Local farmers sold livestock at the Chicago Union Stockyards and share their stories
The Union Stock Yard & Transit Company was the meatpacking district in Chicago for more than a century, starting in 1865. The district was operated by a group of railroad companies that acquired marshland and turned it into a centralized processing area.
It was the center of the American meat packing industry for decades. From the Civil War until the 1920s, more meat was processed in Chicago than any other place.
The Stockyards covered nearly one square mile of land, from Halsted Street to Ashland Avenue and from 39th Street (now Pershing Road) to 47th Street. The site had 2,300 separate livestock pens, room to accommodate 75,000 hogs, 21,000 cattle and 22,000 sheep at any one time.
Farmers shipped their livestock there by rail or by truck. It was the hub of livestock marketing. Much of the livestock sold at the Stockyards was processed at nearby meat plants: Armour, Swift, Morris, Hammond or Wilson companies. Thousands of people worked at the Yards.
An eight-story Exchange Building housed the livestock commission offices, plus a restaurant. The Stockyard Inn hotel provided overnight accommodations. Buildings and businesses were located around the Stockyards.
The Stockyards closed on Friday, July 30, 1971, after several decades of decline during the decentralization of the meatpacking industry. The only thing that exists today is the Union Stockyard Gate, a limestone gate marking the entrance to the Stockyards, now designated as a national historic landmark.
When you mention the Chicago Stockyards it conjures up fond memories for Don Willrett
His grandpa, John, and father, Bob, sold fat cattle there from the 1940s until its close in 1971. Don would tag along with the two as they traveled by car to the Stockyards the morning the cattle were shipped.
Don shares Stockyard memories.
“My first recollection of the Stockyards was in 1960, when I was 8 years old. I remember sitting on the ledge above the cattle pens. Commission firms and buyers would dicker back and forth over cattle prices. They were tough guys, with crude talk. It was like I was watching a drunken game of guys who had too much whiskey!
We used the Hatch Livestock commission firm – got to know Fred Hatch and Eldon Hatch quite well. Once the commission firm and buyers agreed on a price, the Hatches would get Dad or Grandpa’s approval for the price.
Then we would go to the cafeteria in the Exchange Building to eat breakfast and afterwards we would head up to the Hatch Livestock Commission office where they would cut a check and give to us for our cattle. Our cattle went to the packing plants by the Stockyards, Armour or Swift.
Shipping cattle to the Chicago Stockyards was a regular routine for us. Stanley Mack, a Hinckley trucker, hauled many of our loads to the city, first in a straight truck (13 cattle per load) and then a semi (24 cattle per load).
I also remember listening to the WGN Radio Noon Show when we were there. Orion Samuelson, Bill Mason and John Almburg gave the market reports. Marketing decisions were based on the reports – with livestock receipts given late in the day. Also some farmers would monitor truck traffic heading to the city.
Years later, when I was in high school, I went to the stock show at the Ampitheater with the Hinckley-Big Rock FFA Chapter in 1968. The Ampitheater was an open arena near the Stockyards.”
Don, 69, is reminded of the Chicago Stockyards through his collection of memoribilia. He has a small metal bank, a paperweight, spoon, gold coin, and bullet pens. He also has a cement water trough that once was used at the Stockyards. And the most memorable is a photo of him and his dad by their pen of cattle at the Stockyards.
Don is a third-generation cattle feeder; his son Scott is the fourth generation and grandson Grayson is the fifth generation from rural Hinckley. The Willretts feed about 1,200 beef cattle a year.
As a young farm kid, Gary Lothson remembers how excited he was to go to the Stockyards
The Lothsons sold cattle and hogs at the Chicago Stockyards from the mid-1920s up until it closed. Gary’s Grandpa Art, and his father, Ed, and Uncle Rod would often ride with the trucker or make a family trip to the Stockyards. On some of the trips, Gary would ride along.
Gary recollects Stockyard trips.
“As a young boy in 1960s rural Illinois, it was a big deal to go to the Chicago Stockyards. We got there early in the morning. It was a busy place filled with people from all walks of life and a lot of men that looked like my dad and grandpa. The first time I went I was six years old — as I got older I would wander around the alleys, sit on top of the pens and listen to the buyers and commission firms haggle over prices.
Each year we would purchase a hearty farm breakfast in the cafeteria of the Exchange Building, pick up our check at the commission firm office and then move on to the souvenirs!
Sometimes we would make a day trip out of our Stockyard visit to a Cubs or Sox game, or to the Museum of Science & Industry. Dad always brought a change of clothes if we were going to the city.
It was all quite a cultural experience for a young rural kid like me. I was exposed to new people and experiences that offered me the opportunity to broaden my perspective on the world.
All in all, it was a trip I looked forward to with great anticipation. It was a vibrant atmosphere with lots of people. Lots of action. And I thought it was the greatest thing!”
Gary’s grandfather served on the DeKalb County Farm Bureau Board for 34 years. His dad was good friends with Russ Philbrick, the Farm Bureau livestock specialist. Russ would provide advice on cattle marketing and oftentimes went to the Stockyards with them.
When the Lothsons bought cattle in the 1920s-1970s they came by rail to the Malta Stockyard and then were trucked to their farm south of DeKalb. Later Art Lothson bought the land which the Malta Stockyard was located. The Lothsons quit feeding cattle in 1983.
Today, Gary, 63, lives on the home farm. He is an attorney and also farms the 130-acre family farm.
The Larsons trucked livestock to Chicago’s Union Stockyards for 41 years
“I remember riding with Dad in his truck to the Stockyards in the late 1950s – I was 15 years old. There was no tollway then so we headed east on Rt. 30 to Aurora to Naperville to Ogden Avenue and then north to Archer and 47th Street in Chicago. Years later the interstate made the trip faster.
We left after dark on a Sunday, unloaded the cattle at the Stockyards and got back home at 5 a.m. for me to catch the school bus!
If farmers weren’t content with the price, Dad would haul the cattle back home. Not often, but sometimes. They wouldn’t be happy with this. Dad would say you could just about guarantee the cattle would shrink some, which would mean farmers would get a lower price. They would feed them at home and take a chance the market would be better when Dad hauled them back to the Stockyards.
When I started driving trucks, I hauled cattle, hogs and sheep for local farmers for $75 per load. I would drive the livestock to certain docks based on which commission firm farmers worked with. I knew this ahead of the delivery. For example, I would unload at Dock K, which was where the Hatch Commission Firm was assigned.
One week I hauled nine loads to the Stockyards. I typically hauled to the Stockyards Sunday through Thursday. Cattle hauled on Monday usually got a better price. WGN Radio reported livestock numbers on Sunday at noon. If they expected a short run, farmers would ship their livestock trying to capture a better price.”
After the Stockyards closed in 1971 Richard’s dad attended reunions of the Stockyards. In 1965 there was a centennial celebration at which his dad received a pen set with a replica of the Stockyard gate as the base. Richard now has his dad’s pen set, plus a 1903 photo of the Stockyards, trucking receipts, pocketbooks and bullet pens from the past.
Richard,79, still drives trucks, mostly hauling grain to the river or grain terminals. He resides on North Sleepy Hollow Road south of Shabbona.
The Quincers shipped livestock to Chicago for nearly a half century
“When I first went to the Stockyards I was a little kid, about 10 years old, in 1954. I went with Grandpa Van or my Dad, Willard. We would ship early and be home by 1 p.m.
I remember wandering around the yards, hanging out in the allies by the livestock pens. Each commission firm would have so many pens. Buyers would be on horses and go back and forth looking at the pens. The commission men, the dealers for marketing livestock, would be in the allies.
When we sold at the Stockyards the packing plants were right there so most livestock went directly to the packing plants. I remember touring the Armour plant; it wasn’t the most pleasant conditions then.
I had my first ever elevator ride in the Exchange Building. The elevator operator asked what floor we were going to. We went to the 6th floor to a commission office so Grandpa could get his check.
When I was farming on my own in the 1960s, I would go to the Stockyards with Russ Philbrick, livestock specialist at Farm Bureau. Russ would advise me on livestock markets. Then, Chicago was the big market. Mattson Trucking hauled my first head of cattle to the city on Monday. Then some more on Wednesday. Later Charles Willrett trucked my cattle.”
The Quincer centennial farm had livestock on it for over 100 years. Jim fed cattle for many years and then hogs. Jim says they had “good years and bad years.” With livestock, “You put on your boots and do it. You make money, but it’s a lot of work!”
Jim, 78, raises corn and soybeans. The Malta farmer still thinks about the livestock and the Stockyard days. His reminders are a desk he purchased that was used by one of the commission firms in the Exchange Building.
And he’s got his grandfather’s livestock receipts from Stockyard sales dating back to 1931.
The Drakes began hauling livestock to the Stockyards in the 1920s
“During the Depression Dad told me trucks were lined up clear out to Halsted Street. Cars were interrupting the truck flow. He threatened a police officer that he would be notifying his insurance company that animals were dying on the streets. Within 15 minutes the trucks were moving and the officer saw that the trucks were well on their way to the Stockyards.
In those days people were desperate for food. Some Chicagoans would jump on trucks and steal chickens and hogs. So truckers had to be on their guard.
He would haul livestock to the Stockyards and bring back syrup or canned goods for Totman & Sons, the Clare grocery store. On other trips Clarence would stay overnight at the Stockyards Inn hotel ($1/night) and pick up fertilizer the next morning to truck back home.
There wasn’t much traffic then, heading east from St. Charles to the city. One time Dad drove his Chevrolet truck making three trips to the city and then headed to Peoria to purchase feed, all in a 24-hour period.
At 18, I began trucking cattle and hogs to Chicago, in 1952. I hauled for our farm and other farmers too. I would load at 4 a.m. then unload the livestock at the Stockyards and have breakfast at the Exchange Building. If we shipped in the morning, farmers would ride with me. They wanted to get their check.”
Albert took over the trucking and farm business when his father died. He went from having straight trucks to semis – an International then a Mack and now has three Kenilworth semis.
Albert, 85, has seen a lot of changes in the trucking and marketing of livestock. The Clare farmer quit feeding cattle in 2009. His sons Gary and Kevin drive trucks today for Drake Trucking.