Plants of the past

Farm Forum

Fifty years ago, the Independence Day holiday probably meant a trip to your town’s ice-cold locker plant.

You needed some ice to make your home-made ice cream, and you picked from your meat locker a few frozen hot dogs or hamburgers for your picnic dinner.

The other day I asked a young person I figured to be about 35 if her hometown still had a locker plant.

She said it did. I asked her if it still rented lockers. She got a curious look on her face. “What?” she asked quizcally.

That told me she assumed meat processing plants were “locker plants,” which isn’t necessarily so, although I think most older people still refer to meat markets as locker plants.

Locker plants are a thing of the past. Most families now have combination refrigerator-freezers in the kitchen and a chest type freezer in the hallway.

But in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, that probably wasn’t the case. Most folks had one of those old wooden ice boxes that circulated cool air from a chunk of melting slough ice on its upper shelf.

It kept food cool, but not frozen. And when the ice block melted, the town’s ice man cometh. He chipped out another block from his ice wagon, and neighborhood kids flocked to rescue the clear, cool ice chips that flew from his chipper and ice saw on to the road.

A little ice on a hot summer’s day was a real treat.

In the 1930s, some meat market owners saw a niche business. They bought some cork or other insulating material and installed lockers that the icebox crowd rented for a couple of bucks a month to keep their meats and vegetables frozen until needed.

At that time, chemicals that could lower temperatures were just being harnessed commercially for food preservation. But a kitchen convenience to freeze food still needed tweaking.

In 1937, a newspaper advertisement in South Dakota newspapers urged residents to chuck their ice box for a new appliance called a refrigerator. A $199.95 Montgomery Ward model could make 84 ice cubes.

The price was budget busting. The $15 ice box with a fifty cent hunk of lake ice in its top shelf was good enough for most edibles.

So many butchers, probably one in your town, jumped at the opportunity to fill the frozen food void. For a few dollars residents could rent a locker, buy meat in halves or quarters, have the butcher package it in consumable amounts, and freeze and store it for later use.

In the 1930s and before that, slaughtering and butchering wasn’t the challenge. It was storing the harvest. A farmer who slaughtered a steer needed a number of customers to buy parts of it, or it went to waste except in the freezing winter.

The harvested meat had to be eaten quickly, canned, dried, heavily salted or mixed with preserving seasonings.

Rather than a farmer hauling a critter to these meat market-locker plants, plant, butchers loaded their butchering tools and headed to the farm, butchering the animal hung from barn beam or tree limb. It was called farm butchering.

The harvested meat was hauled to town and frozen solid.

By the middle of the last half of 1900s, nearly every kitchen had a freezer capability, so the locker plant became history.

Now, many communities have meat processing plants, and perhaps keep a few lockers around to keep their custom and USDA inspected butchered animals until the customer picks them up for home storage.

I’ll bet some of the elders in your family still refers to the refrigerator as the “ice box.”

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