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The Fort Worth Stockyards


A little piggy jumps to market along the underground "pig and sheep highway" in the Fort Worth Stockyards.

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The Fort Worth Stockyards constitute an iconic symbol of Texas' role in the building of the "western myth." One of those myths is that Texas is a western state. For most of its history, this former Spanish colony relied, economically, on slavery and cotton. Cattle driving into Missouri constituted an important, but relatively minor, business activity prior to the Civil War. But after the Civil War, many events converged to make cattle driving a booming economic activity for Texas.

One was the abundance of feral longhorn cattle. Secondly, railroad companies were building west with the assistance of the federal government, which wanted to entice Americans to settle in the Great Plains. To do this, the Plains Indian tribes had to be forced onto the reservations that the US had set up during and after the war. Lastly, Joseph McCoy blazed a dedicated trail from Indian Territory into Abilene, Kansas to bring the longhorn to rail heads that linked with eastern markets, like Kansas City and Chicago.

With all this activity, wealth could be gained in a much easier fashion than before the Civil War. Instead of wealth being relegated to those who counted the number of persons owned and the amount of acreage they could cultivate or use for ranching, anyone who knew how to swing a rope (and registered a brand) could catch themselves a dogie, mosey along beef trails into Indian Territory, sell some cows to the reservations, and then ship them to the slaughterhouses in the big cities.*

Cattle trailing had a very limited shelf life, however. The railroads did not stay away from Texas, of course, and by the turn of the 20th century, it became much easier to ship processed beef via refrigerated rail car to customers.** This is when the Fort Worth Stockyards were born. In 1889, live cattle were sent to their ultimate doom on railroad lines that had supplanted the cattle trail that had passed north of Fort Worth, along the Trinity River, just a few years earlier. Then, in 1893, a couple of investors from Boston,  Massachusetts saw the potential of Fort Worth as a processed meat shipping center. They incorporated as the Fort Worth Stockyards Company and lured Armour and Swift, two major meat processors, to set up shop on the eastern end of the yards.

Like Chicago, St. Louis, and Kansas City, Fort Worth became a major livestock and futures market, especially for customers out west. For almost eighty years, the Fort Worth Stockyards provided a major economic engine for the growth of the Texas economy. Though labor troubles persisted in the Armour and Swift plants, they nonetheless provided employment for least three generations of Fort Worthians, many of whom came as immigrants to find work on the slaughter floors. They didn't just handle cattle, either. The stockyards became the final destination for millions of sheep and pigs, as well. Horses and mules were traded here, too; the stockyards were considered "the Wall Street of the West."

By the 1970s,  the Forth Worth Stockyards fell on hard times. With the influx of cheap meats from South America and Asia and the demise of shipping on the railroads, the American meat packing industry declined. The stockyards could have been all but a memory had Charlie and Sue McCafferty not chartered the North Fort Worth Historical Society, which preserved the history of the buildings by obtaining inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. In the 1980s, a museum opened in the Livestock Exchange Building, and the Stockyards grew into an internationally renowned tourist destination. It's in a state of "arrested decay," which makes it that much more appealing to historians like me. In 2015, a California company purchased the rights to develop the northern and eastern sections of the stockyards. Many of the indelible but time-worn landmarks - such as the Swift ruins - will be demolished. So make time to seek out the Stockyards, as much of their originality might be erased, soon.

* With the advent of barbed wire, this rather democratic form of wealth building ceased almost immediately. Cattle could no longer be trailed if water sources were fenced in, and large ranches replaced the trail driver as the major supplier of beef cattle.
** Joseph McCoy knew this very early on, and invested the money he had made in cattle shipping into a reefer company that was headquartered in Denison, Texas, home to the first north-south railroad connection in Texas.

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