The Yards

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Kicking Pigs


by Bill Nunes


Formally opened in November, 1873, the yards first served as a receiving point for western cattle headed for eastern markets. In the early days, long-homed and wiry range cattle came in from the west and southwest by railroad and riverboat. Livestock was ferried across the Mississippi River and held for transportation to eastern states. The first load of cattle arrived in June of 1873. They were local stock and were sold to a buyer named Barney Hunter. He was known as the Cattle King of the West. The first hogs were purchased by a small packing house known as the White House Provision Co., which operated the first Swift & Company, marking the beginning of the packing industry.

Prior to World War I and shortly after World War 11, the yards ranked as the leading horse and mule market in the world. It later ranked as the leading hog market in the world and in the mid-sixties, held top rank as a diversified terminal market.

From its original small plot, the National Stock Yards expanded to sprawl across a 640 acre tract in which there are 5,000 livestock pens with a capacity of 30,000 cattle, 50,000 hogs, 20,000 sheep and 8,000 calves daily. Facilities include 26 scales for the weighing of livestock compared with two when the market was founded.

The fortunes of big livestock terminals have shifted over the years. As the West was settled, four yards emerged as the leaders in the livestock industry. They were Chicago in 1848, Kansas City in 1871, the National Stock Yards in 1873 and Omaha in 1884.

In the early days, before the Mississippi River was spanned, thousands of heads of livestock from the Western producing areas in route to Eastern points had to be unloaded in St. Louis, ferried across the river and then driven to the various railroads over which they were shipped. Before the turn of the century. livestock frequently were driven along Collinsville Avenue and St. Clair Ave. as people scurried along board sidewalks. Hard-riding cowboys sported side arms and poles as they drove the market.

There was a period of frenzied activity early in the World War I era when more than one-half million horses and mules were sold at the Yards between 1915 and 1918. Purchasing commissions from Great Britain, Belgium, France and Italy bought the horse-power which was used to drag the big guns around the battlefields of Europe. The animals were transported by railroad Canada going to shipping -points along the St. Lawrence River so they could be conveyed across the North Atlantic. Numerous transports were sunk by the German U-Boats. The United States Army also was a large purchaser. Many of the animals were sent to re-mount stations throughout the country for cavalry and artillery draft power. The horse and mule market steadily diminished as mechanization took over on the farms.

Three principal factors contributed to the growth of the Yards. The site was near the geographical center of the nation. Rail and water transportation were already established. The Eads Bridge was constructed in 1874 and with later bridges, good transportation across the Mississippi River was assured. The stock yards, coupled with the packing houses ultimately became the largest employer in the city. Ed Smith of Belleville, who worked there for over forty years, estimates numbers as high as 5,000 workers. My uncle, Ray Noones, worked at Hunter Packing Co. Bill Dooley, a friend, was a millwright at Hunter.

A "Model T" pulled into the yards in 1924 with the first load of hogs hauled by truck. This gave rise to the livestock trucking industry and the emergence of the Yards as the Number One hog market center of the world. By 1953, 99% of all the hog receipts at the Yard and 84% of the livestock were arriving by truck. Because the trucks could be used for return hauls of feed, fertilizer and other farm necessities, the area boomed as the supplier of most of the needs of the farmers and truckers.

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In addition to the purchase of slaughter stock, millions of dollars worth of feeder lambs, cattle, and calves were purchased annually by Corn Belt stockmen for future fattening. At its peak, there were more than 125 registered buyers at the Yards competing for supplies.

National City, which encompassed the Yards, was a municipality with such standard equipment as a mayor, fire and police department, a first class post office, hotel, bank and weekly newspaper which serves as a trade paper for market interests and shippers. The Yards also had its own railroad with 25 miles of track. Within the confines of the Yards were two fertilizer plants and three warehouses for dry and cold storage. The Stock Yards was in reality a huge motel for livestock, serving upward to four million guests a year. It was open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and was never known to turn away a single animal for lack of room or facilities. Service included pen room, weighing, feed and water. To satisfy the thirst and appetite of stock required 800 million gallons of water annually, 17,000 tons of hay and 275,000 bushels of corn. The large volume of business was helpful in obtaining larger returns for the livestock growers and feeders.

The original investment in 1973 was one-half million dollars including $150,000 for the old Alerton House which later became the National Hotel, and $87,500 for the original Exchange Building. In 1967 the National Stock Yards had assets valued in excess of 13 million. The land alone had a valuation of $6,500,000.


Click here to read excerpts of John J Brennan's account of working at the Stock Yards




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