Three Million Pounds of Meat A Week

Photos from 2006 to 2010.

Cruise through the Eastern Market area and you'll probably notice one or two abandoned warehouses, the current largest of which is undoubtedly the former Thorn Apple Valley Detroit Slaughterhouse at 2900 Orleans (corner of Wilkins).

It didn't start out life as a slaughterhouse though, as according to the Sanborn maps of the location this "Factory Blg" as it is labeled was built in 1937 as Allen Industries Inc., Plant B, who manufactured "carpet pads" there. An earlier map (1921) shows a scrap iron yard on this spot where the building would be.

Thorn Apple Valley is a brand name that I grew up with and took for granted as a universal thing--I assumed that it was just a national brand that everyone had on their supermarket shelf, and had no idea that the company was actually founded and based in Michigan. A very detailed history of the company can be found at (though it draws pretty much everything from the International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 22, 1998).

It says that in 1949 a Mr. Henry Dorfman emigrated to the United States from Poland, settled in Detroit, and opened a butcher shop. By 1959 he must have been doing well enough that he was able to buy up the Frederick Packing Co., a small hog slaughterhouse. His company purchased, butchered, and sold pork to both consumers and wholesalers, and continued expanding by acquiring other small slaughterhouses and meat processing plants around the Midwest and in the eastern states.

I explored and talked about Detroit's meatpacking industry in much greater detail in a different post about the Hammond & Standish Co. slaughterhouse.

After Mr. Dorfman purchased Herrud & Co. of Grand Rapids in 1969 he changed his company's name to Frederick and Herrud. The former Herrud facility later became Thorn Apple's Grand Rapids Division, where they manufactured smoked sausages, hot dogs, and lunch meats.

In 1977 the company reincorporated because of changes in Michigan's business laws, and at that time their corporate headquarters was located in the Detroit suburb of Southfield.

This building was Thorn Apple's Detroit Slaughterhouse, and it backed up to the Dequindre Cut railroad line, across from the Schmidt Brewing Co.'s bottling department (seen at left):

Dorfman also sought to reframe the company's image as a producer of high quality and premium brand products, and in 1984 that's when the company took on the name "Thorn Apple Valley." But just in case you thought that was just some made-up idyllic-sounding name to sell sausage links, there is actually a Thornapple River in lower Michigan, a tributary of the Grand River, whose source is in Eaton County.

This slaughterhouse was closed down in 1986, and production was moved to up to a plant on Farnsworth, across the street from Fisher Body Plant 10.

In 1987 Thorn Apple Valley reorganized, and son Joel Dorfman took over the reigns of the company from his father. As of the next year Thorn Apple began expanding operations in the western U.S. by continuing to make acquisitions, while "tightening" their management structure, making "continued alterations to the marketing plan," and establishing a central distribution warehouse in Detroit sometime around 1991. Thorn Apple's Deli and Smoked Meats Division plant was also located in Detroit, at 3925 Tillman Street (now demolished).

The year 1991 was a very good year for Thorn Apple Valley, when they could boast of having the highest percentage of return on invested capital of any food and beverage company (38.4%) and the fourth best percentage sales gains, which topped even better-known companies such as Coca-Cola, Kellogg, and General Mills.

The production levels in the Detroit plant for 1991 increased from 200,000 pounds weekly to over three million pounds weekly. That's a lot of damned sausage, and I know I ate my fair share. Later that year Thorn Apple acquired Cavanaugh Lakeview Farms in Chelsea, Michigan, a seller of gourmet meat products.

The company made significant capital investments in its existing plants during the 1990s, and even built a new plant from the ground up for the first time. Thorn Apple's fresh-pork slaughterhouse at Frederick Street and Farnsworth was renovated, although it was plagued with problems in its sophisticated hydraulic-driven conveyor system that took a whole year to iron out.

When functioning properly, this upgraded plant was projected to be able to slaughter and process 1,800 hogs an hour, which was more than double the capacity of any of their competitors.

Thorn Apple continued to restructure though the mid-1990s, and Smithfield Foods again approached the Dorfmans with a buyout/merger proposal in 1997, but they again rebuffed the offer. Believing that their intensive restructuring efforts were beginning to pay off, Thorn Apple continued to forge ahead, but an unforeseen disaster was about to strike.

The book Food Alert!: The Ultimate Sourcebook for Food Safety tells of a massive meat recall that Thorn Apple Valley was forced to undergo by the USDA in January of 1999 as a result of products from its Arkansas plant that may have been contaminated with listeria, which amounted to 30 million pounds of hot dogs and lunch meat. I have to wonder where they put all the crap to dispose of it. The recall occurred despite the fact that Thorn Apple's meats were produced under one of the most comprehensive health and safety programs in the business--and under inspection by the USDA. 

Apparently the company's PR took a sudden nosedive as a result of the massive recall, because they issued a statement a couple months later reiterating to the public that only the meats produced in the Arkansas plant prior to a certain date were affected, and that everything else on the shelves was perfectly fine. Furthermore, the USDA stated that no one ever became ill as a result of the products in question.

Nonetheless I am going to have to assume that the reason Thorn Apple ended up in bankruptcy court later that year had something to do with the recall, and the fallout with consumers from said recall. They were bought out in July 1999 for $115 million, proceeds all going to satisfy the $182 million debt to their creditors. And that explains why I haven't seen a Thorn Apple Valley sausage in almost 20 years.

I climbed up the watertower for a better view of my surroundings.

Just up the tracks, the abandoned silos of the Peter Koenig Coal Co. still stood:

Looking down at the Schmidt Brewing bottling plant again:

Cass Tech peeking out from behind the now-demolished Brewster-Douglas Towers:

Eastern Market from above, in all of its grimy glory:

It's too bad these photos aren't scratch & sniff, so that you could experience the heady summer aroma of rotting sheep hides piled in a leaky dumpster, the backed-up sewer drains, or the acres of expired hams and various discarded vegetables strewn about in the backstreets or the Dequindre Cut itself.

When people talk about "Pure Michigan," those are the types of things that come to mind for me, not just the idealized tourist billboard images of Belle Isle or the Mackinac Bridge. In fact, here goes a truck full of entrails right now:

Perhaps the most perfect view of the Dequindre Cut:

The green horizon in view here is actually Windsor, Canada:

Eastern Market is one of the few areas of the city that has any of what the urban planner types like to call "density," but it's mostly warehouses and butcher shops:

Further up the Dequindre tracks you can see the Grand Trunk Cold Storage, Hoban Cold Storage, and Fisher Body Plant 10:

This slaughterhouse was put on the list of 50 blighted sites that Kwame Kilpatrick's administration announced they would demolish in 2008. The list included a $612,000 estimated pricetag for the demolition work, but the building still stands today. 

Personally, I think this old "eyesore" could be a pretty sweet loft conversion, and that's coming from someone who generally rolls their eyes at that sort of thing when it results in reduced available commercial space. With the EPA cleanup completed, and the Dequindre Cut "Greenway" project now at the very doorstep of this abandoned behemoth, the time seems ripe for it. Imagine how much better it would look if you knocked all the bricks out of the windows and put large sash windows back in...

Though I would not recommend the book overall, Mark Binelli's Detroit City Is the Place to Be has a funny interlude where he meets a man that used to work at this plant, and who said that he had the horrible job of using a whip to herd the pigs into the abattoir. Yummm...

The roof on this place was big enough to hold a baseball game, but not a lot of people made it up here since if I recall correctly the stairs had been ripped out and the only way up was by a very shaky, broken 14-foot wooden ladder someone had propped up against some pipes on the wall...

St. Joseph's Catholic Church:

Despite being located near the heart of busy Eastern Market, there were some parts of this property that looked fairly apocalyptic, and at least the lower floor / basement of the building served as a homeless colony, which explains why the floor was entirely covered in layers of rubbish. It seemed like for a little while there were dozens of people living in the downstairs of this place on the loading docks that faced the railroad tracks, and it reeked to high hell.

It was the very picture of everything that Hollywood movies have taught you about the ominous squalor in which the other half lives, here at the dark, rat-infested underbelly of society. Nor was it uncommon to hear the lurid groans and lunatic ravings of its addled denizens echoing through the vacant corridors of this lair.

And I generally stayed away from this place in the mid-2000s for the most part, since it was literally home to a lot of folks, and I've always been generally shy of barging into peoples' living space with a camera--not so much out of fear of what might happen in the dark, what with shankings and shivvings and all that--but out of politeness.

By about 2010 however they had already moved on, sort of like the forced mass exodus that cleared out Michigan Central Station in the early 2000s, or the Eddystone Hotel, so the stench, and the sense of danger have lifted somewhat. But you have to wonder what happens when large groups of homeless people suddenly disappear...did they simply move on to greener pastures of their own accord, or were they rounded up and put into trucks and dumped in some remote area, as the Detroit Police have done on many occasions in order to make downtown look "clean"? Who cares what happens to people if they're poor, just so long they're gone, right? Go Tigers!

Or is there some human slaughterhouse out there somewhere in the middle of the urban prairie where they take all of the homeless people to be ground up into cheap meat for slathering all over coney dogs, in turn feeding them back to the plump tourists who belly-up to the counters at Detroit's signature downtown eateries?

As we were leaving the slaughterhouse one night we spotted a fire going in one part of the building that seemed to have been a campfire for someone...but upon closer investigation we found nobody in sight. Perhaps they had just been abducted and taken to be ground up into coney dogs? Makes one wonder how Thorn Apple achieved its goal of three million pounds of meat per range human is much cheaper than pig any day of the week.

Somewhere out of the darkness we heard a pained howl, as of someone struggling against unseen enemies. Just another eerie night in Detroit.

Sanborn map for Detroit, Vol. 3, Sheet 22 (1921)
Sanborn map for Detroit, Vol. 3, Sheet 22 (1921-Nov. 1950)
Food Alert!: The Ultimate Sourcebook for Food Safety, by Morton Satin, p. 200-201
Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis, by Mark Binelli, p. 92

Riding the Rails

St. Joseph County in southwestern Michigan has a very long history and a couple fairly interesting abandoned places to check out, such as the Old Cowling Road Bridge, and c.1870s Parkville Christian Community Church, which unfortunately was torn down in recent years.

The county was organized in 1829, several years before Michigan even became a state. It lies in the southernmost tier of counties (bordering Indiana), which were the first ones to be formed from the Michigan Territory. The Old Sauk Trail, or Old Chicago Road (US-12) crosses it, an ancient Indian trail that became a military road, and finally a highway.

I cruised over the Correll Road / County Route 145 bridge just northwest of Colon on the way to my first destination, and saw these ruined bridge footings in the St. Joseph River not far from the old Washtenaw Trail (another old Indian trail, whose path state highway M-60 basically follows in the present day).

I pulled over to investigate a little closer, and my feeling was that this had once been a railroad crossing over the river.

Thanks to a map of historic railroads in St. Joseph County on, I was able to see that a branch of the Michigan Central Railroad from Battle Creek to Goshen, Indiana once passed through this area, though I am not quite 100% sure that explains these particular footings.

According to David M. Brown's Michigan County Atlas, St. Joseph County was named after the St. Joseph River, which was in turn named for the patron saint of New France (Canada). The river was originally called the Miami River however, after the local Miami tribe, but it was renamed by the French missionaries who were based out of Fort St. Joseph, near Niles, during the fur trading days in the 1600s and 1700s. The first permanent settlers didn't begin putting down roots in this area until 1825 when the Erie Canal was opened. Today, the population of St. Joseph County is still fairly sparse, at about 62,000 people.

Once I reached Colon, the "Magic Capitol of the World," I stopped downtown for breakfast.

In 1832 Colon was also the site of Fort Hogan, a palisaded earthwork fort built by local militia during the Black Hawk War. I had come here to check out an old mill south of town, but had no luck there, so I kept going. In case you're wondering, Colon got its name from the shape of the nearby lake, which supposedly looks like a colon.

I then headed toward the city of Three Rivers to check on a mill there. For some reason I thought that all the covered bridges left in Michigan were up around the Grand Rapids / Ionia area...well I was wrong--there's the Langley Covered Bridge, which I crossed near the St. Joseph County seat of Centreville:

The bridge was constructed in 1887 by nearby Parkville builder Pierce Bodmer and named for the Langley family, pioneers who helped establish the Village of Centreville. It's the longest remaining covered bridge in the State of Michigan, and yes it is made out of wood (which is why covered bridges are covered in the first place).

Almost immediately after crossing the bridge my road came to a three-way intersection, with a large traffic island in the middle of it...except the traffic island was a cemetery:

The sign says that the Culbertson family owned all the land in this area back in the 1830s to 1860s, and this was their family burying grounds. It is still used to this day by three families, and it was featured on Ripley's Believe It or Not as "the cemetery in the middle of the road."

After traveling down some more gorgeous oak-lined country roads I eventually I arrived at my target, this old brick plant:

It was rather small and oddly shaped...and there was nowhere discrete for me to park without making my intentions obvious to all in this teeny town. I therefore drove about a half mile away, planning to hike back on foot along a former railroad grade that passed adjacent to the plant.

This village was settled in 1835, which is about when the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railroad came through the area, but as you can see this section of track was abandoned and the rails were removed many years ago.

I spoke more of the history of the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railroad in older posts about the towns of Osseo, and Adrian.

This old viaduct still looked very much sturdy, being old riveted American steel couched upon solid stone blocks.

I also noticed another small culvert at a stream crossing that was equally well-wrought of the same quarried stone blocks:

Finally reaching the plant itself, I took notice of the cornerstone:

The inscription reads, "Sheffield Mfg. Co., Established 1889, George S. Sheffield and Adelbert C. Himebaugh, Incorporated 1899, Building Erected 1902."

As it would turn out, this company name was not so obscure as I thought, and researching its history proved to be fairly easy. According to one railroading website, Sheffield Manufacturing Co. was originated around 1877 by an ex-farmer from Nottawa named George S. Sheffield. At some point farming must not have been doing it for Mr. Sheffield anymore, and he picked up a job in Three Rivers at a pump manufacturing plant.

Sheffield's daily commute to work involved walking along the Michigan Central Railroad tracks for seven miles between his farmhouse and his factory job. During one of these exceedingly long walks, his knowledge of pump mechanics must have led him to conceive of the idea of building a three-wheeled railroad hand-powered car (called a velocipede).

The velocipede was somewhat like a bicycle inasmuch as the driver used his hands and feet to push and pull the pedals for propulsion, but there was a third wheel for balance, and it was light enough to be pulled off of the tracks to make way for trains.

Mr. Sheffield built the contraption, but since he had no clearance to operate such a device on the railroad, he had to test his invention covertly at night. On one of his test runs he discovered a severely damaged rail; knowing that it would cause a disaster for sure, he waited until the next train came along and used a lantern to flag it to a safe stop. For his benevolent act the railroad thanked Sheffield, then requested that he build them a velocipede for their own use, by which they could conduct routine track inspections.

He patented the design in 1879, and opened the George S. Sheffield & Company to manufacture them. In 1882 he incorporated as the Sheffield Velocipede Car Company, and by 1883 was expanding his product line to include other railroad maintenance vehicles to his company's repertoire, including the classic "up & down" two-man handcar that has been made famous by so many slapstick cartoons.

It's not clear who invented the first railroad handcar or when, but it was an invention that appeared on a small scale in the 1860s, and came into widespread patent manufacturing in the 1880s; it had proven itself by then as an absolutely indispensable piece of equipment for railroad maintenance and construction.

Sheffield, along with the Kalamazoo Velocipede Co. and the Buda Foundry & Mfg. Co. (of Chicago) were the three main builders of handcars and velocipedes, and Sheffield was sort of the industry that put Three Rivers on the map. The website has several historic images of the Sheffield factory.

In 1888, the industrial giant Fairbanks, Morse & Co. bought half interest in Sheffield Velocipede Car Co at which time F-M became general sales agency for all of their products, though the Sheffield name was still used for them. Three years later, George Sheffield withdrew from (or was forced out of?) the company, and it was reorganized as the Sheffield Car Company in 1892, with Charles H. Morse as president.

Mr. Sheffield then partnered with a banker named Adelbert C. Himebaugh, and in 1898 they incorporated as the Sheffield Manufacturing Co., with Himebaugh as president and Sheffield as vice-president, building this factory in 1902.

Sheffield himself designed and built most of the machinery in the new plant according to, but it seemed as if he was going back to his farming roots; their product line included a patented hand corn planter, hand potato planters, garden cultivators, and steel hand sleds. The corn planter is illustrated under the brand "American Standard" in a postcard image I found on Ebay.

By 1905 the Sheffield Car Co. had begun building gasoline- and battery-powered streetcars for interurban railways and passenger coaches for steam rail. Another historic postcard image of this plant from about that time shows a sign advertising their popular corn planter.

By 1910 the Sheffield Car Co. produced “light motor cars (up to the size of a street car) and...dump cars, mining cars, marine engines, stand pipes, electrical machinery, and an endless variety of drills and track tools” according to Supposedly they continued operating until at least 1925.

Since I was starting in the basement, I tried to make my way up to the first floor, and passed this dissected boiler:

After passing through a couple halfhearted barriers that someone(?) erected to stop people from getting to the main floor, I slowly peeked up from the basement steps in a sudden moment of caution and realization that this place might not actually be abandoned...

Afraid to step out into the room for fear of setting off a motion detector, I slowly scanned my surroundings to see that there was a lot of junk in here, as if this might actually be an active business, or someone's storage area.

After a few moments of remaining completely still to listen for movement or the hum of electricity, and looking for blinking lights or tiny surveillance camera lenses, I worked up the courage to creep around the place.

It would appear that this had very recently (or might still currently) have been an antique flea market...

Now suddenly on a tight schedule, I quickly made my way up to the second floor where there would be a lesser chance of being seen, or of tripping security devices. A view of the rear of the plant out a second story window:

There wasn't much up here but more junk.

This must have been the storage for antiques that weren't ready for sale yet.

There was some interesting writing on this wall, obviously put there a long time ago:

For sorting different types of lumber into organized stacks?

Still worried that I may have tripped a silent alarm, I made my way back out as quickly and discretely as possible, hastily re-securing my entrance.

I guess that's the catch of this strange hobby of mine: occasionally having to face the rather uncomfortable fact that when it comes down to it I am nothing more than a common burglar in moral terms, slinking around in places I shouldn't be, and hoping that I don't cause anyone any undue harm. But in the eyes of police these days, intent is nine tenths of the law....

Michigan County Atlas, Second Ed., David M. Brown, p. 158
Michigan Shadow Towns, A Study of Vanishing and Vibrant Villages, by Gene Scott, p. 141