Wednesday, 08 May 2013 16:28

Post-war horse plant in Swift Current a success story

Written by  Matthew Liebenberg
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One of the most unusual and successful examples of the co-operative movement on the Canadian prairies took place in Swift Current towards the end of the Second World War when a horse processing plant was established in the city.


The history of the plant and its contribution to the local economy were highlighted during a presentation April 17 by Stephanie Kaduck, who is the Swift Current Museum’s education and public programs co-ordinator.
She was speaking at the launch of the museum’s History Buy the Pint program, which is a new event on the third Wednesday of each month where people can enjoy their happy hour snacks and beverages while listening to an interesting presentation.
The horse processing plant, which was located on South Railway Street West, was a response to the large number of unwanted horses on prairie farms as a result of mechanization and a need for food in war ravaged Europe.
“It was actually what I consider one of the most brilliant business plans that people in this region have ever come up with,” Kaduck said. “The purpose of the co-operative was to create a better market for surplus horses, increase the value of good working horses and to free up pastures for cattle production.”
The Horse Co-operative Marketing Association was incorporated in 1944 under the Saskatchewan Co-operative Marketing Act. The organization used the facility in Swift Current and another one in Edmonton to slaughter horses.
“This was a co-operative of ranchers and farmers,” she explained. “They paid part of their horse’s value for the machinery and operations of the plant and some of that would come back to them.”
Horses were brought in by train or herded from as far away as Alberta to the plant in Swift Current.
“They were apparently well taken care of on the way to the plant and reports said only a handful of horses arrived either dead or crippled,” she said.
Horses were fed and watered inside the corral until they entered the plant. It became a popular hangout place for some young men, who enjoyed the challenge of trying to ride these horses.
The animals were eventually taken up a ramp into the plant, where they were placed in shooting boxes. For one man, it was a task that became too difficult to carry out.
“He went to shoot a young horse to see tears streaming down the horse’s face,” she said. “It cost the man his job because he couldn’t bear to shoot her.”
Dead horses dropped down a trap door into an area where the butchering began. Men used cleavers to split the rib cage and spine and then started to section the meat.
“They would hang the horses on rails,” she explained. “They would take off the front half of the horse and then lower the rails to process the back half.”
A man who worked in the area where the hides were removed told Kaduck he quit after two days without even waiting to receive his pay.
“It was a brilliant business plan and brought a lot of jobs to the city and provided necessary meat, but it wasn’t what we would call a happy place to work,” she said. “People have an easier time slaughtering cattle.”
The plant paid some of the highest wages in the city. Records for one of the maintenance workers indicated he earned $1.02 an hour.
During the facility’s first full year of operation in 1946 it provided employment to about 240 men and women. Employees worked nine hours a day for six days a week.
The official opening of the plant on June 6, 1946, was attended by Saskatchewan Premier Tommy Douglas. In his speech he spoke about the importance of such ventures to keep young men and women in the province.
Pickled horse meat was packed in barrels stamped with the logo of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) and shipped to Belgium. The plant also started to can horse stew for shipment to Poland.
All parts of the horses were processed. Bones were shipped to Winnipeg, where it was turned into fertilizer or bone char, which is used in the sugar refining industry. Meat unfit for human consumption was used for animal food, primarily going to fox ranches.
In 1948, the co-op incorporated under Dominion legislation, which allowed it to sell fresh and frozen meat in Canada. Its name also changed to Canadian Co-operative Processors Limited. The company had to start looking for other markets, as the UNRRA stopped supplying food to Europe.
“Four million cans of horse meat was stored in Swift Current, so they went looking for other markets in Belgian Congo,” Kaduck said. “The cost of shipping and wages were up, but despite this the financial position of the association was sound because they had no capital debt and the plants were owned by 27,000 shareholders by 1949.”
In 1951 the sale of horse meat in Swift Current was approved, but it had to be clearly marked and no other meat could be sold in the same store.
Local resident Jim Aberdeen, who was 18 years old, saw a business opportunity and opened the Equestrian Meat Shop on July 21, 1951. The store was located at 44 Chaplin Street East, just north of the post office.
“The story goes that he had got the idea after eating and enjoying some horse meat,” she said.
“There are lots of stories that I've heard from women who tricked some of their guests into eating horse meat.”
The shop sold roasts at 30 to 35 cents per pound, steaks at 40 to 45 cents per pound and tenderloin at 50 cents per pound. Terms were strictly cash and carry in the city, but orders were shipped to rural areas with payment on delivery.
The Swift Current horse plant was eventually leased to the Quaker Oats Company, which used it to process pet food. In 1955, Quaker Oats purchased the plant and operated it as Alsask Processors.
Fewer horses became available and markets gradually changed, which eventually resulted in the closing of the plant in 1961. During its operation 300,000 animals were processed and $20 million of horse meat was sold.
The plant stood empty for many years before it was demolished in 1979.
“In the years between 1961 and 1979, there were lots of stories about kids who would go in there at night and scare themselves silly running around the plant,” Kaduck said. “So it was probably a good idea when they decided to tear it down.”

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