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Elias Kahn: Kahns, Porkopolis were a perfect fit

By Barry M. Horstman, Post staff reporter

No history of a city long known as ''Porkopolis'' - a nickname that the good burghers of the time viewed as a slight - is complete without a look at its heritage as America's one-time leading meat-packing center.

Perhaps the major chapter in the story is that of the E. Kahn's Sons Co., a firm that, though founded after Cincinnati's supremacy in pork-packing already was past, remains an industry pacesetter a century and a half after hogs roamed the streets of downtown.

One memorable product among its many best-sellers - the ''American Beauty'' ham - and an equally catchy advertising slogan for another - ''The Weiner the World Awaited'' - helped make Kahn's Cincinnati's top pork-packing plant and one of the largest in the nation.

No matter how you slice it, that's not just bologna.

When 45-year-old butcher and cattle trader Elias Kahn left Alberschweiler in Bavaria, Germany, in 1880 with his wife and nine children to come to Cincinnati, he was heading to a city that already had lost its dominance in pork-packing as rail lines opened up to the East.

For the first half of the 19th century, slaughtering hogs and curing pork had been one of Cincinnati's biggest - and most visible - industries. With hogs being the Ohio frontier's chief livestock and corn its main crop, the industry's growth in Cincinnati was underlined by the popular expression:''Let your corn walk to market.'' By the mid-19th century, a half million hogs annually took their last walks down Cincinnati streets, ending up in hams consumed at fashionable homes, hotels and restaurants nationwide, even at the White House.

Prior to the Civil War, hogs in Cincinnati had an exalted status - if, admittedly, a life destined to end on a plate. The law not only protected hogs, but even used them as a sort of unofficial municipal sanitation department. By law, citizens were required to throw garbage, not in the gutters, but in the middle of the streets, where the roving packs of hogs could more easily dispose of the refuse.

Cincinnatians uncomfortably tolerated filthy streets littered with animal droppings and rotting garbage as the price of an industry then inseparable from the city's self-identity.

By the time Kahn and his family - reduced in size by one when a daughter died en route - arrived here two decades later, Chicago had overtaken Cincinnati as the nation's pork-packing capital. But pigs were still big business in Cincinnati, and the immigrant butcher put his expertise to work by opening a meat market on Central Avenue in September 1882.

Most of Kahn's five sons and three daughters worked after school and on weekends at the store, which grew rapidly thanks to considerable walk-in traffic from the West End. By 1885, he had added retail stores in Avondale and Walnut Hills, and began slaughtering cattle at Findlay and John streets. His discriminating eye for the quality of cattle, hogs and lambs quickly earned his shops a reputation for their choice cuts of meat.

When Kahn died at 64 in November 1899, four sons and a daughter - Eugene, Nathan, Louis, Albert and Matilda - took over the business. The brothers and their helpers slaughtered livestock at the Public Slaughterhouse in the West End, while hams and bacon were cured and sausage processed in back rooms at the stores. Matilda Kahn Schloss, widowed early in her life, was the manager and head butcher of the Walnut Hills store.

Growing retail demand forced a series of expansions in the early 20th century, starting with a new slaughtering plant on Livingston Street in the West End, followed by acquisition of a pork processing plant on Poplar Street in 1913 from a bankrupt packing firm. With that purchase, the siblings also dropped the ampersand from E. Kahn & Sons, renaming it the E. Kahn's Sons Co.

For nearly a half century after their father's death, the company was run primarily by Louis and Albert Kahn. Louis was the firm's president and general executive officer, but also had inherited his father's talent as a livestock buyer. As a boss, he brought a hands-on familiarity with the back-shop operations to the front office. In September 1898, the 23-year-old Louis entered and won an amateur butchers' skills contest that was part of a butcher's picnic at the zoo by dressing a 1,200-pound beef in six minutes, 16.5 seconds, not much off the professional record of six minutes flat.

Albert was Kahn's plant manager from 1907 until his death in 1948. Together, the two brothers pioneered various breakthroughs in the industry, including tender ham processing, new slaughtering techniques and bacon pumping, in which the curing period was shortened by pumping the salt, sugar and nitrite curing solution under pressure into the bacon belly.

Nathan, meanwhile, served as vice president of the company for 29 years, while Eugene spent most of his career overseeing Kahn's' retail stores. Kahn's sold off its stores in the 1920s to concentrate on the wholesale business.

While Kahn's was having no difficulty thriving against competition, the Depression and the 1937 flood proved to be more dangerous rivals, both bringing the company close to bankruptcy. In mid-1931, with several St. Louis banks threatening to foreclose, Kahn's liquidated its massive inventories of bacon and ham - necessary because of the two- to three-month curing period then required - intended to be sold in the fall. The calling of the loan proved to be a godsend, because prices for cured meats dropped precipitously in the fall - enough to have bankrupted Kahn's had the millions of pounds of meat still been on hand.

The company escaped another bankruptcy scare literally by inches during the disastrous 1937 flood. As the Ohio River rose toward a record height just below 80 feet, Kahn's officials moved most of the meat to the second floor of their Spring Grove Avenue factory - 18 feet above street level - and hired outboard motor-powered barges to transport the meat to trucks on Colerain Avenue beyond the water's reach. When the river crested, the water peaked at 17 feet on Spring Grove - one foot from ruining millions of pounds of meat.

When Louis and Albert Kahn died within seven weeks of each other in early 1948, at 72 and 68, respectively, Milton Schloss, the 34-year-old son of Matilda Kahn Schloss, became the company's president.

One of Schloss's many innovations included commissioning the development of high-speed collating and packaging machines.

Under his leadership, Kahn's - one of the first meat companies in the nation to advertise on radio - expanded that marketing tool to television in the '50s and '60s. Its sales boomed when two of the region's most potent TV personalities - Ruth Lyons and Uncle Al Lewis - promoted its products, later to be joined by Paul Dixon.

In 1966, Consolidated Foods Corp. of Chicago bought Kahn's, with Schloss remaining as chairman. A decade later, the division of Consolidated - now Sara Lee - that included Kahn's expanded by purchasing Hillshire Farm of Wisconsin and Rudy's Farm of Nashville.

Publication date: 10-25-99

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