Sunday, May 05, 2002

Marathon honors a city built on piggybacks




By Howard Wilkinson hwilkinson@enquirer.com
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        All hail the pig — sniffer of roots, wallower of mud, builder of cities. Today, thousands of Cincinnatians will don their running shoes and pound the pavement for 26.2 miles in the Flying Pig Marathon.

        They may not know it, but they will be running in the hoofprints of hogs. And they will be running in a city that was built on the backs of hogs.

        The fatbacks, you might say.

PIG OUT
  • Complete race details at Cincinnati.com/flyingpig
  • Watch the race at wcpo.com
  • Race results will be posted this afternoon at Cincinnati.com/flyingpig
        It might seem to some an inelegant symbol for a proud city to adopt, but, there it is. All you have to do is look up at the towering riverboat smokestacks in the gateway to Bicentennial Commons at Sawyer Point and see the sculpted flying pigs, stretching their wings and snouts to the sky.

        They are, said British-born artist Andrew Leicester, when he created them 15 years ago, “souls of the thousands of pigs who gave their lives in Cincinnati slaughterhouses to make the city great.”

        In the Cincinnati of the 19th century, neither the pigs' souls nor their ample frames did much soaring. Then, they were bound by gravity to the dusty streets, making their sometimes-frenzied death marches to the slaughter pens and pork-packing houses that made Cincinnati, for a time, the nation's foremost producer of pork products.

        And while Cincinnati no longer dominates the pork-packing industry — Chicago and Kansas City long ago took that title away — it is still a significant player, from corporate packers such as Hillshire Farms-Kahn's to small, family-owned operations like John Stehlin & Sons Meats on Colerain Avenue in Bevis, where they slaughter hogs and cattle on site and prepare their own meats.

        “Cincinnati was the largest pork producer in the nation by 1835, and in the world by 1845,” said local historian Dan Hurley.

        “Then, there is this idea that Cincinnati somehow disappeared off the face of the earth. It's not true,” Mr. Hurley said. Pork production is “still a significant part of the local economy.”

        But the pig and his byproducts do not carry the weight they did in the 19th century.

        Then, from the first frost of fall until early spring, the streets of Cincinnati were filled with hogs being driven to the slaughterhouses and packing plants.

        There was no refrigeration in those days, so, when the warm weather came, the pork-packing was over.

        The principal market for the thousands of tons of smoked and cured pork was the slaveholding Southern states, where little packing was done and plantation owners needed large quantities of unappetizing but durable salt pork for the slaves in the field.

        At first, Cincinnati's pork-packing industry was centered in the Deer Creek Valley, the area where Interstate 71 winds between downtown and Mount Adams.

        Later, though, the slaughterhouses and packing plants moved to Camp Washington, where they remain today.

        The transport of pigs in those days was massive. In 1847, when the industry was at its peak, 212,000 hogs came by the turnpike to Cincinnati; another 39,000 were shipped in by canal and rail.

        The result was a very messy, very smelly city.

        An Englishwoman, Frances Trollope, who spent three years in Cincinnati in the 1830s, eventually returned to her homeland and wrote a book on her travels in America. Her descriptions of Cincinnatians, with their hogs who had the run of the streets, made the city into something of a a laughingstock and earned it the nickname “Porkopolis.”

        Cincinnatians, Mrs. Trollope said, were rude, uncultured, and barely civilized.

        Worse yet, she wrote, “they live with pigs.”

        The only use Mrs. Trollope had for the porcine multitude was that they ate the garbage Cincinnatians routinely threw into the streets.

        Having thousands of pigs as very temporary neighbors changed the way 19th century Cincinnatians lived. Some of the signs of that are still evident today — drive past the 19th century houses of Dayton Street in the West End — a street once known as “Millionaires Row” and you will see black cast-iron fences and gates in front of nearly all the houses. They were put there to keep the hogs out of the wealthy's front yards.

        The porcine heritage of Cincinnati today is probably best carried in the small, family-owned meat houses like Stehlin & Sons.

        The “Sons” who run the business today are actually grandsons — brothers John and Denny and brothers Dick and Ron. Their grandfather, John “Butch” Stehlin, started the business nearly 90 years ago, almost by accident.

        He was working for a Colerain township livestock farmer named Bill Espel. One day in 1913, he was driving a herd of cattle down what is now Colerain Avenue to the Mill Creek Valley stockyards when he learned that the yards were under water from the great flood of that year.

        “He decided to butcher the cattle right there and sell the meat,” said Butch's grandson John. “That's how it started.”

        John, his brother, and his cousins grew up working every conceivable job in the Stehlin slaughterhouse and the adjoining market — killing hogs and cattle, stripping hides, salting them down, and learning to smoke hams and stuff sausages.

        Recently, John sat in a small office off the slaughterhouse floor and pondered the past and future of the business.

        “I don't know what will happen next,” he said. “I've been up front with my kids. I told them there are better ways to make a living, easier ways.

        “But I've always felt like I've been part of a great tradition.”

       



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