Thursday, November 18, 2021

Freight Stops: Walti-Schilling Slaughterhouse

Just north of the Santa Cruz city limits along the Davenport Branch of the Southern Pacific Railroad between Moore Creek and Shaffer Road once sat an impressive slaughterhouse owned by Walti, Schilling & Company. The company had been founded in 1897 by Frederick Rudolph Walti of Zürich, Switzerland and his father-in-law, Henry Schilling of Oregon. Walti had worked for years running the Santa Cruz Brewing Company before partnering with Joseph Bourcq in 1895 to open the El Dorado Market, a butcher shop, on Pacific Avenue. Walti eventually bought out his partner and then asked Schilling to come on as a new partner. The two incorporated Walti, Schilling & Company on December 22, 1904. A decade later, on July 7, 1914, Schilling died, followed three years later by his daughter and Walti's wife, Frieda. Feeling his age, Walti passed management of the company to his son, Fred Jr., in 1922 and entered semi-retirement. The young Fred Walti had ideas for the company he now found himself in charge of, and the first of these was a substantial expansion.

Workers on the killing floor of the Walti, Schilling & Company processing plant at Orby, published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel-News 1953. 

Since the 1890s, Walti, Schilling & Company had owned a slaughterhouse and stockyard on 7th Avenue beside Woods Lagoon and the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks. By 1922, this facility had become run down and could no longer keep up with demand. To rectify this, Fred purchased a large 70 acre property near Orby Station on the Davenport Branch from Stella Tolle for $16,000 in November 1922. At this new site, Walti-Schilling intended to build a cold storage plant and modern slaughterhouse on twelve of the acres. It also planned to lease the remaining acreage to two artichoke growers, G Marcucci and P. Guidotti. The initial estimates to build the facility were around $45,000. To help cover this cost, Fred reached out to the United States military in a bid to win its meat contract for all Central Coast military facilities.

New El Dorado Meat Market advertisement, published in the Santa Cruz Evening News May 13, 1919.

The firm relocated to the new facility in September 1923, abandoning its previous slaughterhouse at Twin Lakes. The Evening News described the facility in 1924, explaining that the main building is a two-story concrete structure with eighteen foot ceilings. Wood was only used on doors and window frames to make sanitizing the facility easier. Hot water taps were also available throughout the facility for cleaning. Meat was conveyed throughout the facility on overhead tracks and uncut meat was stored in a room kept at ~37˚F. Employee housing was provided along today's Shaffer Road in the form of cottages which included sewage, tap water, baths, and lighting. 

Advertisement for Walti-Schilling meats, published in the Evening News August 9, 1924.

The company contracted the county's first meat inspector, F. H. Totman, who checked the quality of every animal that passed through the slaughterhouse. At the time, this was a voluntary option, but one an increasing number of customers preferred and that many other counties required. By March 1924, Walti-Schilling was importing most of its cattle from Denver and Omaha, although meat continued to come in from other western states as well. Meat was processed in many different ways throughout the facility, with some salted, some turned to sausages and cured meats, some smoked, and some converted to fertilizer, soap, or other products. In 1925, a bone mill was added to the factory to produce bone meal for poultry.

Aerial photograph showing the Walti-Schilling plant at Orby with the Davenport Branch and its spur, 1953. [University of California, Santa Cruz]

Fred Walti paid the Southern Pacific Railroad to install a 47-car spur track along the Davenport Branch for $3,000. A random week's summary published in the Evening News in 1924 reported that two carloads of cattle, two of lambs, one of hogs, one of crude oil, one of hay, and one of barrels were received on this spur. The majority of meat was shipped out via truck. In 1929, Southern Pacific officially removed Orby as a passenger stop and transferred control of its to Walti-Schilling company, although in 1949 three other businesses were added onto the list of local customers. Orby was removed from station lists in 1954 as part of a slow reduction in the railroad's list of registered stations.

Walti-Schilling beef cows at the stock yard, published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel April 24, 1949.

The slaughterhouse at Orby underwent three major overhauls throughout its lifetime. The first happened in 1930. It increased processing times to either 8 cattle per hour, 30 lambs per hour, 20 calves per hour, or 30 hogs per hour, with space within the freezer for 225 hanging beef cattle carcasses. Just a year later, on the morning of December 1, 1931, an electrical appliance ignited a fire in the tallow warehouse beside the slaughterhouse. It took firefighters two hours to extinguish the flames and $50,000 in damages were accrued. The warehouse was completely destroyed, as well as several expensive pieces of machinery that were being stored there. Fortunately for the company, the main slaughterhouse sustained only minimal damage. Repairs began at once with the warehouse rebuilt over the following months.

Eugene and Leona (née Hansen) Ranconi on their 50th anniversary, published in the Sentinel March 3, 1970.

A minor expansion followed in 1934 and then, in May 1936, a fire at the downtown El Dorado Market led Fred to abandon the retail wing of Walti-Schilling, shutting down a business that had operated for forty-two years under the Walti-Schilling name. Fred Walti, Sr., meanwhile, died on December 7, 1940, leaving the company entirely in the hands of the next generation. Fred Jr. accomplished his father's dream of winning the Central Coast meat contract during World War II, becoming a primary supplier of meat products to all the Army and Navy bases throughout the greater Bay Area. The company retained these contracts after the war, as well. Fred and his sister Clara Pearson, as well as their children, sold their shares in the company to Ed and Allan Peterson in January 1949, leaving direct management of the facility to their business partner Eugene Ranconi, who had joined Walti-Schilling in 1917. This put an end to Walti family influence within the firm.

Butcher crews hanging up beef carcasses on the overhead conveyor, published in the Sentinel-News 1953.

Now in charge, Ranconi and the Petersons substantially renovated and expanded the Orby facilities in 1952. The project cost $375,000 and the renovations were overseen by James M. Smith and Kermit J. McGranahan. The primary new features of the remodel were a more efficient killing floor, expanded cooler space, and electronic conveyors and sanitary equipment. Statistically, the new facility could now slaughter in an hour either 20 cattle, 40 calves, 60 hogs, or 100 lambs. The freezer could hold 250 beef or 500 lamb carcasses. Walti-Schilling also paid for a permanent meat inspector, Dr. Frank S. Palmer, to be stationed at the slaughterhouse. This had become necessary to secure government contracts, and about 75% of meat consumed at Fort Ord in Monterey was processed at the Orby plant in the years following the war. It is likely that the spur was also decommissioned, although not demolished, since it appears disused in aerial photographs of this time. An earlier statement in 1949 suggested that most of the company's freight came in and left via truck by that date.

Dino Ceschi, Larry Wolfsen, and Ray Pogiatto in the Walti-Schilling plant freezer, published in the Sentinel December 23, 1962.

The Petersons sold their interest in the company to Lawrence G. and Henry B. Wolfsen in mid-1960, although Ranconi remained vice president and general manager. Wolfsen Feed Lots, Inc., owned extensive cattle interests in Los Banos and Dos Palos and its majority share in Walti-Schilling marked the first time that the company had been owned by an outside interest. Early the next year, Wolfsen oversaw a $100,000 minor upgrade to the cooler and freezer rooms, to increase the storage capacity of the facility. Wolfsen died suddenly in San Francisco on December 2, 1962, leaving management of the company to his son, Larry, and brother, Henry.

The Walti-Schilling processing plant undergoing remodelling, published in the Sentinel 1965.

Five years after purchasing the company, the Wolfsens and Ranconi oversaw a third and final remodel of the facility in 1965 when they invested $500,000 to expand the production, packaging, and processing buildings, which were upgraded but not replaced in 1952. Most of the remaining original structures were demolished at the time to make room for the new buildings. The increased capacity allowed up to 1,600 beef cows to be processed per week, making the slaughterhouse among the top three in Northern California. 

Advertisement of Walti, Schilling & Company, published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel September 12, 1971.

Despite the expensive remodel only a decade earlier, the Walti-Schilling plant shut down on July 1, 1977. Ranconi died in December 1973, leaving sole control of the firm to the Wolfsens. At the time, Larry Wolfsen stated that the business “has been barraged with cost increases from all sides. Rising costs to cattlemen has shortened the supply of cattle to slaughterhouses.” He added that the situation was “aggravated by recent labor disputes.” Around 120 workers were laid off but most went to work for butchers in the Santa Clara Valley. Wolfsen Feed Lots, Inc., did not immediately dissolve, however. It remained involved in the farm and livestock industries, primarily in Los Banos, for two more years. On June 16, 1978, the directors elected to dissolve the firm, which was implemented January 15, 1979.

Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
~36.9577N, 122.0647W
1201 Shaffer Road, Santa Cruz

The site of the Walti-Schilling slaughterhouse is now occupied by Future Motion and the Pacific Shores apartment complex off Shaffer Road, accessible via Mission Street or California State Route 1 northwest of Santa Cruz. Reytek Inc. took over the facility in 1982 and converted the former slaughterhouse into an office building, which it remains today. The site of the spur is more easily accessed from Shaffer Road via Delaware Avenue, although note that the tracks are owned by Santa Cruz County and trespassing is not encouraged. Other than an unusually wide right-of-way along the north side of the tracks, where the spur once sat, no evidence remains of this spur.

Citations & Credits:

  • Southern Pacific Railroad. Officers, Agencies & Station Book, 1929-1954.
  • Various articles from the Santa Cruz Sentinel, Evening News, and Sentinel-News.

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