Thursday, May 2, 2013

Joel W. Kelsey - Politician, Businessman, and Hog Merchant

            Like many nineteenth century men of means, Joel W. Kelsey did many services for Toledo in the nineteenth century.  But it may be that he will be most vividly remembered as a pork processor.  The only letters he wrote that have come down to us speak not of his political career, or his business acumen, but of his work smoking hams, judging the heft of hogs, and selling lard.
            Joel Kelsey (1819-1903) was born in Guilford, Maine.  He drifted westward, first to Port Huron, Michigan, and then in 1841 settled in Toledo.  He first worked in the lumber business, then about the time of the Civil War began farming and gardening.  Not content to simply farm, Kelsey actively participated in the political scene.  A staunch Republican, he served a term as Lucas County treasurer and also was elected a County Commissioner.  He helped buy land for the Wabash Railroad, and, showing that he was not content to sit always at a desk, served as a volunteer fireman for Toledo.

            But it was mainly in the pork business that Joel Kelsey made money.  About the same time he became a farmer, he “engaged in the pork-packing business with Charles A. and F. J. King.”  Kelsey had several partnerships, finally retiring from active business in 1876.  He lived on for many years, finally dying in his son’s home at 2921 Collingwood. 

            If you have ever read The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, you will understand that working in a pork packing facility before the Food and Drug Act of 1905 was not a pleasant experience.  Joel Kelsey wrote of his experiences long before that, but his letters make it clear that pork packing, even at that early date, had its own unusual sights, sounds, and smells.  Because there was no refrigeration at the time, pork was smoked or pickled.  On February 13, 1860, Kelsey wrote:

We have to stay here to smoke Hams & we buy all the Hogs that come along…I am in hopes to sell a lot in pickle….

            Kelsey had to respond to customer demand, even in those days.  On March 1 of the same year, he wrote:

We are smoking Meat all the time & sell Hams as fast as we can get them out.  The shoulders do not sell much…..

            A hog is a versatile animal, but a butcher will tell you that a shoulder is mostly fat and gristle.  Not surprisingly, Toledoans in 1860 seemed to prefer hams to shoulders.  Fortunately, Kelsey had other options, and on February 2, he wrote mentions selling lard :

I sold all other Lard this week at 10 cts [per pound].  We are smoking much as fast as possible. . . . 

            Joel Kelsey could not have foreseen that pork packing would be his life’s main work.  Whether it was because of disappointing sales or the constant hustle and noise is hard to say.  On January 24, 1860, he reported

The markets of [sic] Hogs have fallen off very much of late & the chance is that the business is about done….
            And on February 13 he sounded defeated and disgusted:

If we had our Hams & Shoulders disposed of I should close up the House.

But like many businessmen, he was more optimistic than pessimistic:

We have got a good name for smoked meats…..

            Joel Kelsey was a politician, fireman, and farmer.  But perhaps we should best remember his role in keeping ham on the table of Toledoans.  Toledo was never quite the “hog butcher of the world,’ as Carl Sandburg famously said of Chicago, but thanks to Joel Kelsey, Toledo could count on ready supply of pork.

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