Home Daily News  Sale barn history: old, new, full of nostalgia
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Monday, September 22, 2014

Sale barn history: old, new, full of nostalgia

by Traci Eatherton, WLJ Managing Editor

Party’s over—cows are coming home, and now the work begins. Summer vacation is now behind us. I’m sure you got yours in this summer, right? After all, you had nothing else to do. Ok, maybe not. I guess I’m just wishful thinking!

Along with the cows coming home, the leaves changing and winter feedings just around the corner, the livestock auctions are gearing up for fall calf sales—the long-standing tradition that dates back to the mid-1800s. While there have been a number of changes, thanks in part to technology, and the learning curve has been steep in beef production, there is some nostalgia to the traditional sale barn route. The good ones still close down the local coffee shops during sale days, with all the “good ol’ boys” heading to the auctions.

Sometimes, it’s nice to know that some things never change, and stockyards and sale barns have been the constant in the ag industry, for hundreds of years.

Kansas City

After the Civil War, agriculture, along with the Kansas City and Chicago Stockyards, played a role in helping provide a much-needed financial boon to the nation.

According to Kansas history books, in 1867, a herd of 260,000 longhorns bound for the new Pacific Railroad depot in Sedalia, MO, was “diverted by trouble about Texas cattle.” The incident, according to the Missouri Historical Review, ended Sedalia’s bid to become the nation’s “first major cow town.” A law passed in 1867 banned Texas cattle from crossing the state because of Texas fever, except when packed in railcars or steamships.

The law coincided with the extension of Missouri Pacific rail lines to Kansas City, and the beginning of the Kansas City Live Stock Exchange, built to accommodate the big Texas herds.

The stockyards at Kansas City Live Stock Exchange once were one of the nation’s largest livestock sales processing complexes, according to Missouri Life.

“At the height of the Kansas City stockyard operations—a 40-year period between construction of the nine-story Kansas City Live Stock Exchange Building in 1911 and a devastating flood in 1951—the facility sold millions of animals, including cows, hogs, sheep, horses, and mules to hundreds of processors,” according to Missouri Life.

The yards, which operated for 12 decades, covered over 640 acres and employed as many as 20,000 local and migrant workers, are gone now, replaced by local sale barns and processing plants, but the traditions are not. The last animal was sold there in 1991.

“Of Missouri’s great 19thcentury stockyards, only the St. Joseph Stockyards, established in 1887, remains in business. The original building built in 1887 burned in 1898, but a new Livestock Exchange building opened in 1899. The four-story, 105-room building in its heyday included a bank, post office, telegraph office, market information posted hourly and a restaurant, and was considered the most complete livestock exchange building in the United States. While the building closed in 2008, the stockyard is still going strong and sold 161,850 head of cattle, sheep, goats, hogs, and feeder pigs in 2007,” according to Missouri Life.

The American Royal, a popular show to this day, began in a tent in the Kansas City Stockyards as a national Hereford Show and the first American Royal horse show was added in 1905.

The location of this shallow river basin would eventually play a part in the stockyard’s decline. After the floods of 1903 and 1951, all of the residential and business areas moved to the east, taking with it the “downtown” area. A series of levees were built, cutting the area off from the river. The area then became dominated by one-story warehouses and truck-based distribution centers, leaving the historical stock yards nothing but a ghost yard.

While the Kansas City Stock Yards may be gone, a collection of thousands of documents, blueprints and other materials is on display at Kansas City’s main public library, and some will eventually be available online.

Bill Haw, who bought the Livestock Exchange Building in the yard area in 1991, rescued the materials— enough to fill 40 to 50 refrigerator-size boxes and had been left in otherwise empty rooms when Haw purchased the building, the Kansas City Star (http://bit. ly/1mcYHr9) reported.


Similar to the Kansas City Stock Yards, the rise Union Stock Yards marks a significant period in both the city and the nation’s economic and social history.

In 1848, when Chicago was only a connection for transporting livestock from the West to the rest of the country, small stockyards such as Lake Shore Yard and Cottage Grove Yard were scattered throughout the city along various rail lines, according to the Chicago Historical Society.

“Several factors contributed to Chicago’s need for a larger, more centralized and efficient stockyard. One of these was the westward expansion of railroads, causing Chicago to evolve into a major railroad center and experience massive commercial growth. Another factor was the Mississippi River blockade during the Civil War that closed the north-south river trade route. A third factor was the influx of meatpackers and livestock to Chicago—the city’s small stockyards were not equipped to manage the exponential growth of the meatpacking industry,” the Chicago Historical Society shares.

Nine railroad companies joined together to purchase 320 acres of swampland in southwest Chicago, with plans to centralize the industry. “Using Chicago as a hub, this new stockyard would serve as a commercial link between America’s East and West.”

The meatpacking plants were quick to follow, with Armour in 1867, and then Swift, Morris and Hammond. By the turn of the century, Chicago’s meatpacking industry employed more than 25,000 people and produced 82 percent of the meat consumed in the United States.

While the stockyard’s success was obvious, the working conditions in the plant were less than stellar, and eventually led to the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. The stockyard closed in 1971, and the area is now primarily residential.

Fort Worth

For those moving cattle up the Chisholm Trail to the railroads, Fort Worth was a stopping point before rugged territory. “Between 1866 and 1890 more than four million head of cattle were trailed through Fort Worth, which was soon known as “Cowtown.” Cowtown soon had its own disreputable entertainment district several blocks south of the Courthouse area known all over the West as “Hell’s Half-Acre,” Fort Worth Stockyards National Historic District shares.

But by 1887, Fort Worth became its own shipping destination with the construction of the Union Stockyards, up and running at full operation by 1889.

“Because the Union Stockyards company lacked the funds to buy enough cattle to attract local ranchers, President Mike C. Hurley invited a wealthy Boston capitalist, Greenleif Simpson, to Fort Worth in hopes he would invest in the Union Stockyards. When Simpson arrived on the heels of heavy rains and a railroad strike, more cattle than usual had accumulated in the pens. Seeing this, he decided that Fort Worth represented a good market and made plans to invest. Simpson invited other investors to join him, one of whom was a Boston neighbor, Louville V. Niles, whose primary business was meatpacking. On April 27, 1893, Simpson bought the Union Stockyards for $133,333.33 and changed the name to the Fort Worth Stockyards Company,” according to the Fort Worth Stockyards National Historic District.

Packing plants soon followed the stockyards with Armour and Swift building plants around 1902.

The Livestock Exchange Building on the stockyards became known as “The Wall Street of the West.”

At the height of World War I in 1917, the Fort Worth Stockyards was the largest horse and mule market in the world, according to history reports, and in 1944 during World War II, 5,277,496 head of livestock were processed. But the stockyards declined after that.

“By 1986, sales reached an all-time low of 57,181 animals,” the historic district shares. Armour was the first to close their Fort Worth plant in 1962 with Swift following in 1971. Weekly livestock auctions followed suit, and today the stockyards have taken on a new role, with shows and video/satellite sales originating in the Exchange Building.

“Good ol’ boys”

While these three major stockyards had their rise and fall, the local stockyards continue to follow in their footsteps, albeit on a smaller scale. Each plays a role in shaping a community, and keeping traditions rolling, plus making way for new ones.

But one thing that hasn’t changed, at least not from my view: There’s always room for one more at the table for a cup of coffee, and reminiscing about the good ol’ days. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor


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