Reflections – Cattle Rail & Stockyards

July 15, 2022

Though DeKalb County had certainly sent cattle to distant markets like Chicago for decades, it found itself on the cusp of a boom. The business of shipping livestock by rail developed quickly and later ended just as abruptly.

From the early 1850s when railroads began in DeKalb County, trains were the “great life-giving stimulant to the impoverished West.” In 1929, tracks crisscrossed the county, sometimes intersecting in places.

Malta Stockyard in 1960.

A written sketch by Wallace G. Thompson (1903-1991) is an important source explaining the intensive, short-lived practice of shipping livestock by rail in DeKalb County. Wallace’s father George was key in bringing about the stockyards and rail stop at Five Points, an area just north of 64 and First Street. George and Wallace Thompson were life-long DeKalb County Farm Bureau members.

About 1911, “The area was beginning to produce more hogs and cattle for the Chicago market.” Many towns had stockyards near railroad stops, but to load cattle onto trains requires loading pens and chutes and to get cattle to the loading pens required a cattle drive.

Thompson wrote, “Unless you have tried to drive a herd of cattle down a town street without putting a hoof mark on someone’s lawn, you’ve never lived.”

Livestock was shipped by train from the west to DeKalb County beginning in the early 1900s. Area farmers went to the local stockyards to acquire their livestock and drive them by hoof or truck them to their farms. Shown is the DeKalb Stockyard in 1948. Note the cattle chute and corral on the left.

“When I was a little boy, I can remember riding in a spring wagon with my grandfather when they were driving some western feeding cattle out of Malta.” Just after daylight, a Malta woman shouted at the men, causing the cattle to bolt. “After the men got them organized, they moved them across the Lincoln Highway, and going down Schafer Road my grandfather remarked that it was probably about as early as those people ever had their clothes lines stretched or their potatoes dug.”

In December 1911, after discussion with the Chicago Great Western Railroad, Five Points farmers created a switch track at the Five Points Crossing. Through 1912, 225 to 250 carloads of cattle shipped from the new site. During World War I, the practice of cattle feeding boomed and “western feeding cattle were brought in the fall from places like St. Paul, Sioux City, and Omaha.”

“The late teens and the 1920s were the hey-day for the railroads. Everything moved by rail,” Thompson remembered.

Five Points Stockyard west of Sycamore.

“During the ‘20s, lots of livestock was shipped but by the time the ‘30s came along and the depression was really bearing down, a lot of both cattle and hogs were being sent to Chicago by truck.”

“By the time that World War II came along,” Thompson wrote, “the railroad was just about out of the livestock hauling business except for western feeder cattle coming in.”

“By the 1950s, everybody was feeding cattle,” but even this practice ended when the prevalence of western stockyards made shipping cattle here too costly.

More widespread trucking practices and railroads’ business and labor policies ended the shipping of cattle by rail here. In a short time, all hints of the stockyards, rails, and switches disappeared.

Information provided by the DeKalb County History Center. For more information visit
www.DeKalbCountyHistory.org.


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