 1998. This, however, only lasted until July 27, 1995 when Hormel announced it would stop buying in September. The Dubuque plant was closed and 925 workers, half of its workforce, was laid off. (16)

FDL officials believed they had a buyer for the plant, only to see FARMLAND FOODS INC. pull out the negotiations. The following week FDL and Iowa Beef Producers, Inc. announced a tentative agreement. The closing date for the purchase, however, passed without news. On January 24, 1994 IBP reduced its bid for the plant from $15 million to $9.9 million. IBP officials later sued claiming that Wahlert had verbally agreed to the deal. On April 1 1996 a federal court judge ruled IBP did not have sufficient proof. While the case proceeded, local economic development officials resumed talks with Farmland. An agreement was signed in February, 1996 and production resumed in September 1996 until 2001. (17)

John Morell & Company, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, purchased the plant in June, 2000 with the stated intention of refurbishing and reopening the plant. However Smithfield decided not to proceed with either remodeling or reopening the plant. This led to the belief that it only purchased the plant to remove competition from the market. (18)

The former Dubuque Packing Company plant sat empty for four years. In 2003, Wal-Mart expressed interest in the site for a second supercenter. When the city decided against supplying tax incentives, Wal-Mart chose not to proceed with the project.

In 2005 local developer Wayne BRIGGS purchased the plant and thirty acres and announced his plans to tear down the plant and redevelop the site as a shopping center. This new shopping center would have national retailers and would give the northeastern parts of the city more shopping options. The Dubuque County zoning board gave their approval to the plans and on March 21, 2005 the city council approved the rezoning of the site. (19)

By October 1, 2006, the buildings were totally demolished. For a brief period of time, the land was the source of interest from the DUBUQUE COMMUNITY SCHOOL DISTRICT which wanted to construct a new middle school on the site. In 2020 much of the land remained undeveloped.



Dubuque Packing Company glass showing the Dubuque plant. Photo courtesy: Daniel Pawlak
Dubuque Packing Company glass showing decoration. Photo courtesy: Daniel Pawlak
Dubuque Packing Company glass showing the South San Francisco plant. Photo courtesy: Daniel Pawlak
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
Photo courtesy: Joe Jacobsmeier
Company truck.



1. Gilligan, Amy. "Rise and Fall of Dubuque Packing Company," Telegraph Herald, November 10, 2008, p. 37

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

3. Ibid.

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

5. Wikipedia

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. "Dubuque Pack Workers Agree to Wage-Cut Proposals," The Daily Reporter, October 20, 1981. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1907&dat=19811020&id=-mErAAAAIBAJ&sjid=idkEAAAAIBAJ&pg=1342,1129987&hl=en

11. "Dubuque Pack to Close," The Daily Reporter, May 12, 1982. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1907&dat=19820512&id=oWMrAAAAIBAJ&sjid=pdkEAAAAIBAJ&pg=2983,2256088&hl=en

12. Gilligan

13. "Retirement Benefits Settled," The Daily Reporter, April 27, 1984. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1907&dat=19840427&id=lGYrAAAAIBAJsjid=99gEAAAAIBAJ&pg=2893,2158783&hl=en

14. "Union Wins on Plant Moves," The Tuscaloosa News, June 16, 1991, Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1817&dat=19910616&id=vDgdAAAAIBAJ&sjid=06UEAAAAIBAJ&pg=5893,3892826&hl=en

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid.

17. Gilligan

18. Ibid.

19. Ibid.

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