Food poisoning

Farm Forum

The free egg salad sandwiches served at the farm auction on the north edge of Aurora in eastern South Dakota about 1922 was the culprit, ushering in ptomaine poisoning.

Then there was the infamous Ed Ziebarth sale near Elkton in February 1931. At that one, it was the day-old pork and beef sandwiches.

Now, professional food handlers usually provide farm auction sale food served out of portable food kitchens properly inspected and approved.

What happened near Elkton in 1931 may have been even more dicey than the 1922 Aurora ptomaine problem. No one died as a result of either one, but more than 300 became ill during the Ziebarth sale. Many were hospitalized.

They’d all eaten sandwiches and doughnuts, and drank the hot coffee-brewed in a copper wash boiler a couple hours before 240-head of Ziebarth’s sheep, tippy-toed, nervous and bleating, circled the auctioneer.

In planning the sale, something special for lunch to attract a big crowd was desired. So Mr. and Mrs. Ziebarth, with every good intention, boiled pork and beef the night before, and were up late cranking it through a meat grinder while it was still warm.

The meat was slathered on slices of bread and the sandwiches were packed in paper boxes and covered for the night. Physicians later determined that putting the hot sandwiches in the closed cardboard boxes caused the ptomaine to prosper.

Doctors also determined the coffee made in the wash boiler was okay because the boiler was clean as a hound’s tooth.

The next day, the ptomaine-laced sandwiches were handed out at noon. Hundreds attended the sale, proving that serving free food brought out a crowd then as now. The churning ptomaine started to kick in about two and one-half hours after lunch as the sheep were being sold.

Men started dropping in their tracks. It wasn’t long before everyone suspected something was a’kilter. Medical aid was summoned from nearby Elkton and Brookings 20 miles away.

First aid in the form of soda and warm water was administered, but many who came to the sale just for the free lunch had already left the farm and were out there on their own.

A few made it home and wives suspected they’d imbibed in “white lightning.” Some sale goers didn’t get far and returned to the Ziebarth farm. Others stopped at neighbors when the poison hit.

At the Ziebarth farm, sick men sought silent refuge and shelter. They holed up to suffer and vent alone in barns, sheds and haystacks. Following the moans, rescuers found them and they were moved into the farm home for triage. Many were taken to a hospital.

Neighbor ladies were called to help. Mrs. Ziebarth, who was not in good health to begin with, was overcome and in serious condition for many hours. The Ziebarth’s two children were also stricken. Soon, hospitals in Brookings, Lake Benton, Flandreau, Hendricks and Pipestone were filled to the hallways.

About half of the stricken were considered by the attending physicians to be seriously ill, and 100 others were worse off than that.

Eventually, everyone survived with no serious after-effects.

The poisoning did change farm auctions.

A year after the incident, the Elkton printer noticed the absence on the sales bills he was preparing of any mention of “free lunch.”

Instead, sale flyers advertised “a lunch wagon will be on the grounds.”

So in these now prosperous days, it isn’t the egg salad or the beef sandwiches that are to blame for cold sweats and stomach aches. It’s the unbelievable per acre price of land that is making buyers’ guts flutter and heads swim.

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