Kansas City Public Library
Though it has since closed, the livestock pens at the Kansas City Stockyards in 1945 were a busy, thriving economic boost.
When Missouri and the rest of the nation reached a financial cross-roads, the agriculture industry provided a much needed boom.
Mayhem after the Civil War affected the fortunes of several Missouri cities.
In 1867, for instance, a massive herd of longhorns bound for the new Pacific Railroad depot in Sedalia—260,000, according to the Missouri Historical Review —was “diverted by trouble about Texas cattle.” The incident, according to the Review, ended Sedalia’s bid to become the nation’s “first major cow town.” A law passed in 1867, much more restrictive than an earlier one, effectively banned Texas cattle from crossing the state because of Texas fever, except when packed in rail cars or steamships.
The law coincided with the extension of Missouri Pacific rail lines to Kansas City. The railhead, along with the opening of the new Hannibal Bridge over the Missouri River in 1869, meant Texas drovers could skirt Missouri entirely, driving the herds through friendly outposts in eastern Kansas to an endpoint just across the river from the Missouri Pacific depot.
A huge new stockyard in the city’s West Bottoms grew up to accommodate the Texas herds. The stockyards at Kansas City Live Stock Exchange once were one of the nation’s largest livestock sales processing complexes.
Stockyards and packinghouses at St. Louis were also substantial. Though sophisticated St. Louisians seldom bragged about it, for a time the famed “Gateway to the West” became an important cow conduit to the east. In 1884, for example, St. Louis rail companies shipped 360,717 head of cattle to hungry East Coast consumers.
As the era of the long drives peaked in the 1870s and 1880s, the sound of the cowboy and his herds was supplanted by the decidedly less romantic blast of the steam whistle. Mounted stockyard workers had much in common with their trail-riding brethren, but the lifestyle of the cowboy was ill-suited to these giant processing facilities. As an unnamed Works Progress Administration writer wrote in the Depression-era Missouri: A Guide to the ‘Show Me’ State, “A few herdsmen brought something of the cow-country atmosphere to the stockyards district, but the boys in ‘high heel boots, chaps, and spurs’ were swallowed up in the larger life of a community busy killing hogs, handling wheat, grinding flour, and supplying agricultural implements to the grain farmers.”
At the height of the Kansas City stockyard operations—a forty-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.
In 1929, for example, some 2,179,000 head of cattle and 4,151,000 hogs were sold through the stockyards, many bound for the huge meatpacking plants that grew up adjacent to the yards. Close to a dozen railroad companies plied the crowded lines leading into the yards. Live animals in, meat products out. Only Chicago could claim to put more meat on the world’s dinner tables. The sprawling pens, chutes, and scales, once spread across 640 acres spanning the Kaw River and the Missouri-Kansas border, are gone now, supplanted by the rise of regional processing centers located closer to farms and ranches.
Of Missouri’s great nineteenth-century 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, 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.