By the author.
A history of the Anglo-Argentine community in Argentina. Click on the English or Spanish version to purchase or find out more.
Fábrica Colόn in its heyday
The meatpacking plant is closed. The British are gone. But the memories of Fábrica Colόn remain.
What is left of Fábrica Colόn, now Pueblo Liebig, are the memories of better times, with never an ill word about the British. They are remembered as benefactors.
The town feels as one that progress forgot, but was once a model of advancement, not only for Argentina but for the world. The formerly magnificent factory is in ruins, an object of "industrial archaeology," if we had any idea in Argentina of the concept of conservation. Visitors pay the gatekeeper - because he is uncertain about collecting his wages - two pesos each to tour the closed canning plant, the boilers, and best of all, the turbines that generated the steam to cook thousands of cows that walked in one end and were piled up in cans on the jetty at the other.
In its heyday, the Entre Rios town of Fábrica Colόn (now Pueblo Liebig), which was known at the London headquarters of the Liebig's Extract of Meat Company as the "Colόn Factory"; employed 3,200 people. Each day 1,200 head of cattle were slaughtered in three work shifts between 4 a.m. and 8 p.m. There are only 630 residents in the town today, not enough even to register the settlement as a municipality.
The plant on the river Uruguay, directed by a board of directors in London and supervised from Buenos Aires, provided the small town made up of employees and dependents with everything, from a company-built home, a drainage system that was laid long before much of Argentina had proper drainage, to running water, pumped through the filters at the river's edge, and electricity generated at the factory. The sporting club still functions, but the golf course is labelled as "ex-" on the leaflet for visitors. The lawn tennis club lies under several inches of turf, and the grand old bachelors' mess, scene of so many parties, is home to a colony of squatters.
In a factory yard surrounded by partly demolished walls, the ground overgrown with grass, stands a rusting steam crane, built late in the nineteenth century by Alex Chaplin & Co., of Glasgow, potentially a prize exhibit in an industrial museum, here abandoned on two short steel tracks going nowhere.
Ignacio Barreto, aged 77, who entered Liebig's at the age of 12 as a messenger boy and rose to company accountant and deputy manager, recalls how the crane, mounted on tracks on one of the factory's three jetties, swung its boom and a cable hit a manager, pitching him onto the deck of a moored freighter. He was taken to the British Hospital on the Triton, a supply and mail ship that called regularly at "Fábrica Colόn".
For Barreto the history of the factory and Liebig's is made up of such anecdotes, which belong in his family. It is an account of an old imperial business, with a paternalistic regard for its staff, clear divisions between locals and British personnel, and honest dealing. Barreto insists repeatedly on the honesty of management practices. He has lived since 1975 in a house built in 1929, the last of a series of what is known as Calle Eric Evans, named after the last of the British managers. Barreto's grandparents arrived at Colon in 1877. His father was born here in 1878 and started to work for the company in 1905, just after it opened. Barreto was also born here and his first wage was 20 pesos a month, a tidy sum for which his parents took him out of school on finishing elementary school. Later he put himself through night and correspondence schools. By the time he left the company, in 1980, when Liebig's was sold, Barreto had been with his employers for 46 years. He married here, 50 years ago, and has three children. Now he is checking Liebig's old accounting books, to "outline a way of life, record the story of a culture," more than a history.
From the bustling factory town of several thousand residents where life was ordered by the impositions of a single employer, the near silent village now seems populated by eccentrics, and a few regular weekend visitors who rent the old houses. Apart from Barreto, who retains the austere demeanour of a respected accountant and memorizes details from century-old records, there is the village doctor, Mateo Eduardo Zelich, also 77, an ornithologist and archaeologist with a garden full of orchids.
And there is Adriana Ortea, a Buenos Aires architect in her thirties who, after living in Portugal and in former Portuguese colonies in Africa, has chosen to drop out of urban life in Pueblo Liebig. Here she runs a bed and breakfast at her Casa de Té, sells crafts and homemade jams, and tries to promote architectural conservation through history workshops. The house she rents for 160 pesos a month is an eight-room former company property today mortgaged to the tiles with the Banco Naciόn by the family that bought the Liebig's property in 1980.
A history of Fábrica Colόn & the corned beef industry
Before Pueblo Liebig was Fábrica Colόn, it was known as Villa Colόn. It had been founded by General Justo José de Urquiza in his drive to promote European colonization of Entre Rios, while he was fighting with Buenos Aires over where the nation's capital should be. Urquiza was murdered in 1870.
One Apolinario Benitez and his brother started a beef-salting plant just outside the village which was to be the foundation of the future slaughter house. Benitez Hnos sold their saladero to an Irishman, John O'Connor, who in 1889 sold to the Sociedad Argentina de Carnes which, in turn offered their plant to Liebig's. Fábrica Colόn, as it became known, opened in 1905, with a first year slaughter of 69,01 head. The company in those early days became known for its canned tongues, in addition to the extract of meat.
Fábrica Colόn was the second plant in South America, the third would be opened in Paraguay in 1923. But the first, which had made the meat extract famous, opened across the river, in Fray Bentos, Uruguay, in 1865.
The main product of both plants was that thick dark paste packed in jars and cans known as extract of meat. The formula for this highly praised by-product of an ordinary cow had been completed in 1847 by a German chemist and nobleman, Justus von Liebig (1803-73). The only disadvantage to this energizer was that it required 30 kilos of meat to produce one of extract. A Hamburg-born engineer, George Christian Giebert, who had been working on plans for a railway in Uruguay, happened on a Liebig advertisement in 1851 offering to give away the extract formula to anybody who could produce it. Giebert did not contact von Liebig until 1862, and chose Fray Bentos because he saw so much waste, cattle being slaughtered only for their hides. With the formula in hand, the engineer formed the Societe de Fray Bentos Giebert & Cie., and started work in 1863. In 1865 the first 800 kilos of extract reached Europe. In 1865 Giebert went to London to raise capital, and Liebig's Extract of Meat Co. (LEMCO) was formed.
Ten years later Fray Bentos, a brand that went round the world on the labels, was producing half a million tons of meat extract to put strength into Europe's youth.
The extract even found its place in literature. That same year, 1865, French author Jules Verne (1828-1905) published one of his "Voyages" novels, From the Earth to the Moon (translated into English in 1873). One passage puts the Fray Bentos product into science fiction, "We broke the journey with three substantial cups of excellent broth, made by dissolving those delicious Liebig tablets in hot water."
Fábrica Colόn grew from there and must have been an impressive sight. A French visitor, in 1910, described the plant as cleaner and more efficient than those in Chicago. The wide road up which cattle were driven to the factory divided the town, typically for the British, along class lines: on one side were the plant workers and drovers, on the other side, the guest house and tennis club, the elegant managers' homes, and the library - today a butcher shop and grocer which housed a complete collection of the Argentine political and social magazine Caras y Caretas among other books and encyclopedias donated by the company.
Liebig's bought land in Corrientes, to fatten cattle for its factory, and also spread to Misiones, and produced tung oil, from the seed of a tree originally grown in China.
The Liebig estancias in Corrientes and the plant historians still have pictures of the visit of Edward Prince of Wales in 1925, an epic and exhausting royal tour which followed an even more extended one through Africa. From London all the world was seen as part of the Empire.
The factory plant today
The three jetties at which the ships of the world moored to carry away their precious cargo have been dismantled, but the concrete dockside remains. The old pump house, which provided the factory and the whole town with running water, is in ruins. What make the most fascinating remnant of the company are the first floor turbines, installed in 1912 in a line of three, labelled W.H. Allen Sons & Co., Bedford England. They look like illustrations in an ancient engineering textbook. The electricity panel, dated 1927, feels like part of a living museum that could be sparked into life by throwing a switch. In heavy rain, the turbine room roof leaks, but she huge engines are kept in good shape for visitors.
On the ground floor are the Allen generators installed in 1938, and which supplied the whole town with electricity. They are kept as reserve suppliers and a flick of the switch starts the engine humming as if it had always worked. In 1964, the refrigeration system was upgraded with German Mann turbo-diesel engines to operate the deep freeze chambers. That was in preparation for the historic switch in 1965 From the production of extract of meat to a fully operating meat packing company shipping chilled and frozen beef, in addition to canned products. One of the two landmark chimneys was demolished, the other shortened. Then Liebig's was taken over by Brooke Bond, the tea people.
The boiler room is an impressive sight. It was fuelled by anthracite shipped out from the coal mines of England and Wales, until the Second World War, when coal was replaced by local wood. In 1957, the burners were changed to fuel oil.
Everything you see still seems in prime condition. Away from the demolished killing floor and the meat processing tables of what was once called "the world's kitchen" or "the biggest kitchen in the world"; away from the near derelict canning plant, the boilers and generators, and the drains that were started in 1902, one has the spooky sensation of a time machine. Old calendars are still pinned on the wall, time shift charts are pinned on a notice board, and duty roster slips are spiked on a wire hook. A postcard addressed to the chief and staff of the refrigeration department fades behind the broken glass of a framed fire notice. The card is from Genoa, showing a theatre and, of all things, the statue of Giuseppe Garibaldi, who had recruited his "red shirts" for the unification war in Italy just down river from here. The signature is of an English name, probably on a European tour during home leave.
The retired accountant, Ignacio Barreto, walks among the turbines and generators and looks at them with a style that conflicts with his austere bookkeeper's manner: he becomes garrulous as he offers his recollection of dozens of anecdotes. The generators were installed by Colin Hunter Macdonald, he says, who fell in love with Elida, a local girl and the daughter of the town veterinary surgeon. They had one son, George, says Barreto. He recalls arguments about the circumference of the world, anecdotes of veterans of the First World War which he heard as a boy as Colin Hunter Macdonald taught him to make a proper cup of tea. Then he recalls how to make a proper cup of tea. Then he recalls how to make tea in a silver pot.
At another stop in the plant Barreto recalls the strike of 1941.'The unions fought for days, to gain an increase of one centavo per hour. The incendiary speeches of the strike leaders were no different from those heard today, says Barreto.
Adriana Ortea, back at the tea house, says a woman in the village recalled the sounds that most impressed her. One was the thunder of the hooves of the cattle being driven up to the factory ("Everything but the moo was processed," she laughs.). In the opposite direction, leaving the factory gates, was the impressive noise of company-supplied boots on hundreds of working men's feet as they came off shift and headed home. On the wall in Ortea's house there is an old photograph of a Dutch tall-ship moored in front of Liebig's. That photo, and an artist's version of it, hangs in several homes on Eric Evans street. Evans died in the late seventies, just as Liebig's was preparing to pull out.
Evans' wife, Jacqueline Towers Evans, died in 1999, almost blind and with one emphatic regret. All her life she had kept a great library and had never had time to sit down and read because she was always busy being the general manager's wife. When at last she had time, in old age, she could hardly see. There are two stained glass windows in the village chapel that remember the Evans couple.
Fábrica Colόn became Pueblo Liebig, ten kilometers north of the city of Colon, on May 17, 1975. The local Junta Vecinal - formed in place of a council because the village does not have town status - was responsible for the name change as a tribute to the company that made the place. This local government of sorts is installed in offices shared with the library, now in the shops area. In the same strip of buildings, under a broad roof over a raised sidewalk (built above the mud streets) Daniel Astrada, who worked for Liebig's, and his wife Nidia Irigoy, born at Liebig's in Paraguay and the daughter of the last Colόn plant manager, run a museum. It is a modest collection of family and company photographs and domestic items, the most impressive of which is the straight-backed metal chair used by the dentist. To this day they both search rubbish dumps around the factory, hoping to find items for the museum, which is next to Nidia's local crafts and jams store.
Liebig's pulled out early in the 1970s, when a new mixed company was formed, Fricosa (Frigorífico Colόn SA). Liebig's owned the property but brought in new shareholders. But by then the international meat business was changing rapidly. European Community stipulations called for smaller, more efficient plants. Fricosa was sold in 1980 to the Vizental family, who owned a nearby frigorífico. The sale price in 1980 was 4.6 million dollars, but the mortgage value was by then 23 million. The Vizental operation closed in 1997 and now most of the real estate is in hock to the Banco Naciόn.
What is left of Fábrica Colόn, now Pueblo Liebig, are the memories. Some people have title deeds to their homes, but much of the town was mortgaged by the last owners, trying to recover a place in the meat trade.
The rest, as men like the general accountant, Barreto, say, are memories of better times, with never an ill word about the British. They are remembered as benefactors. Some dream of a British return. It is just that, a dream, of course.
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