FRAY BENTOS, Uruguay – Although the machinery at the former Frigorifico Anglo site, a Uruguayan historic heritage monument, have not functioned for decades and are full of rust, visitors can still engage in “industrial archaeology” at the old cold-storage plant and discover how “the great kitchen of the world” worked.
One of the most popular sections of the Museum of the Industrial Revolution – located inside the monument in Fray Bentos, a city in western Uruguay – is the Hall of Machinery, a gallery visited by scores of schoolchildren each year.
The huge food plant experienced an “era of splendor” during World War II and the post-war period, when it “made more than 200 by-products derived from beef, sheep, hogs, rabbits, turkeys, geese, fruits and vegetables,” museum curator Diana Cerrilla said.
“We could say that everything that came here as a raw material was then transformed into a by-product,” Cerrilla said, noting that the foods produced in the largest quantity were meat extracts – similar to broths, but more concentrated – and corned beef.
The site was so important to the region’s industry that in 1883 it became the first place in Uruguay where electricity was produced using a thermoelectric power plant.
Cerrilla, who is also a museum guide, emphasized the importance of the Hall of Machinery because “industrial archaeology” can be practiced in the large warehouse.
“When we enter that hall in the Museum of the Industrial Revolution, we can see the machines that were used (in the factory) and that, although they were surpassed technologically, were left there because, as we learned, they kept them as back-up machines (in case of a failure),” Cerrilla said.
Visitors can view machines that worked with steam, electricity and fuel.
The huge food-processing facility needed labor to operate and immigrants from about 60 nationalities, many of them from Eastern Europe, were brought to Fray Bentos, Cerrilla said.
The vintage photos that line the streets that wind around the warehouses at Frigorifico Anglo show the faces of the immigrants who toiled at the plant.
The decline of what was once known as “the largest kitchen in the free world” began in the late 1960s when the English company that owned the large food plant shuttered what had become an unprofitable business.
In the 1970s, the government tried to bring back production of corned beef, but the 1973-1985 dictatorship did not support the venture and the plant closed for good in 1979.
The site, however, was brought back to life in 1987, when it was declared a national historic heritage monument.
“It was like a mystery for people in the region. What was in that completely closed place? So, when it opened, thousands of people came to learn and tour” Frigorifico Anglo, Cerrilla said.