Forging a business

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a monthly series on the history of Webster City, written by local historian, Nancy Kayser.

When the John T. LaForge and Sons company purchased land in the fall of 1916 along the Boone River for a rendering plant, Webster City begrudgingly welcomed the new business to town.

A rendering plant is one of the oldest recycling industries, converting dead animal waste into usable products. While the business was considered unpleasant, it contributed to the health and sanitation of a community.

The LaForge’s, a long established rendering concern with plants in several states, bought three plus acres of land near the Hogsback area in the southeast portion of the city. The site was a former cement block factory and offered access to water supplied by the Boone River and adjacent flowing wells.

The Webster City Tribune edition of September 22, 1916 announced the arrival of the new “soap” factory but lamented “the factory will effectually close that picturesque portion of the suburbs to picnickers in the future, for the odor of soap and rendering factory was never one to conjure with”. A week later, the Webster City Journal reported the citizens from that part of the city were making strenuous objections and circulating petitions to prevent the completion of the plant.

The LaForge company was “disagreeably surprised to find any objection to their business” according to an interview of the owners published by the Tribune on October 6, 1916. The company representative stated that this was a rendering factory, not a soap factory. They rendered “in a closed tankfrom which no foul odor arises” rather than the old way of open tanks. He also stated the company has just purchased the option of another rendering company which had proposed to place an open tank factory near the Outing club golf course on the north edge of the city. He asked the indulgence of the community to prove there would be no objection to the business.

The factory was built under the guidance of Marion Ades, who moved here from Boone to manage the business for the LaForge family. The business began operation in mid-November of 1916.

Community indulgence didn’t last long as surrounding neighbors filed the first court suit against the LaForge Rendering plant in June of 1919. The suit asked abatement of a nuisance due to the smell and unsanitary conditions about the plant. The case lingered in the local courts until it was finally dismissed in November of 1923. Newspaper reports pointed out the real question was “whether the action should be against the LaForge company or against the city”.

As the country’s depression deepened during the mid and late 1920’s, it is presumed the community was reluctant to shut down any business. Jobs were scarce and closure of a plant would place the employees on the growing relief rolls.

A prolonged heat wave and strong southerly winds in June of 1931 brought the next round of petitions and complaints to the Webster City city council. The matter was referred to the city’s Board of Health consisting of L. L. Lyle, Allen J. Rhoades, John Essig and Dr. T. F. Desmond.

Formal hearings began in early July of 1931, according to the City Council minute books, with sworn testimony from petitioners. Representing the city was City Attorney J. W. Lee. Sterling Alexander of the law firm of Martin and Alexander represented the LaForge and Sons Rendering works. Also present were representatives of the Iowa Department of Agriculture who were withholding 1931 licensure of the plant awaiting outcome of the hearing.

The testimony brought forth the complaints of the nauseating stench from the plant, the fly problem presumed to be from the rendering works, the noise of the grinding machines and the fact that no one could leave their windows open during hot weather due to the smell. Everyone admitted there was no problem unless there was a south wind blowing.

City Manager G. J. Long testified that he had served notice to the local LaForge plant and to their main office in Rockford, Illinois that conditions were unfavorable and the plant must clean up to eliminate the odors.

Other revelations during the testimony concerned the improper dumping of chicken by-products by the Shelby Poultry company in an uncovered ravine near the LaForge plant. Testimony suggested that this too contributed to the unpleasant smells.

The Board of Health passed a resolution stating that while LaForge was doing its job, it smelled, was a nuisance and should find a new location to conduct business.

LaForge’s attorney objected, citing that this was a matter for the courts. The City sent its findings to the Iowa Department of Agriculture who held hearings on the matter in August of 1931. They too suggested the concern should find a new location and withheld licensing.

A citywide meeting sponsored by the Webster City Business Mens association brought the community together to resolve the issue in late January of 1932. The business group wanted to retain the business which provided jobs to local men but wanted the company to abate the odor problems. Livestock raisers needed the service provided by the company. City residents still wanted the odor problem solved. The compromise suggested was for the LaForge Rendering plant to operate only 10 months of the year, taking a break in the summer.

The compromise suggestion was presented to the city Board of Health, who rejected the plan and reaffirmed their decision of July 1931.

Iowa Department of Agriculture officials then filed a district court petition to force the plant to close. LaForge closed the plant on March 1, 1932.

Noting there had been no court decision or an injunction, LaForge reopened the plant the first part of October 1932, putting eleven men back to work. Farmers were relieved to have the service return. The county attorney had received numerous complaints about dead stock being dumped into creeks and the Boone river. He reminded all the dumping was a criminal offense.

Again in May of 1933, the city Board of Health reaffirmed their original 1931 decision at the request of the Iowa Department of Agriculture.

The local plant continued to operate, but the LaForge company began a three-year expansion of their Iowa Falls plant.

In 1937, the LaForge family sold the Iowa Falls and Webster City plants to the National By-Products company of Des Moines. The LaForge’s repurchased the operation in 1940, reselling part of the land to Charlie Miller, an employee and some to Elzy Turpin the same day.

Longtime city residents believe the plant may have operated through World War II, providing grease and hides for the war effort. Aerial photographs of the area from the early 1950’s show an abandoned plant site.

The rendering plant land changed hands several times more, until Hamilton County received title to the land in 1970 due to unpaid real estate taxes. The County deeded the land, which borders the city’s water treatment plant, to the City in 1976.

In 2008, the Hogsback area, including the old rendering plant land, was returned to the public to enjoy as part of the Boone river Recreation Trail.

As you head east from the trail head near the city water treatment plant and round the bend near the 2.4 mile marker, you will discover a tall brick chimney nestled in the trees the last vestige of the LaForge Rendering plant.