Beef ring provided fresh meat before days of refrigeration

Edwin Woodrow’s skills as a butcher came in handy in the early 1940s, providing members of the beef ring with fresh cuts of meat, including pork and lamb.  |  File photo

LACOMBE, Alta. — Edwin Pierson Woodrow travelled west in 1907 to work on harvesting crews but found his butchering skills helped supply families with much needed meat.

He was among the many farm workers who boarded Canadian Pacific Railway trains in Eastern Canada in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Before the widespread use of the combine harvester and the onset of the Great Depression of 1929, it was manual labour that ensured millions of acres of crops were brought in during a short period of time.

Woodrow, 22, of Woodstock, Ont., initially travelled with some family members.

“He came to the Angus Ridge district near Wetaskiwin and began his lifelong desire to be a pioneer of the West,” said son Howard Woodrow, 76, who continues to live on land his father farmed east of Lacombe, Alta.

“On his first trip west, the local farmers discovered that E.P., as he became to be known, was brought up as a livestock butcher. This progressed to the idea of a beef ring.”

When Woodrow returned for the harvest in 1908, a small slaughterhouse had been built to allow him to split his time between jobs as butcher and farm labourer.

Shares of meat, the hide, money or a combination of these were his compensation.

The beef ring consisted of as many as two dozen farm families. Each family would supply an animal weekly over the summer. The animal was slaughtered, processed and divided among those in the ring and either delivered or picked up at the slaughterhouse.

The meat sometimes included lamb and pork as well as beef. The farmer who supplied the animal would get the heart if he wanted it. Families received cotton bags to wrap and store their share, with records kept to ensure equal distribution.

Electricity was scarce and refrigeration non-existent until the late 1940s so the meat was kept cool in well pits or ice houses. The meat would be wrapped and lowered about three metres into a well where it would keep for at least a week.

Some people had ice houses, which were small buildings filled with river or lake ice in winter. The harvested ice was insulated with thick layers of sawdust or straw and would often last into late summer.

Howard said his father, a member of the Alberta Wheat Pool, remained involved with the beef ring, which is believed to be one of the first in the area, until he moved to his own homestead at Monitor, Alta., in 1917.

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