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Younger Gustavus Swift

Gustavus Franklin Swift 

By Kaethe Maguire


June 24, 1839-March 29, 1903.

It’s hard to live in New England and not have heard of Swift Meats, but did you know that the Swift Family goes all the way back to about 1637 in West Sandwich, now Sagamore?


I won’t get into the origins of the Swift family right now, but in full disclosure, the first William Swift to our shores was my 9th great grandfather, so I admit to having a deep interest.


The famous, creative, inventor in the family was Gustavus Swift. He was the 9th of the 12 children of William Swift and Sally Crowell. He was born on a farm in West Sandwich.


He invented the ‘reefer’ car or refrigerated train car that made all the difference in bringing ‘dressed’ meats all over the country rather than sending cattle a thousand miles in the wild west to a meat processing plant. The advantages were great in that the cattle often lost so much weight over their journey that many died.

After the Civil War Chicago became the major railroad center but getting the animals to the processing centers was still by hoof!  Shipping live animals by rail car didn’t work either was so many died on transit. Much of the animal is inedible anyway. Fresh meat was almost impossible to get because of the lack of refrigeration. Everything was salted or smoked before it went to a butcher shop.

The goal was to slaughter and dress the meat before shipping, but without cooling, it would spoil.

Gustavus’ brothers, Noble and Edwin lived and worked on a farm in West Sandwich where they raised and slaughtered cattle, sheep and hogs. Thus, Gustavus hoped to find a way of packing meat already dressed. Noble had a butcher shop and Gustavus worked there at age 14. He was not a student! So he was sent to work for his elder brother. His brilliant mind was probably bored by school.

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The Swift slaughterhouse. Circled is the cart he drove to sell his beef door to door.

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The Swift Farm House in West Sandwich

From there he just took off with the financial help of a couple of uncles. He bought livestock at a market in Brighton and drove them to Eastham, a 10-day journey. Denying the cattle water over the trip, when they reached their destination, they gouged on water and thus increased their weight.


Gustavus met his future wife, Annie Higgins, in Eastham and they would eventually move to Brighton where he opened his own butcher shop. After that he partnered with others and moved a great deal. He was on his way as an astute cattle buyer and he eventually moved to Chicago in 1875 to the huge Union stock yards .

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He quickly became the leader of the pack in Chicago. He had partnered with James A. Hathaway, a known Boston Meat Dealer, back in 1872. By 1878 Hathaway and Swift bros linked with Swift’s brother, Edwin.

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Obviously Swift knew that if he was to expand and be able to ship his meat around the country, he needed some sort of cooling process for the meat. This was always a goal.


As early as the 1850 attempts were made to ship produce. These were the very first ‘ice box’ rail cars. Having tried this with meat they found that if the ice touched the meat, it discolored it. The idea was abandoned until Swift revisited it with a new design.


Various entrepreneurs had tried different methods to transport meat.

By 1878 Swift hired an engineer Andrew Chase to help him create a rail car using his own design of a well-insulated, ventilated area with the ice compartment on the top of the car. He also worked out a plan for the packing of the meat within the car to prevent any shifting

when the train sped around curves. The meat was packed tightly at the bottom of the car to keep the center of gravity low.

The ability to ship dressed meat quickly around the country without spoilage made fresh meat possible and thus less expensive.  This allowed the poorer members of society to finally have some meat protein in their diet. This was called the era of “cheap meat”.

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The Swift "reefer" car.

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Additionally, Swift pioneered the use of animal by-products for the manufacture of margarine, soap, glue, fertilizer, hair brushes, buttons and knife handles as well as some medical products such as pepsin and insulin. The list or successes is long and the improvements daunting. This design for the chilled reefer car was repeated all over the world eventually.

The Swift "reefer" car interior.

Swift eventually settled in a grand mansion in Chicago and is buried there, but his brother, Noble, is buried right next to our town line at the Sagamore Cemetery that was of course originally part of Sandwich.

To his credit, Gustavus donated huge sums of money to colleges, churches and the YMCA. One of the recipients of his generosity was Northwestern University. Tragically, his beloved brilliant daughter, Annie May died while a student there.


Gustavus and his wife Annie Maria Higgins had 11 children, two died before reaching adulthood.


When he died in 1903 his company was valued at between $125 and $135 million dollars with a work force of 21,000.


Three years after his death, the value of the company’s stock topped $250 million.


Swift and Co. was incorporated in 1885 by Gustavus with $300,000 in capital stock.

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The Swift family in Chicago.

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