LIMA — In February 1956, Walter C. Bradley turned 90, an old man with a broken hip confined to his rambling brick home across from Shawnee Country Club. He had outlived his wife and most of his business associates. And he would outlast the company he helped found 55 years earlier.
Bradley was a young man when he arrived in Lima before the turn of the century. Born in 1866 in Kings Ferry, New York, he taught, farmed, worked in the produce business and sold agricultural instruments as a young man. This experience, a 1905 history of Allen County noted, landed him, at the age of 29, a managerial position with Chicago meat-packer Swift & Company. In 1898, he was named manager of Swift & Company’s Lima plant on West Wayne Street.
Like Bradley, Benjamin F. Thomas was a native of New York, having been born in New York City in 1871. “B.F. Thomas was a small child when his parents moved from New York to Sidney, Ohio, and a lad of 12 years when they located in Lima,” according to the county history. “After his school days were past, he became a partner with his father in the butter, egg and poultry business of M. Thomas & Son doing an extensive business and handling large quantities of produce.”
About the time Bradley arrived in Lima to manage the Swift plant, Thomas left the partnership with his father and purchased a meat packing plant on North Main Street which had been owned by H.E. Shutt. Shutt, who died in 1901, stayed on to run the plant while his son, Paul Shutt, worked in it for more than 30 years. Paul Shutt’s son, Harrison Shutt, operates Lima’s iconic Kewpee restaurants.
In 1901, Bradley and Thomas, in association with Ira P. Carnes, D.W. Leichty and A.R. Thomas formed the Lima Pork Packing Company with Thomas as president and Bradley as treasurer. The partnership worked — a June 1919 story in The Lima News referred to them as “Ben Thomas, the Meat King, and his affable partner Walter Bradley” — and the Lima Pork Packing Company soon outgrew its quarters in the 400 block of North Main Street.
“The Lima Pork Packing Co. will start the erection of one of the most modern plants of its kind in the country, within the next few months,” the Lima Times-Democrat reported July 18, 1906, adding that “the old buildings of the pork company’s plant will be razed, and in their stead a modern structure, thoroughly fire-proof, will be erected on the present site, corner Central Avenue and Elm Street.”
A four-story brick and concrete building was erected and added to over the years. For the next five decades the Lima Packing Company dominated the 200 block of South Central Avenue, its presence occasionally upsetting neighbors. Over the years, Thomas and Bradley answered accusations the plant polluted the nearby Ottawa River, was unsanitary as well as the frequent complaints of nearby residents about, as the News reported in 1912, the “obnoxious squeals of pigs and offensive odors emanating from the plant where hogs are slaughtered.”
Animal sounds weren’t the only things that escaped the packing plant. On July 23, 1926, under the headline “MAD BULL RAMS TUBE; FREES DEATH FUMES AT LIMA PACKING CO.,” a News reporter wrote that “an enraged bull” bound for slaughter “broke into the engine room at the plant, made a charge against an ammonia valve and as a result of his depredations, 10 hogs and four cattle succumbed from the fumes, causing a loss estimated at $700.”
During the Christmas shopping season in 1942 “a steer that objected to being slaughtered” escaped and wreaked havoc in the downtown area, “running through store aisles and over porches,” the News wrote on Dec. 8, 1942. “Motorists double-parked their cars and cheered” as a city patrolman perched in the side car of a police motorcycle made a vain attempt to catch it with a makeshift lasso.
Mostly, though, the Lima Packing Company, as it eventually was called, ran smoothly and continued to grow. A story in the Oct. 7, 1934, edition of the News noted that the plant in 1901 had a capacity of 150 hogs and 40 cattle per week while “it now has a capacity of 1,200 hogs, 400 cattle, 75 calves and 50 lambs a week. Also a sausage room, making 50,000 pounds a week is operated.
“The refrigerator trucks leave Lima every day delivering products to surrounding territory and four trucks are used to supply the Lima trade,” the story added. “This company employs 140 men and has a payroll of about $9,500 a week.”
In August of that same year, the News reported, the Lima Packing Company began slaughtering and processing cattle purchased by the government in the drought-stricken western states with the meat being distributed to families forced onto relief by the Great Depression.
The 67-year-old Thomas, whose hand had guided the company from the beginning, died in an Arizona sanitarium in June of 1938, within a week of the death of his wife, Luella. His son, Robert G. Thomas, became vice president and general manager.
When America entered World War II in 1941, the packing company pitched in to help, collecting waste fat to produce glycerine. In a Dec. 16, 1944, story in the News, a spokesman touted the company’s ability to “meet a wartime emergency of 100 percent production with 65 percent manpower.”
In January 1945, the packing company did something for war-weary residents, purchasing 150 young heifers from T.R. Schoonover. “Under the provisions of the sale, the cattle must be butchered here and distributed through the Lima area …,” the News reported, adding, “Schoonover purchased the cattle from a western rancher and kept them on his farms near Elida.” A packing plant employee proclaimed the meat “the best we’ve had in the last four years.”
Postwar price controls put a squeeze on meat supplies and the Lima Packing Company found itself furloughing employees. “Our hands are tied in the present situation,” Robert Thomas told the News on Sept. 15, 1946. “We cannot buy meat at the OPA (Office of Price Administration) ceiling. Our firm and every packer in the country is expending every effort to buy meat and it is an impossibility.” When the price controls were lifted a month later, Thomas told the newspaper, “I feel like I just got out of jail.”
On a Sunday in early June 1949, the 41-year-old Thomas walked into the packing company plant after stopping to ask two employees playing pitch and catch in the parking lot about a baseball game to be played later that day. According to the June 6, 1949, edition of the News, he then went to his office, penned a farewell note, walked up to the roof of the building and dove head-first into the parking lot. The note, the News wrote, “did not contain a salutation or any hint of what prompted his act.”
By the 1950s, a decade which saw the plant shut down by several strikes, Bradley had stepped down as president of the Lima Packing Company, a position he’d assumed on the death of Benjamin Thomas. Bradley died on New Year’s Eve of 1958.
The company he helped found died the year before.
Next week: Pride of Lima and Keystone
Reach Greg Hoersten at email@example.com.