22 November 2014

Prairie Chicken Trade of Iowa in Early 1860s

D.B. Beemer. March 1892. The Game trade. The prairie chicken trade of Iowa thirty years ago - how it was handled - a dealer's experience with grouse - one of the first freezers in New York City. Ice and Refrigeration Illustrated 2(3): 188-189. Continued in April, 2(4): 271-272.

Thirty years ago the game trade was restricted to shipments by express to the large markets from comparatively near-by hunting ground, during the spring and fall migrations of the birds; Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington depending upon the gunners of the coast inlets and bays, from Cape Cod to Chesapeake bay — the latter, then, as now, furnishing that unapproachable grade of celery-fed canvas back, red head and other ducks. About that time, however, a new feature of the trade developed. Railroads were pushing their way westward across Iowa from the Mississippi river, and towns and villages were springing up at intervals along these lines, while farm settlements were developing in clumps along them to a distance of ten miles on either side. Iowa, at that time, was the banner "Prairie Chicken" state. The birds were so plentiful that they occasioned serious loss to the farmers by their marauding inroads upon the crops of small grain in the early part of the season, while later, they stripped the corn from the ear, as it stood uncut in the "hill" in the fields, as it often did, all winter.

To these corn fields in the winter time, the grouse resorted in great numbers to feed, and when alarmed would rise in such immense "packs" that the noise of their wings in their labored rising would sound like distant thunder.

But a farmer of an inventive turn of mind contrived a box trap into which the birds could readily get while reaching for feed, but from which they could not find their way out. It proved so effective in stocking the farmer's larder with fresh meat, that it soon came into general use. The "catch," however, became so large that the farmers were unable to use all the birds; and in casting about for a way to get rid of them, it naturally occurred to them to take them to town, like poultry, and trade them off for groceries, etc. Some speculative shipper, seeing a surplus of these hard-frozen game birds lying about, was led to ship them by freight to Chicago, and the profits resulting proving large, others took hold of the trade; and buyers and shippers were to be found in all the larger towns having tributary farms to furnish the stock. Thus encouraged by a home market and cash for the birds, the farmers went into the business of trapping grouse as a business by putting out large numbers of traps, which they attended much as a fisherman attends his hooks set through holes in the ice in winter time. These traps were made of lath; were about four feet square and a foot deep; and when full would hold from two to three dozen birds. The traps being open at the bottom, where they rested on the ground, it sometimes happened that when the grouse in a trap saw a man coming toward them, they would get into such a fluttering panic that they would raise the trap bodily from the ground sufficiently for the bulk of them to escape before he could reach them.

With enlarged offerings shippers were forced to enlarge their operations. By packing the hard frozen grouse into tight barrels, they were able to reach the Boston and New York markets with them; and these markets in turn, accumulating surplus stock, reshipped quantities of them to the Liverpool English market. In the course of two or three seasons, this trade had grown to proportions which the present generation of shippers will scarcely deem possible. Cedar Rapids, on the Chicago & North-Western R.R., and Independence, on the then Dubuque & Sioux City, R.R., were the largest shipping points, and often shipped grouse in car load lots, the latter sometimes making special shipments of three and four car loads of grouse at a time. Small fortunes were made — and lost, sometimes, in the trade through the risks incurred and the loss resulting from the thawing out and spoiling of grouse while in transit, and the glutting of eastern markets by them and consequent low prices.

As an example, I will relate the experience of a man at Independence, Iowa, in 1863. He was a banker, and at the same time did a shipping produce trade, while in common with others he was buying and shipping prairie chickens. Incidentally, one day he offered a speculative curbstone operator $1.50 per dozen for what "chickens" he could bring him, intending that the offer should cover such casual lots of grouse as the other man would be able to pick up off the street. But the latter had enlarged views upon the subject; and after obtaining the contract in writing, he drove around the country, visiting farmers and trappers and contracting with them, in turn, to pay them cash for all the grouse they could bring him, at any price he could secure below his own contract price. Then he went back and waited for his birds to come in, which they soon did — by sled loads, the sleds often being supplemented by hay racks on them, piled high with frozen grouse! He coolly piloted these sleighs around to the place of business of the other man and dumped the birds upon him on his contract.

This naturally surprised him, but he contented himself for a time with receiving the birds and shipping steadily out of them, day by day, to eastern markets. His shipping room was 20 x 60 feet, and he kept three men at work on them, who kept stacking the surplus receipts behind them at the rear end of the store from the floor to the ceiling. Gradually this surplus crowded them toward the front door, till finally the store was full and they had no room to work in. They then adjourned to a warehouse he had down on the railroad track, and continued operations there!

By that time the banker became alarmed, and tried to get the contractor to let him off, but the contractor, Shylock-like, insisted upon the conditions of his "bond" (contract). The bank then had some hundreds of barrels of grouse on the way from Boston to Liverpool, reshipped to that port on his order by the Boston consignee, because all eastern markets were flooded with grouse and demoralized, while he had yet hundreds of barrels there and on the road to those cities, beside large quantities in his warehouse and store room at home. The banker "threw up his hands" and refused to receive any more birds on the contract. Arbitration was mutually agreed upon between them, and the arbitrators ruled that though the letter of the contract allowed the delivery of an unlimited number of birds at the price named, yet it was evident, from the nature of the case, that it was not intended to cover such extensive operations, and that there was neither justice nor equity in enforcing it farther, in short, they declared the contract "off" and released the banker from that dilemma.

But it was too late to save him. His eastern shipments sold at a big loss, and the eastern markets being glutted for a long time, he was forced to hold a big stock at home while waiting for the markets to clean up and recover prices. While doing this spring opened and his birds thawed out, so that he was forced ultimately to ship by express at high rates. This was slow work, and eventually a large part of these holdings spoiled on his hands. He lost $10,000 in the "round up," and his banking capital went to fill the hole. this happened before the days of cold storage. If such storage had been available at that time, it would have saved this man, and many others, such disastrous losses.

I operated in frozen grouse at Independence the following season. The previous winter had been one of deep snow, forcing the birds to the cornfields for food, and hunger had driven them into the traps in such multitudes that they glutted and demoralized he markets as described. The "catch" had been so large that the crop of trapped birds the following season was of diminished proportions, which led in turn to sharp competition among buyers.

We finally compromised by pooling our interests. In this way we kept down prices on the street, and at night divided the birds and the cost between us. I accumulated a large lot of frozen birds and got from Chicago a lot of new lard tierces to pack them in, my idea being that frozen birds, packed in such an air tight package, with its thick staves, would keep frozen a long time in ordinary winter weather without thawing out. While I was doing this, I became aware that the "close season" had overtaken me — and the birds. During it, the railroads were prohibited from carrying shipments of grouse, under heavy penalties. I got over this difficulty by billing my tierces out as mess beef, and it being no part of the railroad company's business to open hard tierces in search of grouse, they got safely out of the state. I considered that I was justified in practicing this deception, since I had bought the birds when it was lawful to do so, and should then have been allowed necessary time to pack and ship them to market.

I sent them to Boston by freight, and returned myself to Wisconsin, directing my consignees to hold the stock on arrival and wait my instructions to sell; for Boston had its periodical glut on, as usual, and stock was being "slaughtered," to the loss of shippers, particularly of those who had shipped by express and had their stock thawed out on the road.

My lard tierces proved to be good refrigerators, and justified my confidence in them. In packing, I had wrapped each bird separately in paper, packed them as tightly as possible by hand pressure, and filling the tierce rounding full, then settled the head of the tierce home by screw-press power, carrying the grouse down together in a compact mass. I held them many weeks on the Boston market after their arrival, against the advice of the consignees, who feared that they would spoil on their hands. The market finally recovered and the price went pack to $1 per pair, when I wired them to sell. The grouse came out perfectly sound and sold at outside prices; so my improvised refrigerators saved me not only from loss, but made me a profit.

The next winter I went over to Iowa and bought grouse from station to station, along the C. & N.W. R.R., from Cedar Rapids to Jefferson, freighting them to Chicago, where I had them held till I returned at the opening of the "close" season, when I again packed the birds in lard tierces, and went with a car load of them down to Baltimore. Leaving the car there, I went down to Washington and sold by sample, forwarding the stock upon my return to Baltimore. After working the Baltimore market also, I went with the car to Philadelphia, and sold freely there; then went on to New York with the balance of the birds. When I got there I found but little stock offering, and felt very "bullish" on mine. I sold some at $1.50 per pair; and Mr. Robins, of Fulton market, bid me $1.25 per pair for the whole lot, which I refused. Next day, however, I learned of free arrival of grouse, and concluded that I would close with Mr. Robins' offer. So I went around to his place of business and skirmished to trap him into repeating it. But Mr. Robins always kept his "weather eye open," and was not to be caught "napping" in that way. He casually made an offer of $1.12½ per pair, which I also refused believing that I could get $1.25 per pair by the single tierce. But I found I was mistaken in this, as grouse were becoming more plenty every day. I again dropped around to chat with Mr. Robins and feel his pulse in connection with his $1.12½ per pair offer made the previous day. But he had lost his appetite for grouse — could not see any money in them at anything over $1 per pair — thought they would go lower than that; still, as my birds were well handled, etc., he would give $1 per pair that day. I lost no time in taking him at his word. I sold them to him, and when he sent a "truck" for them I went with them, suspecting that he would store them in his "freezing room," of which I had heard some rather wonderful accounts, so that I might work a plan to get in and see it.

Mr. Robins had, at that time, the only "freezer" in New York, and guarded it jealously from all inspection, since it enabled him to buy poultry and game off of glutted markets at his own prices, and then hold for the "rise" that always came after a glut and subsequent "clean up."

We arrived at the store where the "freezer" was situated, and the man in charge opened the outside shuttered door to see what was wanted. I bustled off the load with note book and pencil in hand and told him the tierces wanted to go right into the freezer quick, and made a show of checking off the figures on the tierces, as I rolled them inside the door; and when this outer door was closed I was inside and continued to urge the man to hurry them into the freezer at once, as it was of great importance that it should be done quickly. He stared at me, evidently trying to "size" me and my authority up, but I kept rushing him with the air of a man sent by Robins to boss the job, and he walked across the reception room and opened a door set into a thick wall from which the cold air rushed, turning to fog as it came into contact with the warmer air of the outside room.

We took in a lighted candle and rolled the tierces in as quickly as possible, and then he hustled me out with himself and slammed the door shut, thinking, no doubt, that it was but little that I could have seen or learned of the construction of the plant by the faint light of the candle, while passing the tierces inside the door; but he was "away off" if he entertained such ideas. When I went out of that room I had the whole interior of it impressed upon my mind and memory by a series of instantaneous views!

I first noticed the walls glistening with frost. That meant a freezing temperature, sure enough; and I looked for the cause. I saw "V"-shaped galvanized iron tanks hanging suspended from the ceiling, to which they were apparently bolted, and through which they must have been fed with ice and salt to coat them with frost and ice, as they were, from condensing the moisture from and out of the room. I also saw broad, shallow pans of galvanized iron suspended from the ceiling of the room, upon which were piled heaps of ice in a dry, frosty condition, while from all these tanks pipes led down to the floor and the sewer openings to take off the drainage.

Barrels and boxes of apparently frozen game and poultry were standing about on the floor, showing that although the apparatus was of a rude and experimental nature, the required power was there. It was, in fact, a freezer in embryo — that power which, since improved and elaborated, has revolutionized the trade in perishable goods, and yearly saves millions of money on products which formerly went to waste, but which are now not only utilized, but also serve to cheapen them for the masses.

Look at the myriad thousands of cattle now gathered from the great plains of South America and carried in the cold embrace of the ship's "freezer" across the great waste of waters, through the heat of the torrid zone, and landed in frosty freshness of condition upon the distant markets of England, when formerly they were slaughtered for their hides alone! Contemplate the spectacle of the flocks and herds of Australia marching to the sea and their cold sepulchure in frozen ranks, in the holds of ocean racers, to be resurrected at last, after months of time and thousands of miles of ocean travel also, on the far distant shores of England! See the shoals of fish, taken from the waters of the great lakes and estuaries of the sea in warm weather, locked in congealed masses and stored like brick in the great "freezers" of the fish dealers and carried therein till seasons of scarcity! Behold the cattle from our own far west ranges and feed yards, leaving their comparatively waste material at the packing houses and journeying across the country in refrigerator cars to the far eastern markets in condensed form, ready for the butcher's block! And the tropical fruits of far-away California and our great south country alike join in the wheeled procession of "refrigerator," bearing them to markets formerly inaccessible to them, in company with eggs and butter, poultry and game.


Although the article by Beemer conveys a lively market for prairie chickens at this locality in Iowa, there are few actual records available from the local newspaper. An evaluation of the Cedar Valley Times, done by using appropriate search terms and browsing issues of particular interest, few records associated with the game market were found.

There were no results for prairie chickens for 1859.

During January and early February in 1860, prairie chickens could be bought for $1 to $1.50 per dozen at the market. By March 1, there were no prairie chickens available for purchase, which was a similar condition on April 12th, as determined by browsing the paper issues during this period of time.

There were also no records located by perusing issues from August 1860 through February 1863.

In November, 1863, among the items listed for the local market were prairie chicken and quail. The cost was $2.00 for the former and 75 cents for the latter.

Additional price indications followed.

Prairie chickens had a valuation of $1.75 to $2.00, until the end of January, 1864, when a dozen could be purchased for 50 cents.

As for quails, the market price was 75 cents per dozen, with the end of January price at 40 cents per dozen.

A variety of searches associated with Beemer, the author of the game bird perspective, did not return any results.

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