From the Archives: An Ode to the Omaha Stockyards
I grew up in North Omaha but most of my extended family lived in South Omaha, where my father was born and raised. On visits to South O to see my paternal grandparents, Adam and Anna Biga, the impossible to ignore acrid stench emanating from the stockyards and packing plants located only blocks from their home burned my nostrils and eyes. For that matter, anywhere in South O carried a whiff of the stink, which came to be known as the Smell of Money for the immense commerce those twinned industries represented. I had many relatives work at the packing plants and my father, his brothers, and my grandfather certainly knew their way around the stockyards. Growing up, my only contact with the yards was on a school field trip and my dad driving me and my brothers there a few times to catch the sights and sounds and, that’s right, smells, of that bustling place. By the time I worked as a journalist the stockyards was on it’s last legs, a true anachronism and eye sore in a city trying to break from its cow town past and reimage itself as a progressive, cosmopolitan metropolis. For a while there it looked like Omaha would never have the will and vision to do the necessary reset to rebrnad itself but as the national media has been reporting for a decade now the city got its collective act together and is in the midst of a full-scale makeover. The downtown and riverfront transformation gets most of the attention but the decline and eventual move of the Omaha Stockyards and the closing and razing of the packing houses, followed by the subsequent redevelopment of the huge tracts of land they stood on is every bit as impressive. Where the yards and plants operated are now apartments, businesses, a giant Kroc Center, a booming community college campus, and many more ameneties. The one remnant of that industrial behometh that survived is the Livestock Exchange Building, which has a new life of its own. This story, written and publsihed mere months before the stockyards shut down here and moved to Iowa, recounts all that was lost in this transition from the Old World to the New. The stockyards had to go to make way for the new Omaha but its impact was so vast that its history and contributions to building Omaha should never be forgotten. If you enjoy this kind of history, check out an even more extensive piece I did on the stockyards that I’ve posted on this blog.
From the Archives: An Ode to the Omaha Stockyards
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the New Horizons
By the turn of the century the historic Omaha stockyards will be gone from the site it’s operated at for 114 years, leaving an uncertain future for one of Omaha’s oldest active businesses. The move, prompted by a city-sponsored redevelopment project, will mark the end of a once mighty enterprise built on brains, brawn, guts and ambition. After surviving ownership changes, world wars and wild economic swings, the stockyards will finally succumb to changing times and attitudes.
A throwback to an earlier era, the stockyards was a male-dominated arena where high finance met Midwestern hospitality. Where a man’s word was his bond and an honest day’s work his measure. Its departure will close a rich, muscular chapter in Omaha’s working life — one whose like may not be seen again. One where men moved a constant flow of animals through a maze of tracks, chutes, alleys and pens spanning 200-plus acres.
“This was a huge, huge operation. A big mammoth place. At one time we employed 350 to 400 people. We stretched from the railroad yards at about 26th Street clear up to 36th Street. We were beyond ‘L’ Street to the north and beyond Gomez Avenue to the south. We ran crews 24 hours-a-day, seven days-a-week. There was always something going on. At times you never thought you had enough help with all the pens and animals to maintain,” said Carl Hatcher, a 43-year veteran at the yards and current manager of the Omaha Livestock Market.
Today, the stockyards is but a shell of its former self. With receipts in steady decline for three decades, it’s systematically shrunk operations to the present 15 acres, dramatically scaled back the market schedule and severely downsized the workforce. Abandoned pens and dilapidated buildings stand as forlorn reminders of its former greatness.
“We’re not the big yards we used to be,” Hatcher, 60, said. “It’s not a thriving business the way it used to be. The only way we’ve been able to keep in business is to reduce the facility in proportion to the reduced demand in the industry.”
Those, like Hatcher, who recall the glory years know there can never be a return to the daily spectacle along “L” Street when livestock-laden trucks arriving from points near and far lined-up in a procession running from 36th to 60th, waiting to unload their mooing, squealing, bleating cargo.
“It was a sight to see,” said the City of Omaha’s official historian, Jean Dunbar, who saw the epic lines of trucks with his own eyes.
James Rosse, 95, a former editor with the Daily Journal Stockman and past executive with Livestock Conservation Inc., recalls a banner 1944 pig crop brought a convoy of hog-filled trucks extending to 72nd Street.
The congestion got so bad that stockmen often doubled as traffic cops to keep trucks moving smoothly on and off the “L” Street viaduct. Truckers at the end of the line waited hours before unloading.
“We would on occasion send out coffee and sandwiches to the truckers,” recalls Harold Norman, 77, retired secretary-treasurer of the stockyards. To try and avert logjams, he said, stalled trucks were pushed to the side. The addition of chutes speeded up the delivery process.
While trucks replaced trains as the dominant mode of transporting livestock by the 1940s, large numbers of animals continued being shipped by rail through the ‘60s. The stockyards even operated its own railway to handle incoming and outgoing loads.
“It was a continuous thing of livestock coming in here one day, being sold and then moving out,” Hatcher said from his office in the Livestock Exchange Building, the grand South Omaha landmark that’s long been the headquarters and hub for the livestock industry here. “Whenever you’ve got thousands and thousands of head of livestock being moved, it’s a real challenge to do that on an orderly basis. You never had a time, even in the wee hours of the morning, that there wasn’t some livestock either arriving or being delivered out of here. It was amazing.”
“We were essentially a hotel for livestock — a place to bed, feed and water,” said Norman, adding the company had no stake in animal sales or purchases, but instead made money from yardage fees and office rentals.
More than a hotel, the yards constituted THE central market for livestock producers and buyers in the region. During its peak years, anywhere from 30,000 to 50,000 head of cattle, 40,000 to 60,000 head of hogs and 10,000 to 20,000 head of sheep arrived weekly via rail and truck. In a single year as many as six million head of livestock were received, with an estimated value of more than half-a-billion dollars. By comparison, a good week’s receipts today total 1,000 cattle and 3,000 hogs.
With such a huge volume of activity, crews had to work effiiciently unloading unruly animals, flogging them down chutes and herding them through alleys into open pens. Once stock was yarded, the real business of the marketplace commenced. Commission men representing producers negotiated with buyers to obtain the fairest price on cattle, hogs, sheep. Once a sale was made, the animals were driven to a scalehouse, weighed, and held in pens until the buyer led them off to slaughter or feed.
Somehow, it all worked like a well-oiled machine. And the next day, the process began all over again. It still works the same way today, only on a much smaller scale.
The bustling market was a melting pot of diverse interests and types. A central gathering point where rural and urban America merged. Where rich cattlemen in gabardine splendor and dapper bankers in double-breasted finery rubbed shoulders with overall-clad farmers and blood, mud, manure-stained laborers. The massive Exchange Building was an oasis where one could eat a good meal, down a few drinks, buy a cigar, get a haircut, send a telegram and dance the night away in its ballroom.
“I’d like to live those days over again,” Rosse said, “because that was exciting. There was always something new.”
For all the market’s staggering numbers and feats, one item bears special notice: Then, as now, livestock deals were made verbally, without a written contract, and sealed with a handshake.
“Millions of dollars changed hands there just on a handshake,” Hatcher said. “It’s not done in other businesses, where you gotta have contracts and a lawyer standing over each shoulder to make sure all the Is are dotted and Ts are crossed.”
“I can’t believe it yet,” said Rosse, who was also struck by the frank manner buyers and sellers transacted business. “The way they talked to each other, you’d think they’d never speak to each other again. They were rather a rough bunch. They didn’t spend much time at it. It was either yes or no, and away they’d go. It was a tough business, and yet they were pals again when they weren’t working. There was a lot of camaraderie.”
If the stockyards supplied the fuel for this powerful industrial machine, then its engine resided in the many meatpacking plants surrounding it. Between the plants’ smokestacks and the waste-ridden yards, an acrid odor formed that carried for miles. The yards, which earned the wrath of neighbors who daily lived with the stench, formed a Stink Committee to handle complaints and find solutions. “The Smell of Money,” as Omaha
historian Jean Dunbar describes it, was a small price to pay as the industry employed thousands and provided thousands more customers for area businesses (bars, eateries, stores) catering to the stock-packing trade.
Said Hatcher, “A lot of businesses sprang up around here and thrived and survived on the people who worked at the market and the packing houses.” Johnny’s Cafe, the noted steakhouse just east of the yards, benefited from the traffic streaming through. “There was just a huge concentration of people moving in and out of the ag business around here. We served meals around the clock to the truckers, the cattlemen, the bankers, the commission men…anybody that had anything to do with the livestock industry,” said Jack Kawa, Johnny’s proprietor and a son of its founder, the late Frank Kawa.
After selling livestock at market many producers spent their profits in South Omaha — on lavish meals or shopping sprees. “It was kind of a culmination and celebration of feeding cattle or hogs for six or nine months,” Kawa said. He adds these hearty men lived hard and played hard and concedes the restaurant’s heavy, masculine, western decor and emphasis on beef reflected their tastes.
The combined purchasing power of the stockmen and packers, as well as their customers, pumped countless millions into the South Omaha economy. Indeed, the community owes its very existence to the stockyards. What was farm and scrub land sprouted into the city of South Omaha soon after the yards opened in 1884. An envious Omaha coveted its neighbor to the south and after much resistance finally annexed it in 1916.
If Chicago could rightly be called the city of broad shoulders, then surely Omaha was its husky little brother. Early Omaha survived as an outfitting haven for Western pioneers and settlers. The growing city continued drawing industry here because of its direct river access and central location. The event that opened Omaha to serious expansion was the transcontinental railroad’s coming through in the late 1860s. With Omaha established as a major rail center, it fast became a convenient gateway for transporting goods and services east and west.
It wasn’t long before a group of Omaha businessmen, led by the formidable William A. Paxton, saw the potential for forming a stockyards that could provide a central market for western livestock producers and eastern packers. At the time, Chicago was the nearest market for western producers, but with further westward expansion it became burdensome to ship cattle so far east.
Paxton, an ex-mule skinner, cattle ranch operator and bridge builder, defended his stake in the venture from powerful interests that prized it too.
“He definitely was a guy who played hard ball. He was a very hard-driving guy. He was truly one of the ground-floor men,” said University of Nebraska at Omaha history professor Harl Dalstrom.
The stockyards deal swung on Paxton securing the backing of Wyoming cattle baron Alexander Swan, who craved a central market for his own vast herds. Together with such local powerbrokers as John A. McShane and John A. Creighton, these men formed what became known as the Syndicate. They bought 2,000 acres south of early Omaha, setting aside 200 for the stockyards and the rest for the community they envisioned developing around it. The Union Stockyards Company opened in 1884 and, just as expected, a full-fledged city soon emerged.
“South Omaha grew up all of a sudden…in less than a generation. It was a boom town,” said historian Jean Dunbar. “It did not create the instant rich men that oil or mining towns produced. South Omaha’s boom produced a lot of good jobs for a lot of immigrants. It was an immigrant community. A mosaic of Czechs, Poles, Irish and others. For them, it was an opportunity to find a new life. It was hard, dangerous work that took a strong, remarkable breed of men, just like the men it took to farm on the dusty, desert-like Great Plains.”
At first the yards served as little more than a feeding station for stock in-transit to Chicago, and would have remained so without meatpackers opening plants. To entice the packers the Syndicate gave away money, land, buildings and shares of stock in the company, and one by one they came, led by the Big Four — Cudahy, Swift, Armour and Wilson.
“The owners of the stockyards paid off these big packers and offered them inducements to do business here,” Dunbar said. “These were big,
powerful men of tremendous personality. Of course they were acting in their self-interest, but they also risked great sums of their own personal fortune to make Omaha a great city and Nebraska a great state.”
With the packers in place, the yards flourished. “The stockyards were only the catalyst. The packing houses were the key. They’re the ones that employed people by the thousands. The one’s the dog, the other’s the tail,” Dunbar said.
But after four generations of nearly unbroken success, the tide slowly turned and the frontier empire that rose up from nothing diminished in size and importance. There are many reasons for the decline, but it really all boils down to economics. It goes back to the mid-1960s, when a shift occurred away from central markets like Omaha’s to a more diffuse, direct marketing system. When the Big Four found their massive multi-story plants too costly to modernize, they closed them and built smaller ones in rural areas closer to producers and feeders.
Large producers soon realized they had no need to ship to a central market, much less consign livestock to an agent, since packer-buyers were eagerly knocking on their door. Instead, producers sold directly to buyers, who also found it a more economical way of doing business. Thus, the traditional role played by a central market like Omaha’s — of bringing together producers and buyers in a competitive arena, became obsolete for most large producers. The need for a middle man had vanished except for the smallest farmers or ranchers.
A concurrent trend found livestock being raised by fewer and fewer hands, as small farmers-ranchers were bought out or went belly up, leaving production in the hands of relatively few mega-producers who dealt directly with packers. Consequently, the stockyards lost much of its customer-base, causing receipts and profits to dwindle, forcing cutbacks, et cetera.
Another factor accounting for the decline was that as the local livestock industry shrunk, it lost the economic-political clout it once wielded. The stockyards also lost any leverage it might have still had when, in 1989, the Minneapolis-based United Marketing Services purchased the livestock operation from Canal Capital Corp. of New York. The deal let Canal retain ownership of all the stockyards’ property and structures, leaving United a tenant subject to the whims of its landlord. Prior to that the stockyards or its parent company always owned the property and buildings it occupied.
Making matters worse, as the stockyards consolidated on fewer and fewer acres, Canal let abandoned grounds and facilities fall into disrepair. The blighted areas gave the stockyards a black eye as the public assumed it owned the problem, when Canal actually held title to the land, including buildings the city deemed “unsafe and dangerous” and had begun condemnation procedures on.
“I think we’re taking the rap for their (Canal’s) bad management. Any of the property we’ve vacated has become an eyesore. It looks bad for the
city. It looks bad for our livestock operation. We would dearly love to have it cleaned up and made presentable,” Hatcher said.
A face-lift can’t save the stockyards now, however. Bowing to pressure, the financially-ailing Canal entered negotiations two years ago with the city for the sale of 57 acres, including all of the stockyards. Last November, Mayor Hal Daub unveiled the city’s plans for an office park at the site — minus the stockyards. Metro Community College plans expanding there and is viewed as a magnet for attracting further development.
Hatcher and his bosses tried convincing city officials to allow the stockyards to remain on-site, even on half its present acreage, but officials wouldn’t budge, leaving the company with a December 31, 1999 deadline to leave. In September, the city completed its purchase of the site. Plans call for all traces of the stockyards to be razed, except for the Exchange Building, which is slated for renovation.
Meanwhile, Hatcher is looking for new office space for himself and his staff, as the Exchange Building must be vacated by March 31, and is searching for a new site the stockyards may relocate on. United is commited to keeping a livestock market in the area, but will only relocate if a new site “makes economic sense,” Hatcher said. The city is legally obligated to help pay the costs of any relocation.
Hatcher is unhappy with the stockyards’ rather ignoble fate, but he realizes why it came about. In part, it’s a sign of the times. As Omaha has moved further from its frontier roots and traditional ag-industrial base, the stockyards is viewed as an unwelcome remnant of the past in what is a politically-correct, environmentally-conscious age. Neighbors and public officials no longer want livestock, or the unpleasant trappings they bring, confined in the middle of a modern city whose mayor is “re-imaging” it as clean, new age, high-tech — not grimy, old world, blue collar.
“People are not tolerant that way anymore,” Hatcher said. “Manure being spilled on the streets is not tolerated today. The smells are not tolerated. The packing houses are not as welcome as they used to be. People don’t depend on them for their livelihood. A lot of the people in the city administration, on the city council and in the community don’t think the stockyards and packing houses pay a living wage. They don’t feel we’re the type of industry they want in their glorious city. And I feel sorry for them and feel doubly sorry for us and for our customers that depend on us.”
For Harold Norman, the stockyards ex-secretary-treasurer, it’s “a feeling of rejection, because the company was held in high repute for many, many years and now it seems like we don’t have any friends anymore. Over the years there were people who opposed us but we were big enough that we could stand our own with them, but today…”
“The negative influences created by the livestock market were not desirable to retain in the future,” said Bob Peters, Omaha’s Acting City Planning Director. “There is a great deal of respect and sympathy for the livestock market and its employees…and a great deal of warm and wonderful memories of the past heydays of the marketplace, however there is a realization that time has passed the market by.”
Hatcher disagrees. “The stockyards is still a viable, profitable business,” he said. “We paid all our bills. We paid our taxes. We had all our permits and licenses. We were not asking anyone to subsidize our business. But the city has told us they don’t want us here anymore. To see this all come to an end and to think…there will be no legacy…no more ongoing central market here in Omaha, yeah, that saddens me.”
He will miss the yards, but most of all the people. “I love the people and this business. It’s been my life. There are still some young people in the industry who would like to see this particular operation continue. There’s still a lot of producers out there that would like to see us continue because they have no other choice to market their livestock. This location is ideal for our customers in Nebraska and Iowa.”
According to James Rosse, “The city fathers have never appreciated what the stockyards meant to them or to the larger agribusiness economy. This was a livestock center of national and international importance, but they’re trying now to eliminate that picture of Omaha.”
However, Peters insists the city does recognize the stockyards’ significance. He adds the use of federal funds for the planned redevelopment requires the city to conduct an historic recordation of the stockyards so “the historical and cultural importance of that site is not lost and will be perpetuated forever in a series of documents, drawings, photographs and essays that deal with its development and its relationship to the development of the city and the region.” The materials will be filed with the Library of Congress.
With the stockyards’ days numbered, perhaps it’s time some thought be given to erecting a permanent display commemorating the enormous commerce it generated and the vital impact it made. Norman has tried unsuccessfully to launch such a display. The city has no plans for one.
“It’s obvious this is a big part of our history and I think it needs to be preserved and interpreted to subsequent generations as effectively as we can,” UNO’s Dalstrom said. Dunbar agrees, suggesting “a Magic City museum could tell the history of a great era in South Omaha.”
Absent any reminder, Omaha may re-cast itself as an ultra modern city but at the expense of sanitizing its rough-and-tumble roots right into oblivion. With the stockyards demise, more than its mere physical presence will be lost. Lost too will be a direct link to Omaha’s frontier heritage. It will join Jobbers Canyon as a casualty to ‘progress,’ leaving one less trace of the burly, brawling, booming industrial center Omaha has been and still is.
Ironically, “stockyards” will likely be part of any name chosen for the office park replacing it. The question is: Will future generations know the rich story behind the name?