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When Thomas and Samuel Kingan boarded a boat in Belfast in 1848, they had no intention of landing on the banks of the White River. Instead, they were bound for New York City, where they would join millions of other Irish immigrants who had come to America because of the potato famine.

The owners of a prosperous meatpacking plant in northern Ireland, the Kingan brothers were expanding their operations to the United States in an effort to increase production and fill the gaps in the British market left by the potato famine. By 1851, they had opened a plant in Brooklyn which exported processed meat to England and Ireland. Two years later, they opened another plant in Cincinnati. But sadly, the luck of the Irish was not with the brothers. By the end of the decade, both of their U.S. plants had burned to the ground.

Undaunted, the Kingan brothers picked up stakes again and moved to Indianapolis, which was rapidly growing as a railroad hub. They built a five-story plant on the west side of the White River which opened to great success in 1863. Unfortunately, the third time was not a charm for the Irish pair, either. The Kingan brothers’ new Indianapolis facility – the largest porkhouse in the world — was destroyed by arson the following May, along with an immense amount of lard and hams. The intense heat from the burning pork products made it almost impossible for firefighters to extinguish the flames. At the time, the $240,000 loss was the largest ever incurred in the city.

If the Kingans had learned anything during their short time in America, however, it was the value of a good fire insurance policy. They were able to rebuild almost immediately and reopen in time for the next packing season.

The business grew quickly, profiting both from sales to the Union Army and shipments back to England. In 1873, the Kingan brothers bought a competing pork-house on the other side of the railroad tracks and connected it to their plant with a tunnel. Two years later, they merged with the Belfast firm of J&T Sinclair to form Kingan & Company. By the end of the 19th century, the Kingans’ Indianapolis plant spanned 27 acres along both sides of the White River just south of Washington Street.

Pictured above is a celluloid blotter cover from Christmas 1905. The illustration shows the immense size of the 27-acre plant, which spanned both sides of the White River.

Kingan & Company was one of the largest meat-packing companies in the world, a position it would hold for nearly a century. The Kingans needed a steady supply of labor as the business grew, and saw an opportunity for their fellow Irishmen. The brothers not only employed a large number of Irish laborers who already lived in town, they also placed advertisements in Belfast newspapers to encourage Irish workers to come to Indianapolis and work at Kingan’s.

The company built an apartment house on the westside for its Irish immigrant workers in the early 1870s. Many of the other Irish workers lived in an area adjacent to Fountain Square known as Irish Hills. While the exact boundaries of this neighborhood have been disputed, the Irish Hills area roughly encompassed the area between College on the west, Shelby on the east, with the north and south boundaries being the first two rail lines south of Washington Street.

I spotted the poster on the left at last fall's Indianapolis Antique Advertising Show. The spring show is going on today and tomorrow at the State Fairgrounds. The "Butterine" poster on the right is currently for sale on ebay. Both the racial stereotyping and the thought of "Butterine" leave a bad taste in my mouth.

At the same time the Kingans were importing Irish workers for their U.S. plants, they were busy exporting packed pork and beef for the English market. To highlight both its booming export trade and the high quality of its products, the company adopted as its logo a picture of a grizzled mariner with the word “Reliable” prominently featured.

In today’s uncertain times, consumers value reliability in their banks, in their cars, and in their deodorants. But when was the last time you worried about whether your ham was reliable? In fact, I’m not even sure what it means to call a ham “reliable.” But apparently this catch-phrase resonated with early 20th century consumers because it was used consistently on Kingan’s advertising throughout the company’s most prosperous years.

Like many other food companies, Kingan's gave away promotional items to women to encourage them to buy their products. In retrospect, however, it's doubtful that many women were persuaded to buy more lard after looking in the Kingan's mirror and using the Kingan's tape measure pictured above.

When the Kingans opened their plant in Indianapolis, pork packing was limited to winter because the meat spoiled too quickly in the warmer months. In 1868, however, a Kingan employee named George Stockman invented a process for ice curing pork in the summer which enabled Kingan’s to operate year-round. This invention revolutionized the pork industry. In his 1910 history of greater Indianapolis, historian Jacob P. Dunn explains the significance of Stockman’s invention:

Men often speak of the far-reaching effects of the Gatling gun, which was also invented in Indianapolis, but here was something even more important. Before it, pork could be packed only in the freezing weather. The season usually lasted only two or three months and was broken up by warmer weather. A warm winter was a public calamity.

Dunn went on to say that “[i]f Indianapolis wants to put up a monument for a citizen who did more for all the world than all her professional men and statesmen put together, she has the subject in George W. Stockman.” More than 100 years have passed since Dunn wrote these words, but to my knowledge, the city has yet to erect a monument to Stockman. The long-time Kingan’s employee is buried at Crown Hill cemetery.

Ice-curing was not the only innovation to come out of Kingan’s Indianapolis plant. In the 1920s, Kingan’s became the first meatpacker to sell sliced bacon, which in my view IS the greatest thing since sliced bread (another manufacturing marvel that has its origins in Indianapolis).

These close-up views of the 1905 blotter make it easier to see the labels for the various Kingan buildings, which included livestock pens, a railroad car repair shop, a box factory, a canning factory and a fire house. Interestingly, both the hair factory and the Butterine factory were housed in the same building.

Thomas Kingan died in 1906, and W.R. Sinclair came to the U.S. from the company’s Belfast plant to help run the Indianapolis operation. Five years later, Thomas Sinclair took over the reins of the company when Samuel Kingan died. The Sinclair family would run the business for the next 40 years.

Detroit-based Hygrade Corp. bought Kingan in 1952 and kept it open for another 14 years. In the face of increasing competition, the complex was shuttered in 1966. Then on July 17, 1967, the Kingan brothers’ Indianapolis empire ended the same way it started, with a blazing fire.

The Kingan brothers would not recognize the site of their once-booming Indianapolis plant if they saw it today. The 1967 blaze that destroyed much of the complex opened the way for redevelopment. Today, the 27 acres along the White River where thousands of hogs were once slaughtered daily is now home to Victory Field and the Indianapolis Zoo.

35 responses to “Indianapolis Collected: Butterine, anyone?”

  1. Sarah Mason says:

    Thank you for such an interesting story! I always love hearing about what “used to be where” in any location. Although I live in Plainfield, hearing about the history of Indianapolis is always intriguing. I will remember your information the next time I am walking by the zoo and Victory Field. Much appreciation for taking the time to post your article!
    Sarah Mason

  2. Kevin J. Brewer says:

    Indianapolis’ Wonder Bread was the first pre-sliced bread.

  3. Larry Bartlett says:

    I toured the plant in the ’50’s on a school field trip and some of the things I saw that day are still etched in my brain. Wow.

  4. M Kathleen Bradley says:

    On many days as a youngster, I would ride with my mom to pick up my dad from work – the Kingan, then Hygrade, meat plant. We would drive from Michigan street, turn left, and pass a park on the right as we approached. Any idea what street(s) and park that might have been? Thanks.

  5. mike says:

    Sounds like you were coming in Michigan St. from the east, you turned left onto West St. and passed Military Park on the right before you got to the plant, which was located at today’s Victory field and/or across the river where the zoo is now. Remember, the article says it was huge and was on both sides of the river.

    That’s how I read the article and your directions for picking up your dad and how they seem to go together for me….

    -mike

  6. Kathy says:

    Bingo, that’s it! And there was a statue of a soldier in the park I believe. The images are fuzzsy; I was only 5 or 6 andI’m 10X that now. 🙂
    Thank you!!

  7. shaun says:

    my grandpa tells me stories of when him, his brothers and his dad used to work there, and when ford motor company was built they all left and got jobs there.

  8. Paul L Hochstetler says:

    I worked at Kingans from 1951 until closing in 1966 would like to hear from any one
    working there at that time . Thanks

  9. Gerry Vorhies says:

    Hi Paul , I am writing this comment on behalf of a past employee of your employers.Lets see how good your memory is my old friend Gerry Vorhies worked there in 1965.He worked in
    the swinging beef cooler on Ray St. and was let go by John Bodell in June of 1965.
    He retired from Kroger Maintenance dept after 30 years of service.Suffered a stroke in 1996 and lives in
    Pleasantview IN.Geery is legally blind and after raising his two fine sons, he & his wife of 50 years reside there in Shelby county.In the event you recall Gerry his telephone number is 317 8616873 enjoy.

  10. Bernie Borok says:

    This is a bit out of left field, but might be interesting. I never worked at the Kingan plant, in fact I’ve never been to Indianapolis, BUT in 1955, when I was 18 and it was one of my first jobs, I worked in the New York sales office of what was then called Kingan Inc., recently bought by Hygrade. It was a small office at 55 Gansevoort St. where 4 or 5 salesmen would phone in their orders from the meat wholesalers, then I would send the orders (fresh pork loins were a hot item) by teletype (anyone remember what that was?) to the plant in Indianapolis. The only Indianapolis name I remember from those days is Ken Timmermann, a manager. If you’ve heard of the High Line, a former elevated rail spur that brought meat in freight cars directly to refrigeration facilities in Manhattan and is now a public park, the southern end of the former trestle is right across the street from where I worked. The offices were at the end of a huge building, still there, owned by the Manhattan Refrigerating Company. I’d look down the street at the trestle and see cars marked KGNX (for Kingan) and I’d tell the boss, “They’re here.” My paycheck had the address “55 S. Blackford St.” Try finding it now! I only stayed at Kingan for a few months and lost touch with them over the years, but still have memories of working in New York’s former wholesale meat market. Reading about the HighLine rekindled my interest. This wonderful article about the company is the first time I knew anything about the history, and eventual demise, of Kingan.

  11. John Diercks says:

    My dad worked at Kingan/Hygrade and was transferred to Storm Lake Iowa when the Indianapolis plant closed in 1966. His name was Jack Diercks

  12. Les Gordon II says:

    Great article Libby! Check out the article in the paper’s website about the 1910 Kingans railroad car with its original paint that has been rescued from being demolished. If you have ever been to the Midland Antique Mall it was right under all of our noses in a building just south of the mall at 925 E. Vermont Street. Cool rescue! It is a refrigerator car that used ice loaded in through the roof of the car. Unbelievable!

  13. Michelle Kingan says:

    Thanks for such an interesting and informative article.

    My Grandad Les Kingan is the great grandson of Thomas Kingan. He had a snippet of information about the Kingan’s Pure Lard Manufacturers, but not much other than Thomas left Scotland in the 19th century and went on to have a successful business.

    I couldn’t believe my luck when I came across this article. I have shared it with him and he found it fascinating.

    Many thanks,

    Michelle Kingan

  14. Tiffany Benedict Berkson says:

    Thanks so much for your comment; we love hearing from family members!

  15. Robert Kingan says:

    Well, my great-grandfather was Samuel Kingan. He left the U.S. in 1888 I think for the last time and lived the rest of his days at Glenganagh, a house on the Bangor – Groomsport road in County Down Northern Ireland. My cousin, James Kingan lives there now. I moved to the U.S. in 1984 and have gradually been assembling various historical items concerning the company. One day, likely fairly soon, I would like to donate them to the Historical Society and museum. One item I have is the complete plant operating manuals from the 1940’s when my cousin Roland Sinclair ran Kingan’s. It was the only thing he kept after the company was sold. I doubt there is another. I also have a fair number of my great-grandfather’s records, including a ledger from the 1870’s, an Indenture between him and the White River Rail Road and his own records of accounts in Indianapolis from about 1880 to 1891. To me this is really about the history of Indianapolis – especially in relation to its Irish heritage – and should be returned there.

  16. Libby Cierzniak says:

    Wow! It’s so wonderful to hear from a Kingan descendant. I was fascinated by their story and loved writing the article about the Kingan brothers.

  17. Michelle Kingan says:

    Hi James,

    So if Samuel was your great grandfather and Thomas was my Grandad’s great grandfather that must make the two of you distant cousins?

    I have quite a detailed family tree I can share with you if you drop me an email.

    Fascinating!

    Michelle

  18. Larry duh says:

    My dad Louis duh was a meat cutter af hygrades, also my brother bob worked there in the sixties,

  19. Daryl W. Gordon says:

    Paul, my dad worked there many years, Roy Gordon. He had several jobs, but I remember hog kill and box making for a couple. I also remember the name of his best friend that worked there, but not sure of the first name spelling; Deryl Cole. In the seventies I worked with an older lady at Standard Grocery that had been with Kingan (Hygrade) when it closed, but right now her name escapes me. If I can think of it, I’ll pass along.

  20. Donna Reid says:

    Hi Robert! I was speaking to your dad today! It got me googling more family history, and I came across this.
    It would be great to meet some day. I have lots of stuff I have collected from the Internet – but hoping for time to put it all together!
    Donna

  21. Doug Schmutte says:

    I remember the fire at Hygrade well.
    My father and uncles worked for IFD and fought the fire for days

  22. Morgan Wilson says:

    Hi Robert! I work at the Indiana Historical Society and am currently processing a ledger of meeting minutes from the White River Railroad Company, which includes the minutes of the company’s liquidation in 1948. I’ve been trying to find more information on the relationship between Kingan’s and the RR Co. but so far I’ve only found an appeal from the superior court which mentions that White River was owned by Kingan’s. I’d love to hear what other information you have! Thanks!
    Morgan

  23. Stephanie Benton says:

    My cousin, Wilbur Franklin, used to stoke the furnace there and we would stop there on Sunday after church. For kids it was treasure to discover this place of learning on our own. I still remember the smells, the animals carcasses frozen white with frost and the empty hooks that hung from the rails for the animals. It was quiet and eerie when no one was there.

  24. Douglas J Kelly says:

    My daughter is quality assurance manager for the Sahlen Packing Co. in Buffalo, NY. She is familiar with all of the new advances in meat preservation and packaging which she say’s has greatly increased the refrigerated shelf life of their products. This made me think about the name “Kingan’s Reliable” and why Reliable may have been used in their company name. In their business where much of their product was sold over-seas, it must have been a major challenge getting that product over there, with-out modern refrigeration, while still in an eatable condition. I’m thinking the word “Reliable” may have been directed at the European market. Getting a fresh food product shipped in across the Atlantic Ocean would require a Reliable Company. Use of the word Reliable would add buyer confidence to their company name. Beyond that, production of meat would not be my profession of choice.

  25. Pat Chase says:

    My grandfather Menzies “Pat” Fillingim, and my great grandfather Wyatt Gentry were both buyers for Kingan. They were both stockman from New Harmony, Indiana and moved to Indianapolis about 1918 to go to work for the company. I have my grandfather’s license to be a stockbroker at the Union Stock Yards. You had to be licensed to buy and sell live stock in Indianapolis. They both worked there until their passing and are along with their spouses buried at Crown Hill. I have a wonderful photo graph of Pat Fillingim and fellow workers at the stockyards.

  26. Hank Zunk says:

    My dad, Henry Zunk worked there for approx 25 years as an electrician. I remember when he was offered a job in Stormlake, Iowa in 1966. He didn’t go mostly because mom wouldn’t budge.

  27. Donna White thatcher says:

    This history is so interesting and I appreciate knowing more about the company where my Dad worked for many years. He walked to work daily from our home in west Indianapolis, known as “the valley”. His name was James Thomas White, known as ”
    Tom”. He was a very hard working man from Kentucky who worked in the Armour factory, then Kingan and Hygrade. He died on July 9, 1967, 11 months after I was married and had moved to Ohio. I will always remember him as a very hard working man who loved his large family of 11 children. Thank you so much for sharing this information that has been so fascinating to me to learn. As a 73 year old, I was prompted to learn more about the company after being asked “where did you Dad work”.
    Thanks again!

  28. Lisa Patrick Schroeder says:

    So interesting reading about Kingan’s meat factory here in Indianapolis. To my knowledge, my Great Uncle Willie Patrick worked there but i’m not sure in what capacity. The story always was told to me that he talked my grandfather, Josias Arthur Patrick into moving from Montana, He assured him he could get a job here. My Uncle John Desmond Patrick worked there also as a meat grader. He later worked for Hygrade and then was transferred to Wichita, Kansas to work for the government grading meat. Thanks for all the interesting comments!

  29. Bill Evans says:

    Hi Libby – my grandfather (William Athur Elkins) worked at Kingans too! Although I am adopted and only very recently have pieced together my broken paternal side family history, I have discovered he worked there in the late 50’s and early 60’s. It was yet another piece to put in place and I’m glad I found your article! I will post your article to my Ancestry.com family tree, with your permission?. Thanks so much for your hard work and keep up the good work helping native Hoosiers connect with their Circle City past!

  30. Becky Hardin says:

    I’m glad that you saw this, Aunt Donna.

  31. Cheryle King says:

    Thank you for this wonderful article! My Grandpa-in-law Scott Cartmel worked at Kingan’s for years & after Hygrade’s took over, too. He was very proud of Kingan’s. We have a Hygrade canned ham that processed completely through the line with no ham in it! This was a rare if not 1 of a kind occurrence, so Papaw, with permission, kept it. I’m grateful to add this history to it.

  32. B. Connan says:

    I have been doing genealogy of my family. My great grandfather John Connan came from Scotland after being asked by W.R. Sinclair to come to Indianapolis to work for Kingan’s. He was a supervisor in the sausage making area. Then his son Nelson worked there also. My great grandfather came to Indianapolis in 1890 with his wife and 6 children. He seems to have retired in 1912 or 1913. My grandfather Nelson Connan work as a supervisor in the sausage dept until his death in 1921.

  33. RICHARD CHRISTY says:

    MY UNCLE WAS ONE OF THE SEVERAL DEMOLITION COMPANYS THAT TORE DOWN THE HYGRADE/KINGANS COMPLEX.THERE WERE SEVERAL FIRES THERE BUT THE ONE THAT EVERYONE TALKS ABOUT DID NOT BURN THE WHOLE COMPLEX BUT JUST THE REFRIGERATION STORAGE BUILDING IT WAS SEVERAL STORIES HIGH (AT LEAST SIX) IT WAS MADE UP OF BRICK OUTER WALLS AND THE INTERIOR WAS MADE UP OF WOODEN TIMBERS AND FLOORING.THE CONTRACTOR THAT WAS IN CHARGE OF THAT BUILDING HAD USED EXPLOSIVES TO BLOW THE INTERIOR DOWN INTO THE BASEMENTS ONCE IT CAUGHT FIRE THERE WAS NO WAY TO EXTINGUISH IT IT ACTUALLY SMOLDERED AND BURNED FOR WEEKS,IFD HAD A FIRE HOSE MANNED BY 2 FIREMAN AND KEPT WATER ON IT FOR THOSE WEEKS. THE REMAINING BUILDINGS WERE BLOWN UP IN ONE DAY MONTHS LATER.I WAS 14 YEARS OLD AT THAT TIME AND WORKED FOR MY UNCLE ON SUMMER VACATIONS,ALL IN ALL IT TOOK A COUPLE OF YEARS TO DEMOLISH,I STILL THINK OF IT OFTEN IT WAS REALLY ALOT OF FUN GOING THROUGH ALL OF THOSE BUILDING EXPLORING,I NEVER DID FIND THE TUNNEL UNDER THE RIVER BUT SEVERAL OF THE BUILDINGS HAD BASEMENT STORIES DEEP YOU COULD ONLY GO DOWN SO FAR BECAUSE OF FLOODING. WHEN HYGRADE SHUT DOWN THEY LEFT SEVERAL BIG FLAT BED TRUCKS THAT WE COMONDEERED AND USED TO HAUL SCRAP TO A JUNK YARD THAT WAS ON WEST STREET ACCROSS THE STREET FROM IPL.THE PLANT WAS MASSIVE AND HAD 2 POWER PLANTS I WAS TOLD WHEN IPL COULDNT KEEP UP FROM HEAVY LOADS THAT THEY (HYGRADE) WOULD SELL POWER TO IPL. TO KEEP INDIANAPOLIS FROM A BLACK OUT! ANYWAY THESE ARE SOME OF MY FONDEST MEMORYS

  34. David Temple says:

    Michelle,

    I am trying to reach any relatives of WR Sinclair as my wife and I purchased property he owned in the 1920s on Sunset Lane in Crows Nest, Indianapolis. We have discovered landscaping features installed in the late 1920s by Mr. Sinclair. Maybe the Taggart family as he married Former Mayor Thomas Taggart’s daughter. Please email me with any information.

  35. Dave Taylor says:

    Thanks for a great history lesson.
    In the course of my genealogy research I discovered that my biological grandfather worked at Kingan & Co in 1918.
    We never had any info on his vocation or origin.
    My DNA Reveals a major Irish influence.
    I wonder if there is a connection between the influx of Irish workers and his arrival in Indianapolis.
    I wonder if there are any company records left that may show employee lists or their help in immigrating to the US.

    Thanks again for the history.

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