John Washington Rath (1872-1951)

John Washington Rath, a founder of the Rath Packing Company in Waterloo, Iowa, played a major role in the American meatpacking business for more than fifty years. Rath served as president of the family business from 1898 to 1943, and then as chairman of the board until 1950. John Washington Rath and the Rath Packing Company also played a critical role in Waterloo’s development as a center of industry during the first half of the twentieth century. The Rath brand was a force in the American meat industry for years until faltering sales and labor struggles led to the company’s decline.

Updated: December 04, 2014

Introduction

John Washington Rath (born February 26, 1872 in Ackley, IA; died December 22, 1951 in Waterloo, IA), a founder of the Rath Packing Company in Waterloo, Iowa, played a major role in the American meatpacking business for more than fifty years. Rath served as president of the family business from 1898 to 1943, and then as chairman of the board until 1950. John Washington Rath (henceforth referred to as “J.W.” or “J.W. Rath”) and the Rath Packing Company also played a critical role in Waterloo’s development as a center of industry during the first half of the twentieth century. Additionally, the Rath brand was a force in the American meat industry for years until faltering sales and labor struggles led to the company’s decline. While J.W. Rath’s leadership most certainly helped the company to grow, his conservative business ideas eventually aided in its demise. Still, his contributions as a financial and community leader in Waterloo helped the city grow successfully.

Family Background

J.W. Rath was a second-generation German-American. His father, John Rath (1840-1914), was born in Breitenau, in the Kingdom of Württemberg, in 1840 and immigrated to the United States in 1853 with his older brother George (1839-1863).[1] The Rath brothers came to the United States at the height of the first great wave of German immigration: between 1852 and 1855, more than 500,000 Germans entered the United States.[2] At the time, the typical push factors for German emigration included economic changes in the German states, improvements in transportation technology, and to a lesser extent, the Revolutions of 1848 in Europe. In the case of the Rath brothers, the decision to emigrate was likely prompted, or at least facilitated by, the presence of relatives who had already settled in the U.S. and established a business there.[3] Their paternal uncle, George John Rath, who was born in the Kingdom of Württemberg in 1821, had settled in Dubuque, Iowa, in 1849 and had started a small meat packing company there.[4]

The Rath brothers sailed to New York by way of Havre de Grace, France. After their arrival, they spent a couple of weeks in the city before setting off to Dubuque. They are said to have travelled by way of Albany and Lake Erie to Chicago, where they went by rail to Freeport, Illinois, and then by stagecoach to Galena, Illinois. Having run out of money, they proceeded to Dubuque on foot.[5] Unfortunately, as neither could speak English, they were unable to inquire about the way. Apparently, they made it to Dubuque by following the telegraph line.[6]

In November 1853, the young Raths were warmly welcomed by their uncle, who was already an established member of the local community. George John Rath’s first foray into the meatpacking business in Dubuque – his sixteen-year partnership with Bavarian-born John H. Stroebel (1825-1906) in the Stroebel and Rath Packing Company – had been successful.[7] It is unclear whether George Rath had meatpacking experience back in Württemberg, or whether he simply entered the industry due to the opportunity presented by Stroebel. Either way, in 1870, George struck out on his own with another packing venture, and then partnered with his son Edward Frederick (E.F.) in 1887 to form the George Rath and Son Company.[8] Another son, George C. Rath, was a businessman as well; he had been educated at Bayless Business College and had worked for a variety of companies before he bought out his father’s packing business in 1890.[9]

John Rath worked for his uncle George at the packing company from 1853 until 1861, at which point he moved to Cedar Falls. It was there that he enlisted in the military in 1862 and served in the Thirty-First Iowa Regiment during the Civil War. His military career was extensive, as he fought at Vicksburg, Lookout Mountain, Missionary Ridge, Taylor’s Ridge, and participated in Sherman’s march to the sea.[10] John’s brother George also served in the Civil War, but sadly he did not survive: he was killed at the Battle of Missionary Ridge.[11] After the war, John settled in Ackley, Iowa, in Hardin County, and began to establish himself as a businessman. On October 5, 1865, he married Elizabeth Moser of Dubuque, Iowa. Together, they had eight surviving children: Sherman, Amelia, John Washington, Lizzie, Charles, Clara, Walter, and Howard.[12]

In 1866, John started working for a grain and lumber company; he became a partner in the company two years later, and finally bought out the business, first with a partner, and then on his own.[13] In 1881, he founded the Exchange Bank in Ackley, which he ran until his death in 1914.[14] The bank started with $25,000 ($550,000 in 2010[15]) in capital and grew steadily in its first twenty years to more than $60,000.[16] The Exchange Bank was extremely successful and became an important financial institution in northeastern Iowa.[17] Due to Rath’s business savvy, the family quickly became wealthy. Of the Rath children, Sherman stayed in Ackley and worked as cashier of the Exchange Bank, and John Washington (or J.W.) set his sights on business as well.[18]

Business Development

J.W. followed in his father’s footsteps in business. He completed his business education at Bryant and Stratton’s business college in Chicago and returned to Iowa with the intention of starting a career at his father’s bank.[19] But due to a series of events that reverberated throughout the Rath clan, J.W. never ended up at the Exchange Bank. In 1891, back in Dubuque, his great-uncle’s business, the George Rath and Son Packing Company, burned to the ground.[20] The business that had once employed John Rath was no more. While the fire was a blow to Dubuque, it represented a tremendous opportunity for the city of Waterloo, which was located approximately ninety miles away. As George and his son E.F. Rath looked for a new site for their plant, boosters from Waterloo attempted to woo the Raths to their city.

At the time, Waterloo leaders were pursuing industrial development, and they were using the city’s new railroad connection as a selling point. In 1884, the city had persuaded the Chicago Great Western Railroad to make Waterloo a stop on its “Diagonal Line,” which ran from the northeastern corner of the state to Des Moines. The connection helped Waterloo gain prominence as a shipping and distribution point, and this, in turn, drew more and more companies to the city.[21] Waterloo officials must have thought that a meatpacking operation would be a great boon to their developing city. Previously, meatpacking in Iowa had generally concentrated along the Mississippi River due to the ease of transport, but with the extension of railroad lines into the interior of the state, it became more efficient to move livestock directly from farms to processors.[22]

Nineteenth-century meatpacking operations generally fell into two categories. The earliest type of meatpacking operations were terminal-market packing facilities, where purchased animals could be slaughtered right at the stockyard, then shipped to branch houses anywhere in the country by rail.[23] Later in the century, independent packing houses sprang up in more rural locales, closer to the sources of the livestock. These direct-buying facilities made it easier for farmers to sell directly to plants.[24] The direct-buying plants were located mostly in Iowa, but also in some other livestock regions of the Midwest. For instance, Thomas McElderry Sinclair and John Morrell built facilities in Cedar Rapids and Ottumwa, Iowa, respectively; Charles Wolff in Topeka, Kansas, and George Hormel in Austin, Minnesota.[25] Soon, Waterloo would also be the site of a direct-buying plant.

In order to convince the Raths to move their business to Waterloo, the Board of Trade offered them $10,000 ($247,000 in 2010) along with land by the Cedar River on which to build the new plant.[26] The seed money, combined with investments from John Rath and a group of other local businessmen, added up to $25,000 ($618,000 in 2010).[27] The initial investors became the first stockholders of the Rath Packing Company.[28] George Rath, the owner of the original company, declined to relocate to Waterloo and remained as a businessman in Dubuque.[29] Instead, his nephew John Rath became president of the company; Albert Holzer, another stockholder, served as vice-president, and George Rath’s son E.F. Rath was appointed as secretary and treasurer.[30]

Although John Rath was not particularly interested in working at the plant himself, he was instrumental in getting his son, J.W., involved in the new Waterloo venture. As J.W. Rath recalled in the 1940s, his father thought that it would be good for him to spend a few months in Waterloo until the business got on its feet. “The intention,” he explained, “was that I should go back to his bank a little later on, but as it happened, I never did go back.”[31] E.F. Rath soon realized that he would not be able to handle all of the business tasks himself, so J.W. joined the company as a partner and was put in charge of bookkeeping.[32] By 1898, John Rath had decided to step out of the picture permanently, and as J.W. recollected, he “said that somebody who was active in the business should fill the position of president, and so it was pushed on to me.”[33]

In the years between the company’s founding and J.W.’s appointment as president, Rath Packing Company remained fairly small. The company processed no more than 19,000 hogs per year for the first ten years, and as few as 9,876 in 1892, the year before the Panic of 1893.[34] Management consisted of J.W. and E.F. Rath, with the former attending to bookkeeping, shipping, and sales tasks, and the latter overseeing the actual operations.[35] Apparently, their first office was so small that, as J.W. recalled, “whenever we had a visitor, either Ed [E.F. Rath] or myself would have to go out to make room for them.”[36] The firm employed twenty-two workers in the early 1890s, and the labor was long and difficult. Workers earned about $0.15 per hour, working ten hours a day, six days a week. In today’s terms, these laborers were earning a paltry $223.00 per week.[37]According to J.W. himself, the managers put in as many hours as the day laborers, as “we came to work at 7:00 in the morning and worked until 6:00 in the evening, with an hour out at noon for dinner, and often times came back after supper to look after the plant and also to do what book work was necessary.”[38]The fledgling company saw losses after its first year in business, and it was hit especially hard by the Panic of 1893. J.W. attributed the survival of the business during these difficult years to the dedication of the workers, as “all of us worked very hard and long for small pay and we watched the corners very closely.”[39]

By the time the Rath company had established itself in Waterloo, the city had registered some success in developing profitable industries. Still, judging from the performance of Rath Packing in its first five years, J.W. Rath feared that meatpacking would not be one of them.[40] At the turn of the century, however, things began to turn around. Waterloo continued to grow, and Rath became an important part of that growth. Boosters and journalists for Waterloo extolled the virtues of the city during the opening years of the twentieth century. For instance, the Waterloo Times-Tribune reported that the city spent nearly $1,000,000 in 1900 ($26,800,000 in 2010) in new building and improvements and that it was a leader in wholesale and manufacturing.[41] At this point, Rath Packing started overcoming its initial growing pains and became a major force in the city.

By 1905, Waterloo was known as the “factory city of Iowa,” and it was allegedly even outpacing the capital city of Des Moines in industry.[42] Rath had grown in prominence, employing about 125 people and slaughtering about 60,000 hogs in one year, compared to 19,000 hogs in its first year.[43] In a short span of time, Rath Packing Company had more than tripled its output, and its payroll had increased accordingly. The company also planned to expand its facilities. In 1906-07, Rath worked to update their buildings and to add another chill room.[44] On the eve of World War I, Rath was the fourth largest business of its kind in Iowa. The company’s size and reputation led to government contracts to supply the military with meat products during the war.[45] Half of Rath’s products went to the war effort, and the business boomed as a result.[46]

Aided by the financial boost provided by World War I, Rath Packing accelerated its expansion plans. As J.W. later recalled, after the company’s second year in business, it embarked on “a building program that has never ceased.”[47] This was especially true by the 1920s. The company’s capital continually increased, and in 1922, plans were implemented to more than double the size of the plant. According to a November 18, 1922, article in the Waterloo Evening Courier and Reporter, the expansion would “place Waterloo on the map as having the finest and most up-to-date packingplant in the state.”[48] Among other state-of-the-art features, the addition was to include a new shipping building, a boiler house, smokehouses, and a casing house, as well as more ground for further expansion.[49] Another Evening Courier article, published about a month later, described the Rath Packing Company as the “city’s biggest industrial plant” and the most modern meatpacker in the entire Midwest.[50] At the time, Rath was also the biggest pork producer in the whole state of Iowa.[51]

Building projects and profits continued to grow in the 1920s. Even as the United States spiraled into the Great Depression, Rath continued to see profits rise. Despite the stock market crash of October 1929, J.W. remained optimistic about the coming year, noting in the annual report for 1929, “all departments are showing increased activities and we are looking forward with confidence to the coming year.”[52] J.W.’s words rang true for the next year, as 1930 was successful as well. Profits continued to increase, and building projects commenced as well. J.W. did concede that “following the general trend of all commodity prices, livestock values are on a lower basis than for several years,” but instead of lamenting the fact, he believed that it would increase purchasing.[53]

The Rath Packing Company did struggle a bit during the Depression, but, on the whole, it continued to experience an upward trend. The annual reports of the 1930s spoke to the country’s financial difficulties, but they also showed how Rath managed to remain successful. For example, the year 1931 had started out as unprofitable, but late gains helped the company break even and maintain its streak of profitable years.[54] In 1932, prices fell to the lowest they had been up to that point, but the company was saved by the fact that it was virtually debt free.[55] Starting in 1933, Rath continued the expansive building program that had been in effect since the early days of the company.[56] By 1937, every original building in the Waterloo plant had been replaced by more modern facilities.[57] J.W. Rath remained upbeat throughout the difficult decade, accentuating the positive in annual reports. In 1936, he even noted that “during the depression there was no general reduction of wages made in our organization, on the contrary, since November 1933, three advances have been made in the pay of plant employees.”[58]

After a relatively shaky turn in the early 1930s, the company rallied and prospered. In 1941, the company celebrated its fiftieth anniversary, which came on the heels of its most profitable year ever up to that point. Numbers from 1940 showed that Rath Packing Company slaughtered more animals that year than any other packing house in the country.[59] Net sales for 1940 totaled $58,258,996.53 (about $905,000,000 in 2010), an increase of almost 7% over the previous year.[60] An anniversary celebration was most certainly in order, and the occasion was marked by festivities and the publication of an anniversary book in which J.W. Rath reflected on his fifty years in business. As one of the founders of the company, J.W. had much to say about its progress over time. One thing that emerged clearly from Rath’s reflections was the sheer scale of the company’s growth. In the early days, relatively few hogs were killed because the process was slow and workers had to perform multiple tasks on the same hog; by 1941, however, the plant could kill as many as 600 hogs in an hour.[61] Another indication of the company’s growth was the size of its sales department, which had grown from one employee – the one being J.W. himself – to 500. J.W. quipped, “of course, I do not tell them that they do more business than I did.”[62]

Rath Packing Company capitalized on this tremendous growth and continued its ascent during the Second World War. As during the First World War, Rath won government contracts to supply meat to the military.[63] Rath showed an unceasing commitment to the war effort, even going as far as to change packing methods, since paper and cardboard were in short supply, and “the supplies of the armed forces come first.”[64] Still, the company did not fail to take advantage of the wartime situation. Salesmen were encouraged to note the changes in various sales sectors and to use them to sell more meat.[65]

Throughout the Depression and World War II, J.W. Rath remained at the helm of the company. Observers throughout the years always noted his dedication to the company. His grandson, John D. Donnell, characterized him as smart and friendly, and possessed of the ability to relate to all members of the business.[66] In the end, however, he was the boss, and he always asserted the full power of his position, even when it meant arguing with other company leaders.[67] He also steered the company on a conservative course, refusing to speculate or take any kind of risk, be it on a building or a business venture. Lack of speculation ensured that each animal slaughtered was sold for the exact price that day.[68]

Throughout its history, the Rath Packing Company relied on innovative branding and advertising to increase its sales. From the very beginning, Rath company advertising focused on the source of its meat products.[69] The highest quality Rath products were known as “Black Hawk” (the name of the county in which Waterloo is located), and the second-tier products were named “Cedar Valley” (the geographic location of the plant).[70] Rath himself was enamored of the story of Black Hawk, the great Sauk leader, and he made the Native American legend a visible part of the company’s advertising strategy. One Rath publication from the 1930s described the company’s affinity for the Indian chief and explained why he was a fitting representative for its products:

Black Hawk was a true warrior – true to himself and his people. He fought for right as he saw it. He was a great and sturdy fighter. When the Rath Company sought a distinctive name to identify their choicest ham and bacon, the name of Black Hawk seemed particularly appropriate…This warrior would have no half-way measures. Likewise, the Black Hawk brand never permits half-way quality.[71]

Rath products were from the heartland, and references to America’s native heritage only served to emphasize that fact. In 1946, James Harley Nash designed the Rath Indian-head logo, and Native American motifs became part of Rath’s official corporate imagery.[72] Historian Rebecca Conrad theorized that the logo was designed not only to evoke Black Hawk the person, but also to “create visual recognition among potential customers who vaguely associated meatpacking with the corn-livestock regions once inhabited by Plains Indians.”[73]

In subtle ways, though, certain Rath products also reflected the German heritage of the company founders. It is not clear whether the Rath family’s ethnicity explicitly influenced the branding of these products, mainly different types of sausages, but the German roots of these meats was certainly apparent in some Rath advertising, even though these meats were often clothed in American imagery – sometimes literally – and embedded in an American context. One 1938 advertisement for canned hot dogs described the product as “Imported Style Frankfurters,” implying that, although the product was produced in Iowa, it took the form of something foreign.[74] Later on, in the 1950s or 1960s, the company launched a campaign to sell “wieners,” originally a German meat product, to families with small children. These advertisements featured cartoon wieners dressed in stereotypical Native American garb.[75] In a related promotional effort, the company offered customers a free cardboard headdress with every package of wieners.[76] By creating a specific brand based on region and culture, Rath tapped into ideas put in place by Oscar Mayer as early as 1936, when the Wienermobile and Oscar Mayer Wieners appeared in advertising and on store shelves.[77]

One explicitly German product line was the Rathskeller line, a clever play on the name Rath and the German word Rathskeller, meaning a bar or a restaurant located in the basement (Keller) of a city hall (Rathaus). Rathskeller products included German Brand Wieners, bratwurst, and knockwurst (along with non-German Polish sausage).[78] While it is difficult to locate information on the origins of this product line, it is clear that these meats stood in contrast to the more Americanized sausage products, including mild sausage and smoked sausage, which bore the more familiar Rath logos.[79] Overall, though, the Rath Packing Company was generally known for making distinct products from high-quality, farm-grown, Iowa meat. Instead of limiting itself to more traditional methods of meat preparation, the Rath company offered a wide variety of meat products of various ethnic origins. According to the company’s anniversary book, “a good American-born, corn-fed hog or steer, or at least parts of the hog or steer, may emerge from this American packing plant as Genoa salami, Braunschweiger, Goteborg, Thuringer, or Mortadella sausage.”[80]

The late-1940s and 1950s saw a change in the types of products emphasized by the Rath Packing Company. To combat an overall decrease in meat consumption in the United States, the company used different tactics to sell its products. The American Meat Institute (AMI) played an important role in these changes. The AMI was the national trade association for the meat industry. J.W. Rath had been a member since 1926 and served on its board of directors from 1931 to 1934.[81] Together with members of that organization, Rath company salesmen attempted to play up the benefits of eating more meat. Some of these efforts took the form of mass market television advertisements. The Fred Waring Show, a popular television variety show that ran from 1949 to 1954, featured many commercials and tie-ins emphasizing the nutritional advantages of a protein-rich diet. Waring often made reference to meat during his program, noting, for example: “it’s a real break that the meat we like so much contains so many of the things that are good for us – that we’re right in liking meat!”[82]

Rath continued to partner with the American Meat Institute throughout the 1940s, using the Meat Education Program to teach the general public about meat and its purported benefits. Among other objectives, the program aimed to increase meat consumption, dispell rumors of meat-related health threats, and popularize various meat preparation techniques in order to help “housewives” use meat to their best advantage.[83] The idea of making meat more accessible to the main family cook informed Rath’s successful dalliance with frozen meat products in the 1950s. At the time, frozen cuts of meat were not particularly popular, since they were “difficult to display properly” and weren’t “especially cheaper than cuts hacked fresh off the beef.”[84] Rath “Chop-ettes,” frozen patties of chopped meat, gave the company a unique way of dealing with the problem of shifting prices in fresh meat supply.[85] Problems in distribution, though, prevented Chop-ettes from competing with the frozen products of larger companies.[86]

After World War II, other aspects of business began to change for the Rath Company as well. Opinions differ on when the company first started showing signs of decline, but generally speaking, the postwar period (the late 1940s through the 1950s) was a time in which the company struggled to maintain the level of success it had enjoyed since its beginnings. At this point, J.W. Rath stepped down from the company presidency, a position he had held for forty-five years. His departure may have had something to do with the downturn, not only because of the new leadership, but also because of the afterlife of certain policies and business attitudes that J.W. had put in place. J.W. did not leave the company completely, but took on a new role as chair of the executive committee.[87] This period saw the beginnings of the labor strife that would plague the company for the rest of its existence. Perhaps the most significant event was the strike of 1948.

Throughout the years, the Rath Packing Company had generally avoided labor disputes, but the postwar surge in unionization had caused difficulties between workers and management. In March of 1948, a strike was called by the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA). John D. Donnell, a grandson of J.W. Rath and one-time company employee, called it a “watershed event” for the company.[88] In an attempt to keep operations going, management hired strikebreakers, bringing about hostility among the strikers. Tragedy struck when a worker attempting to enter the plant fatally shot one of the strikers. A riot broke out, and the National Guard was brought in to end the violence.[89] The strike finally ended in May after at least one unsuccessful attempt at bargaining.[90]

Labor issues continued to be a problem in the 1960s and 1970s, long after J.W.’s death. According to Donnell, management was continuingly hostile toward organized labor, and any attempt to quell labor issues went unheeded. He noted, “although there was much discussion of how to deal with the Union at the top and all other levels of management, I don’t recall any concerted effort to develop a proactive program to try to change the relationship. Nor as far as I know did any community leader step forward as a potential change agent.”[91] Donnell was present for these labor struggles, and it is clear that he was willing to take a hard look at flaws in the company’s labor relations. Nonetheless, he was still part of the family management, and his account is potentially biased for that reason. In 1957, the Rath Packing Company hired an independent company to conduct an attitude survey. The survey, which aimed to determine attitudes toward the Rath Packing Company, both within the company and in the wider community, largely confirmed Donnell’s assessment. The survey found that management-employee relations were significantly lacking. Employees exhibited no sense of loyalty to the company and generally felt that they had no say in the direction of the company.[92] In independent meetings with departmental leaders, the survey-takers found that employees did not have any authority to make decisions and generally felt the company was too conservative, which limited possibilities for expansion.[93]

It is unclear whether the suggestions that emerged from the survey were ever implemented. In the end, the company continued to struggle until an employee ownership plan was put in place in 1980. Employees became the controlling interest in the company, and management and workers began cooperating in an unprecedented way.[94] Unfortunately, before any real recovery could take place, the company declared bankruptcy in 1983, ultimately leading to the end of Rath Packing Company.[95]

In addition to documenting labor issues, Donnell identified several other crucial problems within the company that partially contributed to its demise. Many of these problems stemmed from J.W. himself and his management style. First, J.W. did not have a business strategy on paper. Donnell believed that J.W. did in fact have “a notion of where he thought the Company fit into the competitive scheme, its strengths and weaknesses, and probably a general direction,” but, as he explained, “I never heard him articulate it.”[96] Subsequent leaders perpetuated his practices, and management was kept strictly within the Rath family. J.W. insisted that “no one other than a family member should be an officer of the Company,” and, as a result, reluctant sons and nephews were pressed into service.[97] J.W.’s own son Howard, who, in Donnell’s estimation, was not suited for leadership, was treated harshly by his father, who coddled him on the one hand, yet punished him for being coddled on the other.[98] J.W.’s plans for an exclusively family-run business led to poor management decisions, especially when the family held only a small share of the company stock after it was opened to general purchase in 1929.[99]

Family, Personality, and Social Status

J.W. Rath and his family fit well into Iowa society. Beginning with his father John, members of the Rath family had worked to assimilate into American society, seemingly leaving much of their German heritage behind. As soon as John settled in Dubuque with his uncle George, he began attending a business school and learning English.[100] The one arena in which John and other Rath family members retained a semblance of “German-ness” was religion. The family attended a German church in Dubuque, and it was here that John met and married Elizabeth Moser, a Swiss immigrant.[101] The two were married in October of 1865, right after John finished serving in the Civil War.

The elder Rath’s marriage ceremony had the distinction of being performed by Reverend Adrian Van Vliet, the founder of the German Seminary of Dubuque.[102] This is significant, as the seminary, properly known as the German Theological School of the Northwest, was the first Presbyterian seminary in the West, and it was established to train German Presbyterian ministers.[103] The school remained exclusively German until World War I, at which point it gradually became a more secular institution and was renamed the University of Dubuque, which it is still called today.[104]

That a fully German seminary would develop in Dubuque is not surprising, since Dubuque had a large German population at the time. In the years preceding John Rath’s immigration, Dubuque had welcomed a large influx of German immigrants who settled in and around the Mississippi River town.[105] Religion was one way of maintaining a connection to German culture in a new place. Though the majority of German immigrants to the United States belonged to either the Catholic or Lutheran churches, there were also ethnic German branches of other denominations, such as the Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Jews.[106] The Raths were among those German adherents to the Presbyterian Church.

J.W. Rath became a member of the First Presbyterian Church in Waterloo, Iowa, where he eventually settled and married his wife, Maud Harbin, in 1895. J.W. and Maud had two children, Anita Louise (who would marry A.D. Donnell, a former president of the Rath Packing Company) and Howard (who also worked for the Rath Packing Company).[107] J.W. was an active member of the congregation, where he served as an elder and held other leadership positions for as long as thirty years.[108] He was not the only Rath who devoted himself to the Presbyterian Church, however: his brother Charles became a missionary for the Presbyterian Church in the Philippines.[109] Also, when the Rath siblings were grown and their parents had passed away, they donated the family home to the Presbyterian Synod of Iowa, which turned it into a retirement home.[110] The stately home, which was designed especially for the Rath family, was built in 1878 at a cost of $10,000 (or $225,000 in 2010).[111] The Presbyterian Home still exists for its original purpose in Ackley, Iowa.

J.W.’s devotion to the church carried over into other areas of his life, as he was an ardent philanthropist and a member of many community organizations. Some of those organizations reflected his status as a Waterloo business leader, such as Rotary, of which he was a charter member and one-time president.[112] He also served as a trustee of the Presbyterian Hospital Association for forty-seven years.[113] Moreover, he took part in other community-building organizations in Waterloo, where he spearheaded the construction of the Y.M.C.A., the Masonic Temple, and the Grout Museum.[114]

His service to the community extended to more than just charitable organizations. He served as both trustee and president of the Waterloo Waterworks, which was an integral part of the city’s public works infrastructure.[115] J.W. also took on leadership roles to benefit the company and the meat industry. For example, he served in leadership positions at both the First National Bank of Waterloo and the National Bank of Waterloo for most of his adult life.[116] He was a director of the Illinois Central Railroad and a member of the Iowa Manufacturers Association throughout his years with the Rath Company.[117] Additionally, he sat on the executive committee of the American Meat Institute, served as director of the National Livestock and Meat Board, and held the post of chairman of the board of the Institute of American Meat Packers.[118] According to one account of the Rath company, J.W.’s “advice and counsel” was “valued by the entire industry.”[119]

J.W. Rath died of a cerebral thrombosis on December 22, 1952.[120] He was remembered by friends and family as a hardworking, friendly, and modest man who always gave back to the company and the community. It is clear that, even though J.W. was a conservative man, the force of his personality and his interest in serving the needs of Waterloo and the Rath Packing Company went a long way in maintaining employee relations at the plant. In fact, “conservative” could be used to describe the Rath family in many ways. As early as 1911, one historian noted that the Ackley Exchange Bank, owned by John Rath, “has always been conducted along very conservative lines and enjoys the confidence of the public.”[121] As mentioned earlier, the Rath Packing Company also was described as having a “conservative management” and “a conservative policy” in all of its various business ventures, never stretching beyond the bounds of what had already been done.[122] Politically, J.W. was a member of the Republican Party, the same party to which his father John had belonged.[123] Although conservative measures served John and J.W. well throughout their lives, by the second half of the twentieth century, a conservative approach to business could no longer keep the Rath Packing Company going.

Conclusion

The story of John Washington Rath, and of the whole Rath family, is one of immigrant success. His father John Rath had followed in the footsteps of his uncle George by leaving Württemberg, settling in Iowa, assimilating into American culture, and establishing a thriving business. When J.W. Rath was appointed president of the Rath Packing Company, he relied on his business savvy and conservative business inclinations to usher the company through its disappointing early years and turn it into a powerhouse in the meatpacking industry. Although J.W. was born in the United States, his German heritage and his family’s immigrant experience were an integral part of the company and its attempts to create a quintessentially American product from home-grown Iowa meat. Although J.W.’s particular business strategy, which relied on conservatism in practice and a family-only management plan, failed to yield success after his death, the impact of his years at the helm of Rath Packing Company continued to be felt for decades to come.

Notes

[1] Kenneth Lyftogt, ed., Left for Dixie: The Civil War Diary of John Rath (Iowa City, IA: Camp Pope Bookshop, 2004), 3.

[2] La Vern J. Rippley, “German Assimilation: The Effect of the 1871 Victory on Americana-Germanica,” in Germany and America: Essays on Problems of International Relations and Immigration, ed. Hans L. Trefousse (New York, NY: Brooklyn College Press, 1980), 123.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Randolph W. Lyon, “Rath, George John,” in Encyclopedia Dubuque. May 3, 2010. Carnegie-Stout Library Foundation. Accessed on December 17, 2011.

[5] Hon. William J. Moir, ed., Past and Present of Hardin County Iowa (Indianapolis, IN: B.F. Bowen and Company, 1911), 416.

[6] Biographies and portraits of the progressive men of Iowa, leaders in business, politics and the professions; together with an original and authentic history of the state, by ex-Lieutenant-Governor B. F. Gue. 2 vols. (Des Moines, IA: Conaway & Shaw, 1899), vol. 1, 498.

[7] Randolph W. Lyon, “Stroebel, John H.,” in Encyclopedia Dubuque. May 3, 2010. Carnegie-Stout Library Foundation. Accessed on April 17, 2013.

[8] Lyon, “Rath, George John.”

[9] Randolph W. Lyon, “Rath, George John,” in Encyclopedia Dubuque. May 3, 2010. Carnegie-Stout Library Foundation. Accessed on December 17, 2011.

[10] Moir, ed., Past and Present of Hardin County Iowa, 417.

[11] See “History of the Presbyterian Home in Ackley, Iowa,” Rath, John W. and Family Folder, Grout Museum of History and Science, Waterloo, Iowa.

[12] “History of the Presbyterian Home in Ackley, Iowa.”

[13] Moir, ed., Past and Present of Hardin County Iowa, 418.

[14] John C. Hartman, ed., History of Black Hawk County, Iowa and Its People. 2 vols. (Chicago, IL: S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1915), vol. 2, 26.

[15] All current values (in 2010 USD) are based on Samuel H. Williamson, "Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1774 to present," MeasuringWorth, 2011, using the Consumer Price Index.

[16] Moir, ed., Past and Present of Hardin County Iowa, 206.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Rebecca Conrad, Bringin’ Home the Bacon: The Rath Packing Company in Waterloo, 1891-1985 (Iowa City, IA: Tallgrass Historians L.C., 2010), 3.

[20] Untitled by J.W. Rath, Rath Packing Company/Chronology-Recollections Folder, Grout Museum of History and Science, Waterloo, Iowa.

[21] Glenda Riley, Cities on the Cedar: A Portrait of Cedar Falls, Waterloo, and Black Hawk County (Parkersburg, IA: Mid-Prairie Books, 1988), 33.

[22] Deborah Fink, Cutting into the Meatpacking Line: Workers and Change in the Rural Midwest (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 45-46.

[23] Wilson J. Warren, Tied to the Great Packing Machine: The Midwest and Meatpacking (Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press, 2007), 3.

[24] Ibid., 3.

[25] Ibid., 19-20.

[26] Conrad, Bringing Home the Bacon, 2.

[27] Conrad, Bringing Home the Bacon, 3.

[28] Untitled by J.W. Rath.

[29] Conrad, Bringing Home the Bacon, 2.

[30] Untitled by J.W. Rath.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Conrad, Bringing Home the Bacon, 3.

[33] Untitled by J.W. Rath.

[34] Ibid.; “J.W. Rath reviews the growth of Rath Packing Co.,” 1941. Rath, John W. and Family Folder, Grout Museum of History and Science, Waterloo, Iowa.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Conrad, Bringing Home the Bacon, 3; “J.W. Rath reviews the growth of Rath Packing Co.”

[38] “J.W. Rath reviews the growth of Rath Packing Co.”

[39] Ibid.

[40] Untitled by J.W. Rath.

[41] Waterloo Times-Tribune, January 17, 1901.

[42] Waterloo Times-Tribune, February 24, 1905. According to the article, Des Moines was listed as having more factories than the author thought was correct, since he had research stating that many of the factories in Des Moines were too small to be considered true factories.

[43] Waterloo Times-Tribune, June 20, 1905; Untitled by J.W. Rath.

[44] Letter Book, 1906-1907. Rath Packing Company Records, MS 562, Series 5, Box 1, Folder 2, Special Collections Department, Iowa State University Library.

[45] Conrad, Bringing Home the Bacon, 3.

[46] Mary Beth Eldridge, The Rath Packing Company Strike of 1948 (Waterloo, IA: no publisher, 1990), Introduction.

[47] Untitled by J.W. Rath.

[48] “Raths Increase Packing Plant by More than Half,” Waterloo Evening Courier and Reporter, November 18, 1922. Rath Packing Company Records, MS 562, Series 11, Box 1, Folder 1, Special Collections Department, Iowa State University Library.

[49] Ibid.

[50] “Rath Packing Co. is City’s Biggest Industrial Plant,” Waterloo Evening Courier and Reporter, December 30, 1922. Rath Packing Company Records, MS 562, Series 11, Box 1, Folder 1, Special Collections Department, Iowa State University Library.

[51] Warren, Tied to the Great Packing Machine, 20

[52] Annual Report, 1929. Rath Packing Company Records, MS 562, Series 11, Box 1, Folder 2, Special Collections Department, Iowa State University Library.

[53] Annual Report, 1930, Rath Packing Company Records, MS 562, Series 11, Box 1, Folder 3, Special Collections Department, Iowa State University Library.

[54] Annual Report, 1931. Rath Packing Company Records, MS 562, Series 11, Box 1, Folder 4, Special Collections Department, Iowa State University Library.

[55] Annual Reports, 1932. Rath Packing Company Records, MS 562, Series 11, Box 1, Folder 5, Special Collections Department, Iowa State University Library.

[56] Annual Reports, 1933. Rath Packing Company Records, MS 562, Series 11, Box 1, Folder 6, Special Collections Department, Iowa State University Library.

[57] Annual Reports, 1937. Rath Packing Company Records, MS 562, Series 11, Box 1, Folder 12, Special Collections Department, Iowa State University Library; See also Conrad, Bringin’ Home the Bacon, p. 4.

[58] Annual Reports, 1936. Rath Packing Company Records, MS 562, Series 11, Box 1, Folder 9, Special Collections Department, Iowa State University Library. This statistic was disputed by Mary Beth Eldridge (1990), who claims that salaries were low in the early 1930s and that work was unreliable at best; see Eldridge, The Rath Packing Company Strike of 1948, Introduction.

[59] “Rath Stock Increased to $12,000,000,” newspaper article. Rath Packing Co., 1929-1942 Folder, Grout Museum of History and Science, Waterloo, Iowa.

[60] Ibid.

[61] “J.W. Rath reviews the growth of Rath Packing Co.”

[62] Ibid.

[63] Conrad, Bringin’ Home the Bacon, 4.

[64] Memo, February 25, 1944. Rath Packing Company Records, MS 562, Series 10, Box 1, Folder 17, Special Collections Department, Iowa State University Library.

[65] “Increase Distribution during Rath’s 51st Year,” 1942. Rath Packing Company Records, MS 562, Series 8, Box 24, Folder 10, Special Collections Department, Iowa State University Library.

[66] John D. Donnell, Why the Rath Packing Company Failed (Waterloo, IA: Grout Museum of History and Science, 1993), 8.

[67] Ibid., 8-9.

[68] “The Rath Packing Company,” undated. Rath Packing Company Records, MS 562, Series 11, Box 1, Folder 1, Special Collections Department, Iowa State University Library. See also Conrad, Bringin’ Home the Bacon, 15.

[69] Black Hawk History Sheet, ca. 1930s. Rath Packing Company Records, MS 562, Series 11, Box 1, Folder 1, Special Collections Department, Iowa State University Library; Conrad, Bringing Home the Bacon, 11.

[70] Conrad, Bringin’ Home the Bacon, 11.

[71] Black Hawk History Sheet, ca. 1930s.

[72] Conrad, Bringin’ Home the Bacon, 12.

[73] Ibid.

[74] Bulletins, 1938—Imported Style Frankfurters, Rath Packing Company Records, MS 562, Series 10, Box 1, Folder 7, Special Collections Department, Iowa State University Library.

[75] “Wieners” or “Frankfurters” originated in Germany and Vienna, and were appropriated as the American “hot dog” in the early twentieth century. See Roger Horowitz, Putting Meat on the American Table: Taste, Technology, Transformation (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), 78-80; Lil Injun Wiener Advertisement, Rath Packing Company Records, MS 562, Series 8, Box 39, Folder 70, Special Collections Department, Iowa State University Library.

[76] Free Headdress, Rath Packing Company Records, MS 562, Series 8, Box 39, Folder 75, Special Collections Department, Iowa State University Library.

[77] Horowitz, Putting Meat on the American Table, 91.

[78] Rathskeller Advertisement, Rath Packing Company Records, MS 562, Series 8, Box 97, Folder 31, Special Collections Department, Iowa State University Library.

[79] Mild Sausage Advertisement Art, Rath Packing Company Records, Series 8, Box 97, Folder 20, Special Collections Department, Iowa State University Library; Smoked Sausage Advertisement Art, Rath Packing Company Records, Series 8, Box 97, Folder 6, Special Collections Department, Iowa State University Library.

[80] “The Packer’s a Chef with 900 Specialties,” Waterloo Packer, 1941. Rath Packing Company Records, MS 562, Series 13, Box 9, Special Collections Department, Iowa State University Library.

[81] “Statement of the American Meat Institute to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health,” 1973. Rath Packing Company Records, MS 562, Series 5, Box 9, Folder 25, Special Collections Department, Iowa State University Library; “John W. Rath,” Rath, John W. and Family Folder, Grout Museum of History and Science, Waterloo, Iowa.

[82] Bulletins, 1946. Rath Packing Company Records, MS 562, Series 10, Box 1, Folder 23, Special Collections Department, Iowa State University Library.

[83] Rath’s Sales Program for 1948. Rath Packing Company Records, MS 562, Series 8, Box 24, Folder 7, Special Collections Department, Iowa State University Library.

[84] Ibid.

[85] Tide Magazine article, October 25, 1957. Rath Packing Company Records, MS 562, Series 11, Box 1, Folder 1, Special Collections Department, Iowa State University Library. See also Conrad, Bringin’ Home the Bacon, 14, for a discussion of Chop-ettes.

[86] Donnell, Why the Rath Packing Company Failed, 13-14, 17.

[87] Conrad, Bringin’ Home the Bacon, 16.

[88] Donnell, Why the Rath Packing Company Failed, 27.

[89] Ibid.

[90] Ibid.

[91] Ibid., 28.

[92] Attitude Surveys, 1957. Rath Packing Company Records, MS 562, Series 11, Box 1, Folder 3, Special Collections Department, Iowa State University Library.

[93] Ibid.

[94] Conrad, Bringin’ Home the Bacon, 10.

[95] Ibid.

[96] Donnell, Why the Rath Packing Company Failed, 11.

[97] Ibid., 15.

[98] Ibid., 10.

[99] Ibid., 15-16; Conrad, Bringin’ Home the Bacon, 15.

[100] Lyftogt, ed., Left for Dixie: The Civil War Diary of John Rath, 3.

[101] Ibid.

[102] Lyftogt, ed., Left for Dixie, 97.

[103] Randolph W. Lyon, “University of Dubuque,” in Encyclopedia Dubuque. December 23, 2010. Carnegie-Stout Library Foundation. Accessed on January 7, 2012.

[104] Ibid.

[105] Dorothy Schwieder, Iowa: The Middle Land (Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press, 1996), 94.

[106] Ibid., 96.

[107] Hartman, ed., History of Blackhawk County, 27; Donnell, Why the Rath Packing Company Failed, 9-10.

[108] “John W. Rath.”

[109] “History of the Presbyterian Home in Ackley, Iowa.”

[110] Ibid.

[111] Ibid.

[112] Ibid.

[113] “John W. Rath.”

[114] Ibid.

[115] Ibid.; “Editorials,” Rath, John W. and Family Folder, Grout Museum of History and Science, Waterloo, Iowa.

[116] “John W. Rath.”

[117] Ibid.

[118] Ibid.; “The Rath Packing Company.”

[119] “The Rath Packing Company.”

[120] “John W. Rath.”

[121] Moir, ed., Past and Present of Hardin County Iowa, 206.

[122] “The Rath Packing Company.”

[123] Hartman, ed., History of Black Hawk County, 27; Moir, ed., Past and Present of Hardin County Iowa, 418.

 

Cite this Entry

APA Style

"John Washington Rath." (2018) In Immigrant Entrepreneurship, Retrieved May 26, 2018, from Immigrant Entrepreneurship: http://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entry.php?rec=163

Chicago Style

Kleinschmidt, Rachel. "John Washington Rath." In Immigrant Entrepreneurship: German-American Business Biographies, 1720 to the Present, vol. 3, edited by Giles R. Hoyt. German Historical Institute. Last modified December 04, 2014. http://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entry.php?rec=163

MLA Style

"John Washington Rath," Immigrant Entrepreneurship, 2018, Immigrant Entrepreneurship. 26 May 2018 <http://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entry.php?rec=163>

John Washington (J.W.) Rath, President of the Rath Packing Company

  • Rath Packing Plant, Waterloo, IA, ca. 1950
  • Rath Packing Company, Waterloo, IA, ca. 1901.
  • John Rath, the father of John Washington Rath
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