Saturday, August 08, 2015

Ham sandwiches for 12,000: The big Morrell picnic

The John Morrell & Co. plant in Ottumwa as it looked at some point between World War I and World War II.

Once upon a time, Ottumwa's John Morrell & Co. was the south of Iowa's biggest employer. During 1900, the meatpacker's average daily workforce ranged between 1,000 and 1,200, depending upon workload.

On Thursday, Aug. 23, 1900, they all came to Chariton for a picnic in the city's brand new South Park. Yikes!

Their families came along, too. That brought the crowd to about 5,000. So did some 4,000 other folks from across the region. And much of Lucas County was there, too. The people total now ranged between 10,000 and 12,000. Yikes, again.

A wonderful time was was being had by all. Then, at midafternoon, the sky opened and it rained buckets and everyone got soaked to the skin. Ouch.

It is very difficult sitting here on a Chariton hilltop 115 years later to wrap one's head around all of this. But in many ways, life was more astonishing then than now.


Although the Chariton event was the largest on record, these Morrell picnics and excursions had been going on since 1886, the brainchild of Thomas Dove Foster, grandson of George Morrell, who had founded the enterprise in Bradford, Yorkshire, England, during 1827.

T.D., as he was known, brought the American end of the meatpacking operation from Chicago to Ottumwa during 1877 and in 1887 became chairman of both American and English divisions. He remained firmly in control, headquartered in Ottumwa, until his death during 1915. After his death, the picnics were discontinued.

T.D. was intensely paternalistic with regard to his workforce. He wanted to be considered his employees' friend and did his best to ensure that they were adequately paid, well housed, well fed, well entertained upon occasion --- and Christian --- preferably of the protestant evangelical kind. He was a great friend of Dwight Moody, leading evangelist of the time.

Before the excursion to Chariton during 1900 previous picnic destinations had included Eldon, Agency, Oskaloosa, Bloomfield and Grinnell. But Chariton would be the granddaddy of them all.

These picnics not only were perks for workers, they also were wonderful public relations gestures on all sorts of levels. Here's how they worked:

Workers and their families boarded trains chartered from the C.B.&Q. during the early morning in Ottumwa. All the workers were paid for the day as if they were working in the plant (the skeleton crew that remained behind was paid double). Refrigerator cars carried provisions sufficient to feed all the workers and their families. 

Morrell and host city officials worked together to ensure a day full of entertainment. These events were widely publicized and everyone in the region was welcome to join the workers for the day, paying their own transportation costs (a special 50-cent round-trip fare linked Chariton and Ottumwa) and rounding up their own meals. There was a good deal of money to be made in host towns as hotels, restaurants, churches and other civic groups sold meals and other amenities to the tag-along crowd. 

Chariton officials, armed with a brand new city park, had actively courted Morrell during the spring of 1900, inviting its officials to the city for a tour --- and scored.


The first train from Ottumwa, 12 coaches loaded with more than a thousand men, women and children, pulled into town at 8:40 a.m. on Thursday the 23rd, a day that had dawned cool and clear. Special platforms had been constructed at the Seventh Street crossing in southeast Chariton, nearest to the park, and the train stopped there first. Most disembarked and followed the city's new boardwalks into South Park where vendors were ready for them and the town band, the City Guard, already was playing.

Luminaries and those more interested in what was going on around the square than in the park remained on the train, which continued to the depot where an official welcoming delegation was awaited. Dignitaries were taken to the park by carriage.

Four more trains from Ottumwa followed the first into town --- at 30-minute intervals. In all, the five trains were composed of 52 coaches bearing people and three refrigerator cars bearing food.

Chariton's town band was joined in the park as more trains arrived by the 40-member Wapello Chief band and the Washburn Mandolin Band, both of Ottumwa. As the morning progressed, thousands of others joined the workers in the park or on the square. When all was said and done, The Chariton Herald estimated the day's crowd at 10,000; The Chariton Democrat, at 12,000.


Promptly at 11:30 a.m. Chariton Mayor George W. Alexander introduced the city's most eloquent orator, attorney James A. Penick, who provided the opening address from the South Park bandstand. The response, on behalf of the Morrell workers, came from Maj. Thomas P. Spilman, Civil War veteran and chief livestock buyer for John Morrell & Co.

At the close of the remarks, Spilman proposed three cheers for the people of Chariton and the C.B.&Q. for facilitating the picnic. Mayor Alexander then proposed three cheers for the Morrell employees and the people of Ottumwa. The program closed with several rousing band numbers.

Then --- dinner was served. Picnic meals for the Morrell workers and their families had by this time been transported from train to park, many non-employees had brought their own picnic baskets and there were various stands on the park grounds where meals could be purchased.

Others headed for the square where they found an abundance of food, too. Here's a rundown of what Charitonians were offering as reported in The Herald of August 30:

"Besides the hotels and restaurants, the Ladies' Benevolent Society of the Baptist church served a warm dinner in the basement of their church, the Epworth League of the M.E. church served sandwiches and coffee on the picnic grounds, the men of the Presbyterian church served a lunch at the Armory, St. Andrews' Guild of the Episcopal church served ice cream and cake on F.R. Crocker's lawn and the Christian Endeavor Society of the Christian church served ice cream in Mr. Waugh's yard."

Following lunch, there was more music by the Wapello Chief and City Guard bands commencing at 2:30 p.m. Also, to the alleged delight of the audience, Miss Ceora Laugham recited "The Celebration at Jonesville" and Miss Alice McDonald, "Old Daylight." The two young ladies were captivating, according to The Democrat.

And then the games began.

Up on the track at the fairgrounds in north Chariton (transportation available), regional bicycle races were under way. On the playing field in the park, the Iowa Prides of Ottumwa and Twin City boys of Cleveland and Lucas squared off in baseball. The cake walk went off without a hitch.

And then the skies opened in dramatic fashion --- and everyone got soaked to the skin.

Baseball play ended after three innings with the score tied 3-3 and bicycle races ended when the fairgrounds track flooded. The tug of war, potato races, sack races and a balloon ascension were, alas, cancelled.

Trains were scheduled originally to depart on the return trip to Ottumwa at 5:30 p.m., but now that everyone was thoroughly soaked, the first train pulled out of the yards and began to pick up passengers down on South Seventh at 4 p.m. with the remaining trains following at regular intervals until all the Ottumwa guests were on their way home.

Other than the rain, the day was pronounced a great success. There had been no accidents and no misbehavior. "Chariton never entertained a more orderly crowd than that which gathered here last Thursday," The Democrat opined.

There had been a couple of narrow misses involving strong drink, however. Just before lunch on Thursday, Sheriff Manning had discovered that beer was being dispensed in one of the tents on park property. The tent was immediately taken down and the beer destroyed.

The evening before, a car load of beer apparently headed to Chariton for sale to Morrell merrymakers had been confiscated at Russell. That same evening, 14 barrels of beer were captured near the picnic grounds.

"The prompt action on the part of the officials is to be commended," The Democrat pronounced.

Details of the great Morrell picnic are taken primarily from Aug. 30, 1900, editions of both The Chariton Herald and The Chariton Democrat.

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