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Watertower Place is awash in Pueblo history 

NUCKOLLS DOWN

click to enlarge Emmet Nuckolls started Nuckolls Packing Company as a butcher shop in Leadville in the 1880s. - PUEBLO COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY
  • Pueblo County Historical Society
  • Emmet Nuckolls started Nuckolls Packing Company as a butcher shop in Leadville in the 1880s.

Nuckolls Packing Co. — and the 250,000-square-foot tribute to its cutting-edge founder — traces its roots to the late 1880s and Emmet Nuckolls, who started the company as a butcher shop in Leadville. Orphaned at the age of 6, Nuckolls grew up riding horses and working with cattle, sheep and pigs, Watertower Place Creative Consultant and Pueblo historian Gregory Howell says, so the humane treatment of animals was important to him.

Nuckolls had a dream of creating “the world’s largest and most-modern meat packing and cold storage facility,” and by 1891, he had established the Nuckolls Packing Co. at the Pueblo Union Stockyards. But an accident cut his life short before he was able to fully realize his vision, Howell says.

As he speaks about the patriarch, Howell stands in a first-floor hallway of the building now known as Watertower Place, studying a series of 3-foot-tall storyboards. The historic images and interpretive signs walk guests through the rich history of the building at 303 S. Santa Fe Ave., and the even richer lives of its pioneering first family.

click to enlarge Construction on the plant began in 1916, took one year to complete and cost $300,000. It survived the Arkansas River flooding just four years after completion. - PUEBLO COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY
  • Pueblo County Historical Society
  • Construction on the plant began in 1916, took one year to complete and cost $300,000. It survived the Arkansas River flooding just four years after completion.

Following his father’s death, Emmet Nuckoll’s son, George Harvey (G.H.) Nuckolls, took up the vision. He arranged for the plant to be built on 6 acres of land a half-mile west of the Union Stockyards, in a micro-neighborhood known as The Grove, bounded by the Arkansas River and Santa Fe Avenue.

G.H. Nuckolls tapped the talents of Norwegian-born architect Hans Peter Henschien in 1915, at a critical time for sanitation and safety in the meat-packing industry. (This was less than a decade after Upton Sinclair published shockingly accurate, albeit fictional, revelations of diseased, rotting meat and unsanitary and unsafe working conditions in meat-packing facilities in his novel, The Jungle.) Henschien wrote what Howell dubbed the industry’s bible — Packing House and Cold Storage Construction: A General Reference Work on the Planning, Construction and Equipment of Modern American Meat Packing Plants.

“He was a genius,” Howell says of Henschien. 

Henschien rose to fame for designing multistory plants that utilized gravity to streamline work processes and create maximum output. He dubbed the concept the “rational factory,” and tested his vision when building the Nuckolls’ plant. 

click to enlarge Flooding in the 1920s damaged much of Pueblo's central business district. - PUEBLO COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY
  • Pueblo County Historical Society
  • Flooding in the 1920s damaged much of Pueblo's central business district.

Construction began on the building in March 1916, according to an application for a historic landmark designation filed with the City of Pueblo. The process took one year and cost $300,000. Just four years after completion, in 1921, the Arkansas River hit historic flood levels and swept away much of the city’s central district. 

The Nuckolls plant fronted the river at the time; however, because the building was constructed with a concrete frame and no load-bearing walls, it suffered almost no damage, property owner Ryan McWilliams says. 

“The front half of the [administrative offices] fell off because the water tower got knocked over and into it,” McWilliams says. “It was the first building back up after the Flood of 1921 that took out most of downtown, and that hardly touched the building itself.”

The Nuckolls family spent fewer than 90 days resurrecting the office. Today the beautifully renovated space dubbed the Alpha-Beta Room bears a curious jagged line where the brick doesn’t quite match, the only visible scar from the flood. According to the historic designation petition, G.H. Nuckolls and family then partnered with the Red Cross and Elks Pueblo Lodge to set up offices in the Grove neighborhood and provide flood recovery. 

click to enlarge The Nuckolls left meat-processing in 1946. - GREGORY HOWELL
  • Gregory Howell
  • The Nuckolls left meat-processing in 1946.

By 1922, the company reached a capital stock of $1 million. Another expansion in 1926 led to the construction of a five-story icehouse adjacent to the processing plant. Over the next 60 years the facility would employ as many as 500 people, which, Howell says, made it one of Pueblo’s top two employers. 

G.H. Nuckolls died in 1928, and it did not take long for the Nuckolls board of directors to tap the third generation of family members to run the company. Sisters Marion and Della Nuckolls, G.H.’s daughters, were named president and vice president/treasurer, respectively. They are believed to be two of the first U.S. women to assume top-management roles in a major food-production facility, according to the historic designation application.

Marion Nuckolls was also the vice president of the Southern Colorado Investment Co. and is credited with creating and sponsoring an employee salary savings plan, employee life insurance plan and credit union. Her older sister, Della Nuckolls, left a career as a professional performer in New York City to run the family business. She resurrected the plant after it was shuttered in 1942 because of World War II price controls and tin rationing. 

The historic designation application includes a letter to Della from Jay C. Hormel. The meat magnate, whose company rode out the war by creating and processing Spam, offered Nuckolls assistance in navigating the rough waters of a challenging economy. His advice: Scrap beef until after the war, focus on lamb and pork, and hold on. 

“It would appear that there is not much opportunity to show profits during the wartime, but there would appear to be a profit opportunity thereafter,” Hormel wrote. “It would seem if the local business is to be available later, it should be cultivated now, even though barely on a break-even basis.” 

In 1946, the Nuckolls family would quietly bow out of the meat-processing industry, selling the plant to American Stores (later Acme Markets) of Philadelphia. In 1970, it passed into the hands of Alpha Beta Acme — a name that still evokes strong reactions from many in Pueblo — which operated the facility until a workers’ strike in December 1981 again shut down production.

Pueblo Beef Products took up management, but meat production at the site came to an end for good when that company closed its doors in 1983. 

click to enlarge Public tours of the facility are available. - GREGORY HOWELL
  • Gregory Howell
  • Public tours of the facility are available.

The massive building fell into foreclosure and was repossessed by a bank, which then rented out space for a handful of years. That is, until December 1989, when Frank Glenn, the owner of Santa Fe Warehouse & Storage, acquired it for cold storage and public warehouse space. 

Thereafter came a plan to turn it into high-end condominiums and retail stores, The Pueblo Chieftain reported in 2012. Douglas R. Hess bought the 6-acre lot on Dec. 21, 2012, according to Pueblo County assessor records, but nine days later a fire gutted portions of the building and it, again, sat abandoned.

McWilliams, a Pueblo native, bought the property in 2015 with the intention of making it a hub for rail technology and logistics companies. But the community, he says, had a different idea, and that drove its resurrection. 

“I was drawn to two things, I guess: The solid structure and the integrity and the history of the building, and I just said, ‘We can do something with this,’” McWilliams says. “We can take Southern Colorado’s biggest eyesore and show Southern Colorado has the wherewithal to turn it into Colorado’s biggest gem.”

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