The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


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Sinclair, Thomas McElderry
(May 14, 1842–March 24, 1881)

–Cedar Rapids meatpacking executive—was born in Belfast, Ireland, the third son of John and Eliza (Pirie) Sinclair. The Sinclairs were well established in the meatpacking business, having opened their first plant in Ireland in 1832. Thomas learned the family business in Europe before embarking with his cousin John for New York in 1862. There they opened their first American plant.

    In 1870 Thomas married Caroline Campbell Soutter of Philadelphia. The following year he and his bride moved to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, which would be the location of the next Sinclair plant. Cedar Rapids had ready access to large numbers of hogs and, since 1859, was connected by railroad to Chicago, which provided ready transportation of the plant's products for the export trade.

    The Sinclair packing plant became one of Cedar Rapids' first major industries, and its founder made a profound impact on the community. The plant's success was due in part to access to refrigeration and a growing immigrant population. Prior to 1871 most meat-packing facilities closed when it was too warm to pack meat without spoilage. The Sinclair plant was the second in the country to have ice refrigeration and year-round packing. The plant became one of the largest employers in the region and hired many recent immigrants from Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) who settled in the neighborhoods surrounding the plant. A company logbook indicates that the plant packed an average of 3,000 hogs in the winter and 1,000 in the summer. Products sold under the Fidelity brand included ham, bacon, lard, and virtually all portions of the hog that could be packaged and sold. The Sinclair plant quickly became the largest producer of processed meat in Iowa between 1874 and 1894 and by 1878 operated the fourth-largest packinghouse in the world.

    Thomas Sinclair contributed to improvements in Cedar Rapids, a benefit to both the community and the efficiency of his business. He played an active role in organizing the city's first water department. The Sinclairs were among the first telephone users in Cedar Rapids, and the Sinclair packing plant was number "1" in the city's phone list. A 1921 company publication noted that "the first telephone in Cedar Rapids was installed between the plant and Mr. Sinclair's residence in order that he might keep in close touch with the plant and was used to waken him for the work of the day at 5:30 each morning."

    Sinclair was, and continues to be, well known in Cedar Rapids for his benevolence. He was a devout Presbyterian and active in local religious life and church missions. Sinclair served as an elder in the First Presbyterian Church, and used a box factory on the plant site for religious services and instruction of plant workers. He is credited with saving Coe College through his generous act of liquidating the institution's debt. The Sinclair family later donated the money to build the first Sinclair Memorial Chapel in 1911 to commemorate Sinclair's generosity and commitment to the college.

    Thomas and Caroline Sinclair had six children: Robert, John, Elsie, Amy, Fanny, and Agnes. Tragedy struck the young family on March 24, 1881, when Thomas died as a result of injuries suffered from a fall down an empty elevator shaft during an inspection of the plant. Following his death, his brother-in-law Robert Soutter took charge of the packing plant, and the business remained connected to the family until 1930. Thomas's son Robert also remained active in his father's business during that time.

    Three years after her husband's death, Caroline Sinclair initiated the construction of a large brick home in the Queen Anne style along what is now known as First Avenue in Cedar Rapids. Completed in 1886 and originally known as Fairhome, this ten-acre estate would be the summer home for the Sinclair family until Caroline traded it for the George B. Douglas home at 800 Second Avenue. Now known as Brucemore, the former Sinclair home is owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and is open to the public.
Sources Thomas McElderry Sinclair's biography appears in two resources: Biographies and Portraits of the Progressive Men of Iowa (1899); and The History of Linn County, Iowa (1911). Materials related to the early history of the T. M. Sinclair & Company meatpacking plant, including photographs, legal and financial documents, and ephemera, are part of the Farmstead Foods Collection at Brucemore.
Contributor: Jennifer Pustz