The late Dr. Robert Atkins, proponent of a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet, would be proud. We’re talking about meat, folks. Think venison saddles, Russian sardines, mutton, herring, pork, Lake Superior trout, beef, ham, salmon, sausage, chicken, smoked white fish, lutefisk, veal, and bacon. “Fresh, salt, smoked and dried”, the county’s meat markets bought and sold all of these, plus a few, to Morrison County residents by the 1870s.
Hunters were encouraged to bring their venison saddles to places like Maurin & Medved’s or Leon Houde’s store, where they claimed to pay “the highest price” for them. On December 15, 1880, the Stillwater Gazette reported that Leon Houde shipped “fifteen tons of venison saddles. And on the same day Maurin & Medved purchased 7,000 pounds.” That’s a lot of deer.
Farmers could also sell their chickens, beef cattle, and hogs to meat markets in the early days of the county. Not so anymore. According to Clarence “Butch” Psyck, owner of Psyck’s Market in Bowlus, unless a meat market is federally inspected, it is not allowed to purchase meat from local farmers for sale to customers. State-inspected meat markets have to buy their meat from federally-inspected processing facilities. Meat markets can, however, go to farms to slaughter animals. The Psyck family has a trailer specifically for this purpose.
Even past meat markets didn’t slaughter animals in their retail stores. The Moeglein Meat Market, which was located in downtown Little Falls, had a slaughterhouse east of town, as did Charlie Sprandel. Union Meat Market, located on the west side of Little Falls and owned by the Wilczek family, had a slaughtering facility at Peter Wilczek’s farm west of town on Highway 27.
Once animals were slaughtered and butchered, either by the farmer or a butcher, the meat needed to be preserved until it could be eaten. In the pre-electricity, pre-refrigeration days, people had ingenious ways of keeping meat. Little Falls’ resident, Bill Gablenz, related some ways to preserve meat. Butchering of cows was done in the fall and winter months because the natural cold helped to keep the large amount of meat fresh. Chickens could be butchered anytime. Neighboring families shared a hog, each taking half, at the beginning of summer and before threshing time. A half-a-hog didn’t last long, according to Bill, because people ate meat often, commonly for all three meals of a day.
Meat was canned on the farm, especially beef from a cow that had to be slaughtered out-of-season. Pork was salted and smoked; bacon was salted, but not smoked. Meat kept for quite a while if it was salted.
Butch Psyck explained the current ham-curing process. Brine, made of water, ten-percent salt, and other flavorings such as brown sugar, is squirted into a ham using a ham pump. If a ham weighs twenty pounds, the ham is pumped until it weighs twenty-two pounds. Then a dry salt brine is rubbed on the exterior of the ham and it cures for ten days. After this, the ham is put into cold water for three-and-a-quarter hours. It is then hung in a smoke house until it reaches 145 degrees Fahrenheit. At this point, the ham is cured and can be sold.
Meat could also be kept in a wooden cooler that during the summer months held milk cans. Water was pumped through the cooler to keep the milk cool. In the winter, a layer of ice formed on the bottom of the cooler. Meat was packed into the cooler (with milk cans removed) and the ice preserved it.
Meat markets and some creameries had meat lockers that people could rent. Union Meat Market’s meat lockers were located in the basement of the building and were cooled with ice pulled from the Mississippi River. The Wilczeks had their own ice house in back of their market. The Freedhem Creamery also had rented lockers; these with locks on each so that people could collect their meat at any time of the day.
Lockers weren’t the only feature of early meat markets. Sawdust, butcher blocks, and cleavers could be seen in them. Sawdust was sprinkled on the floor to catch meat drippings and inhibit odors. Butcher blocks and cleavers served as the butcher’s team in cutting meat. The Wilczeks had two butcher blocks in their market, each of them two-feet thick. Every night, butchers swept up sawdust and scraped their blocks clean.
Sawdust and butcher’s blocks have since retired. Now, stainless steel counters and composite rubber-plastic cutting boards are used in place of wooden blocks. High-pressure sprayers keep meat market floors clean instead of sawdust. The Psycks’ original cleaver (also called a hatchet by Butch) is no longer in use. It hangs on the wall near the back of the store; its flattened top edge showing some of its history. Dorothy, Butch’s mother, was a slight woman and needed to pound a hammer on top of the cleaver in order to slice through bone. Saws and knives are now used for cutting meat.
The tools of the butchering trade and electrical refrigeration were not the only changes seen in meat markets. Over time, meat markets added other groceries to their line of meats. Bill Gablenz remembers the awe he felt at walking into Moeglein’s Market and seeing hundreds of bananas hanging from their natural stem. Eventually, the grocery business consumed most county meat markets and meat departments became a secondary feature of grocery stores. A couple of notable exceptions in the county are Theilen Meats in Pierz and Little Falls, and Morey’s, a seafood emporium, in Motley. Of course, for Butch Psyck, meat is still of prime importance to his market and Dr. Robert Atkins would certainly agree.
by Mary Warner
Copyright 2003, Morrison County Historical Society