Today I’m sharing two of the short stories from my book Sheep, Stetsons & Stockyards: Stories on Surviving Change from the chapter, “Buying and Bartering in the Kansas City Stockyards” — for pictures, captions and several other chapters … read about ordering the book here.
Sierra’s Stockyards Travels: Fort Worth, Denver, Omaha, Kansas City and Sioux Falls
I have never visited the coasts or corners of the United States. So the Carolinas, California and the Pacific Northwest remain on my “bucket list.” If it is not practical for my father to haul cattle to or from that state, I likely haven’t been there. I have traveled across Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri, Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado and a bit of Wyoming.
It was a tradition for every one of our family vacations to involve a trip to a feedlot or stop at a livestock auction. In the past five years, my father has mellowed and started to take trips that don’t involve feedlots.
I inherited my family’s affinity for Midwest and western travel. I rarely travel by a strict plan and I always prefer an open highway. Without trying very hard, by the age of 21, I had accidently visited five of our nation’s old stockyards: Fort Worth, Kansas City, Denver, Omaha and Sioux Falls. I found them all to be fascinating and mostly forgotten places.
After visiting the stockyards, I eventually learned that my great-grandfather, L.W. Angell, Jr., and grandfather, Luther Angell, bought cattle in the Kansas City Stockyards weekly from 1948 until 1991. I thought that my interest in the stockyards was purely personal. Yet, like many other things, my draw toward the old stockyards was inherited from my grandpa and great-grandpa.
At 17 years old, I visited the Fort Worth Stockyards, which were turned into a tourist attraction. Out of the five locations I visited, the Fort Worth yards were the only ones that seemed to have been fully converted from a place of business and commerce into a tourist destination. The others stockyards were in flux or in a desolate, empty part of town.
The city of Fort Worth embraced its stockyards heritage and created a tourism industry around the location, complete with a hokey “cattle drive” each afternoon. Modern “cowboys” on horseback drove a small herd of longhorn steers down the street once a day.
Even though there was a nice shopping district around the Fort Worth yards, I couldn’t help but feel forlorn as I took photos of the old pens. The wooden gates were broken and sagging, and the concrete was broken up. A catwalk that once rose high above the pens stopped short, leading nowhere.
During college, I visited the old Kansas City Stockyards and the Kansas City Livestock Exchange Building. The pens were gone, but the building remained. It was beautifully restored by Mr. Bill Haw to period style. There were a few offices rented, but the majority of the space seemed to be available. With the pens gone, I found it impossible to visualize the previous grandeur of the sprawling 207 acres.
My memory is foggy about how and why I visited the old Union Stockyards in Omaha, Nebraska. I think my father drove us there on the way home from a vacation, hoping to expose us to a bit of history. Then, years later on a trip back to Missouri from South Dakota, I found myself there by accident again. I was probably following my Garmin navigation system rather than taking the time to stop and read a real map.
Like many of the stockyards in the nation, the Omaha Union Stockyards were located in what has become a rundown part of town. The sidewalks were cracked and uneven. Railroad cars with graffiti waited on the track, making the whole area feel cheap and abused. The pens were gone, though nothing filled their spaces, leaving behind little more than an urban wasteland of dirt, weeds and graffiti. Where sidewalks around the industrious brick stockyards building were once bustling, grass and dandelions had pushed their way through the cracks. The loneliness of an era gone by haunted each stockyards location I visited.
The Denver Stockyards still receive frequent stock show enthusiasts for the annual Denver Stock Show. Those pens may be the only ones I can recall that still occasionally are used for holding livestock during the show. A fancy metal sign was hung over the entranceway, proclaiming “The Yards.” Where thousands of cattle once were held, a few hundred heifers, steers, pairs and bulls were tied up just for the annual event.
Finally, I visited the old Sioux Falls Stockyards in South Dakota. At the time, I was just beginning to date my husband, John. He drove me by the location and explained some of the history. During high school, John hauled his fat hogs down to the John Morrell Packing Plant that was near the Stockyards. These Stockyards operated longer than many, closing down on June 25, 2009. After 92 years of business, the last draft of cattle sold was a group of 21 black heifers.
The stockyards office building in Sioux Falls was different than many of the tall, brick industrial-style buildings at the other locations that I visited. Instead, the main building in Sioux Falls was a large, square white building that reminded me of a large, white farmhouse with a business feel. This building remains intact and there are plans of preserving the history of the Stockyards.
Nearby, the John Morrell packing plant still accepts hogs for kill in 2016. When the Sioux Falls yards finally closed down, a small group of businessmen reopened a huge, modern livestock barn auction along Interstate 29, south of Sioux Falls at the Worthing Exit, under the name Sioux Falls Regional Livestock. John and I have used this auction barn on occasion to sell feeder cattle and cull cows.
In 2013, John proposed to me near the stockyards at Falls Park, where the Big Sioux River flows beautifully over natural granite waterfalls. When we started scouting locations for our wedding, we briefly talked about having the wedding in Omaha, between our two home states. Apparently by that time, a portion of the stockyards building in Omaha had been converted to a reception location.
I hatched the idea of hosting our reception in a “cattleman’s ball” theme at the historic 1926 stockyards building in Omaha. The inside of the reception location, with its hardwood floors, huge arching windows and 22-foot ceilings, looked lovely to me in the online photographs. It was a cowgirl’s dream! My practical mother swiftly vetoed that idea, which I was later grateful for, as I tried to imagine coordinating an event in Omaha while living in Missouri.
In total, I have visited five of our nation’s old stockyards. Generally, I saw that the main office building at each location was surrounded by unused space where broken-down or completely removed pens once stood. I’m happy to say that a trend of recognizing the important history of these places seems to be growing. Although each location and its part of town seemed a bit lonely and forlorn when I visited them, all of the cities have made efforts to preserve and discuss the important economic impact of these locations. Fort Worth has created a tourist attraction around its building and yards and has the best location of the yards I visited, Omaha’s building has become an event and wedding center, Kansas City’s building is the home of Bill Haw’s offices and is completely restored, Denver’s yards are still used on a small scale for the Stock Show, and a group of people in Sioux Falls are working hard to create a museum at the old stockyards. The main problem is that the business centers of these communities have moved away from the railroads and rivers and into more modern business districts or a downtown area, which leaves the stockyards areas devoid of traffic, people and commerce that make a place feel inviting.
Even though I’ve visited all of these locations, I realized I didn’t understand anything about the workings of the old stockyards. Buddy and Luther spent hours explaining this extinct business model to me and I enjoyed every minute of their stories.
Triple Stacked and Paranoid in the Yards
When I was in high school my English teacher, Mrs. Bennett, made it her personal mission to help us understand one thing: the difference between primary and secondary research. Secondary research is easy – it is opening the Encyclopedia and reading an article. (Or, in the 21st century, visiting Wikipedia or Google.)
Primary research is harder; it has to come directly from the source. For example, primary research on WWII could include reading your grandparents’ love letters. Or it could be visiting the county courthouse and reading minutes from meetings in the 1800s when the county was incorporated.
When it came to the stockyards, I had two “primary sources” in my own family. Initially, I had no idea that any of my family members frequented the stockyards. When I learned that L.W., Luther and Buddy each had their own memories of the stockyards, I wrote down whatever I could. I didn’t have to read about the Kansas City Stockyards online and all my travels were enriched by their stories.
Buddy stood in the clean, simple office in his home. His office had dark wood furniture and simple black and white photos on the walls. A panoramic photo of the stockyards, almost two feet wide, was proudly displayed on one wall.
“L.W. sometimes took me along to the stockyards before I started school,” Buddy reflected. “The Kansas City Stockyards were a busy place. Everyone who worked there was paranoid. I mean really paranoid.”
Buddy explained, “It was an amazing place to me. Everything was so busy. What I remember most is that the employees were so high-strung. This was because one open gate could lead to a mix-up of hundreds of cattle. For example, if a farmer who did not know what he was doing accidently walked through a gate in the yards and did not latch it behind him, an employee would scream at him. I mean, they would go absolutely ballistic on the poor guy, but he would never do it again.”
I wondered if perhaps Buddy was talking about himself. Was he the “poor kid” who made the innocent mistake of not closing a gate? He didn’t say, but I didn’t interrupt either. Buddy talked quickly and pointed to all of the different features of the stockyards–the alleys, pens and a covered section that looked something like an enclosed, multi-level bridge. The Kansas City Stockyards were closed in 1991, the year I was born. For more than a century, the stockyards were an important part of the culture and economy of Kansas City and its surrounding states.
“There were so many directions for the cattle to go in the stockyards,” he said, pointing again at the photo. “The cattle coming down an alley could be going up a ramp to the second level or down or over. Everything seemed chaotic, because they really needed more room. The stockyards were too crowded. The place was huge; I bet it would take half a day to walk from one side to the other.
“At that time, the stockyards took up more than 200 acres from the 12th Street Viaduct to the American Royal Building. The yard company even had its own power plant. In total, the clearinghouses, commission firms and yard company employed about 1,000 people. Yet, for the volume of livestock they handled, it was really too small.”
The Kansas City Stockyards opened in 1871 with just 13.5 acres. The stockyards sat nestled between the Kansas River, commonly called the “Kaw River,” and the Missouri River. This area is called the “west bottoms.”
By 1910, the business had grown, and the impressive Livestock Exchange Building was built. At that time, it was the largest livestock exchange building in the world. It was home to nine floors and 475 offices, including the stockyards company, telegraphic offices, banks, restaurants, railroad representatives, packinghouse representatives and government agencies.
In 1923, the empire reached its peak and set a world record for one day’s receipt of cattle. The Kansas City Stockyards marketed 60,206 head in just one day. Buddy also recalls a second record-setting day in 1943, during the war years when high volumes were needed to support the war efforts.
Buddy explained and pointed again at the photo. “When they needed more space, they could not build out because the river and the city surrounded the sides. Instead, they built up. Some places in the stockyards there were alleys triple-decked. What I mean is, they had three alleys built right on top of each other!”
He motioned his hands to show layers of stacked walkways for the livestock in the large photo. During the 1920s through the 1940s, the handling capacity of the yards was built up to 70,000 cattle, 50,000 hogs, 50,000 sheep and 5,000 horses and mules. L.W. started buying cattle at the stockyards in 1948.
“It was quite a sight to see,” Buddy said, reminiscing with awe at the hugeness of the place. “They also elevated all of the scale houses. They were like a two-way street with cattle going both directions in and out of those scale houses.”
Tiny cowboys rode horses down the narrow alleys of Buddy’s photograph. They seemed swallowed up by the vastness of the pens. Even with the panoramic photo and the description from Buddy, I could tell that I still did not truly understand the scale of the stockyards. When our family has a 3,000-head sale at the Bowling Green Livestock Auction, it’s a long, hard, stressful day. I can’t imagine multiplying the number of cattle by 23 times! It was truly impossible for me to understand what a day in the stockyards would have been like.
Buddy continued, “The stockyards were a huge, sprawling place. Most of the people who were buying cattle or working rode horses because there was so many miles to cover in a day.” He made another effort at describing the huge place to me. “There was no way you could walk that whole place in a day. Most of the cowboys switched out horses at noon. They took their worn-out horse to the livery room and switched for a fresh one.
“L.W. hated horses, so he was one of the few men that walked the alleys while buying his weekly loads,” Buddy said. “L.W. bought cattle at the stockyards every Monday from 1948 until 1972. If there was a real big run, L.W. would stay overnight and go back again on Tuesday. However, the ‘30s and ‘40s were the true heyday of the stockyards.”
Can you imagine a place so big and working such long hours that a horse would get worn out by noon? And what about the smell? In the hot summer months, the strong odor of ammonia from the cattle urine would have baked in the heat, burning their eyes and stinging their noses at times. What would the smell of 70,000 cattle have been like? Not to mention the other tens of thousands of head of sheep and hogs there, too!
Enjoy the stories,
P.S. For more information on the books visit: www.sierrashea.com/books
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Evans, Kara. “Devastation and Controversy: A History of Floods in the West Bottoms.” Kansas City Public Library, Local History, August 11, 2014. http://www.kclibrary.org/blog/kc-unbound/devastation-and-controversy-history-floods-west-bottoms.
Photos: Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library