NMIH: The Northlands Fur And Packing Company

Jun 24, 2020

Rabbit breeding season starts in early spring and continues through the summer. Lots of bunnies start showing up on lawns and gardens at this time of year. Some Northwoods residents look at them as pests, but others see opportunity. Historian Gary Entz has the story:

Rabbits are ubiquitous in the Northwoods. In the past, one Northwoods business enterprise saw tremendous opportunity in developing the rabbit population for profit. The only real problem with the idea was one of timing.

In February 1929, Edward C. Conley, who moved to the area from the Ferndall Fur Farm in Appleton, and Peter C. Kabel, former head of the defunct Rhinelander Box and Lumber Company, along with several other investors joined together to form a new firm called The Northlands Fur and Packing Company. The new company purchased the plant and property of the old Rhinelander Box and Lumber Company, which was located at the intersection of highways 8 and 47 and began the work of refitting it for the operations of a full-scale rabbit enterprise.

The Northlands Fur and Packing Company had big plans and spared little expense in getting the box company property up to speed. The company offices were occupied immediately, but the rest of the factory took a lot of work. Excavation for a new basement that would house the slaughtering rooms began immediately. When it was completed, the main floor and outlying buildings were refitted for a meat packing plant, a fur garment factory, fertilizing plant, a tannery, and cannery. Plus, an entirely new facility to house the hutches for the rabbitry had to be built.

By May 1929, the company had a partial breeding stock in place and began operations. The plant management saw to it that rabbits were distributed among local farmers to help with the “supply” part of the business. The goal was to slaughter and process up to 1000 rabbits every day. To show the public what they could do, the managers contracted with John Reckinger, an Antigo furrier, to make some demonstration rabbit fur coats. But they were more than that as Reckinger used his skill to transform the rabbit fur into imitation seal skin coats.

The company utilized Warren Ermine rabbits because their white furs could be dyed into different shades to imitate different animals. In addition to furs, the company processed leather, glue, fertilizer, and packed canned rabbit meat for the Chicago market. Business seemed promising, that is, until the stock market crash of October 1929.

The fledgling Northlands Fur and Packing Company had invested a tremendous amount of capital and by 1930 was maintaining a breeding population of 4000 rabbits. But as markets shrank, the company suffered and bled red ink. It limped along, but in the summer of 1930 a Michigan firm, The Raisin Brook Packing Company, bought out the plant and reorganized it under its direction. Raisin Brook was an interstate corporation that had markets in Detroit and Toledo and wanted to use the Rhinelander plant to expand its operations deeper into Chicago.

It was not enough. By 1932 the Northlands Fur Company was in receivership, and by the end of the year it was gone. In 1934 the Federal Emergency Relief Administration took over the vacant plant and used it to slaughter cattle and sheep for emergency relief food.