Georgetown’s Meat Industry


The season for pork butchering is commencing.” (Georgetown Courier, December 5, 1874)


According to 1865 assessments, there were seven slaughterhouses on either side of what is now Wisconsin Avenue, in the northern portion of Beatty and Hawkins’ Addition to Georgetown, in what is now Glover Park. The slaughterhouses belonged to Charles Homiller, Benjamin F. Hunt, Christian C. Yeabower, Theodore Barnes, A. Frederick Scheele, Henry Weaver, and Peter Dill. This was the Georgetown syndicate of master butchers, (which also included Joseph Weaver, and the Kengla brothers, who had their slaughterhouses outside of Georgetown, in Washington County).

Although there were butchers and slaughterhouses at many other places on the periphery of Georgetown and Washington City, the list of butchers affected by the fire at Centre Market (December 19, 1870) suggests that from a quarter to a third were from Upper Georgetown or from Tenleytown, presumably because livestock drovers came from points west of the District. (Journal of the Columbia Historical Society, 1960-62:88; vol.26:66)

Compared to its present-day industrial equivalent, a private slaughterhouse of the 19th century was miniscule, and before the advent of refrigeration, its activity was seasonal: livestock was purchased in late summer, fattened in fall, and killed in winter. But even if it is small, and only operates for a few months a year, a slaughterhouse is not something people want in their neighborhood. In 1820 the city of Georgetown therefore ordained that new slaughterhouses had to be at a fixed distance from the commercial and residential heart of the city––specifically, north of Madison Street (Whitehaven Parkway), and west of Lingan Street (36th Street). For the rest of the century, the bulk of the land that is now Glover Park was, to a great extent, characterized by the meat industry. (Georgetown Ordinances, June 28, 1820)

A 19th century master butcher was an entrepreneur, with expertise in a great deal more than cuts of meat. He judged, selected, and negotiated the price of the livestock bought from drovers and dealers at annual markets; invested time and money fattening the animals for slaughter; and supervised the cutting, curing, and packing. At the retail end of his operation he presided over his permanent stands in the municipal market houses of Georgetown and Washington, where their clientele awaited them. They were the kings of the marketplace. “Homiller, Yeabower, and jolly Joe Weaver with white aprons, were punctual in attendance with home-killed beef, lamb, and pork, at Western Market during the Civil War.” (Journal of the Columbia Historical Society, 29-30:283)

In its heyday, butchering was a family business; a butcher’s son learned the trade at his father’s side, and was fairly likely to marry a butcher’s daughter.  (If he found the field too crowded with brothers and cousins, a butcher’s son might enter into an allied trade: the advantages to having a livestock broker in the family were obvious.) Collectively, the intermarried families of master butchers and allied trades formed a syndicate, with cooperation ensured by family connection.

Below the master butcher was the journeyman butcher who was employed to assist him. If the journeyman had sufficient promise, he might hope to secure his future by marrying the master’s daughter. If the journeyman already had a family, he could expect to be the master’s tenant, perhaps in the house the master had occupied in earlier days; there were also numerous “tenements” on Back Street, and in the village of Wilberforce. Then as now, not much of what happened in these places made news, unless it was bad. In 1873, a beef butcher named John Wilson, out of employment and drinking, hanged himself at the western end of Henry Kengla’s farm, leaving a wife and five children to fend for themselves. (Georgetown Courier, December 6, 1873)

An apprentice, indentured to learn “the art and mystery” of a trade, occupied its bottom rung, and in the District of Columbia, as in many other places, apprentices were often orphans.(Joseph Collins, apprenticed to Henry Kengla, in 1836; William Tracey, to Jacob Kengla, in 1839; Robert Cox, to Jacob Kengla, in 1839: in Provine, Register of District of Columbia Indentures of Apprenticeship, 1801-1893, 1998)

Although their lives left few documentary traces, and many details are now lost to us, the case of one local apprentice, who appears repeatedly in the records over a span of four decades, provides a general idea of apprenticeship in action. “John Threlkeld of Georgetown certifies that (John) Baptist was born free, and that he knew his mother, Mima, alias Diana, alias Mary Baptist (also free born).” (DC Free Negro Register 39, October 3, 1831)

The little boy––for whom it was urgent to secure his freedom papers while those who knew the status of his deceased mother were still available––reappears in the records nine years later. “John Baptist, an orphan negro child who was 9 on January 1 instant, is apprenticed until age 21, with John Barnaclo to learn the art of gardening and farming.”

In return for feeding and clothing the boy, and giving him a place to sleep, John Barnaclo––the warden of the Georgetown Poor House––got twelve years of work from John Baptist, at the end of which he transferred the young man to work for a German butcher who lived south of the Poor House. “With the consent of the Trustees of the Poor of Georgetown, John Baptist, a colored orphan, is apprenticed to serve until January 1, 1853 with Christian Yearbour of Georgetown, to learn the trade of butcher.” In short, John Baptist, who had been set to work at age nine, could begin to be paid for his labor when he was twenty-four.  (Provine, Register of District of Columbia Indentures of Apprenticeship, 1801-1893, 1998: no.1824, January 21, 1842; no.2135, August 19, 1850; John Baptist married Mary Shipley in 1866, and in the 1872 directory of Georgetown, was listed as a butcher, living at 293 High Street.)


“Public sale, deed of trust executed by the late George Baltzer to secure a debt: a yellow man named Sam Dorsey, age about 20 years, a butcher.” (Intelligencer, July 14, 1815. The Baltzer family were the first generation of Georgetown butchers.)


In addition to journeymen and apprentices––the former received wages, the latter did not––the master butchers of Georgetown also had the option of owning some workers outright. Although early censuses show that, at the beginning of the 19th century, when they established themselves in Upper Georgetown, German-Americans like the Kengla, Homiller and Weaver families were not slaveholders, it is clear that they adapted themselves to prevailing conditions where slavery was taken for granted: by the time of Emancipation in the District of Columbia (1862), these same three families owned upwards of forty slaves.

Their names are on record because local slaveowners were permitted to file claims for compensation for their freed slaves. Although claims did not require a description of the kind of work their slaves had done, the compensation claims filed at the time of Emancipation do show that the butcher Henry Kengla had a slave named Nathan Brooks, age 38,and that Brooks was a butcher. (This is probably the same Nathan Brooks, committed August 3, 1858 as a runaway slave by John W. Gross, and released September 14, to Charles Kenley [i.e. Kengla]. (Hynson, Jerry M., District of Columbia Runaway And Fugitive Slave Cases 1848-1863, Willow Bend Books, 1999)

But even if a local compensation claims doe not specify a freed slave’s pre-war occupation, his post-war history still permits an inference. We know, for example, of Abraham Hawkins, an African-American butcher who lived on Back Street [Tunlaw Road] after the Civil War, that, until 1862, he had been a slave of the butcher Charles Homiller.

Considering the hard work associated with slaughtering, there is little reason to doubt that, of the seven adult men held as slaves by local butchers, all had been employed in some part of the trade of their owners. (On the hard work of women and children, the record is silent.)


Post Script

After the Civil War, as the volume of Western livestock arriving in the District of Columbia by rail increased in relation to the volume delivered by Virginia drovers at the annual market at Drover’s Rest, on MacArthur Boulevard, the master butchers of Upper Georgetown were compelled to reconsider the location of their operations. And after ice-cooled railroad cars were introduced in 1880, and dressed carcasses began to be shipped from packing houses in Chicago, local stock pens and feedlots no longer made sense.

At the same time that local and regional meat production was giving way to the growing national system of railroads and stockyards and packing plants, open land on the periphery of Washington, formerly devoted to agricultural use, was becoming desirable for suburban development.  (See The Passing of the Butcher Trade.)



Carlton Fletcher

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