By Ron Grossman
February 19, 2012
The shuttering of the Union Stock Yard and Transit Co. on July 30, 1971, didn't mark the end of Chicago's role as "hog butcher for the world." That came a year earlier, when "hog alley" closed, a victim of the stockyards' long descent from years of glory and gore.
But when bulldozers knocked down pens vacated by the last cattle, a hole was torn in Chicago's identity. Four decades ago, a stockyards official acknowledged how emotionally difficult its closing was. "We decided to let it go quietly," he told the Tribune, on the yard's final day. "We didn't want to conduct a wake." Outsiders still identify our city with the long-vanished landmark. A New York Times headline recently lamented: "Chicago Losing a Chef Who Refined its Stockyards Palate."
The stockyards and allied industries employed 40,000 workers, but it was more than a jobs base for the South Side. Well over a billion head of livestock were sold and shipped out or became steaks and chops in nearby slaughterhouses, but this also was more than America's butcher shop.
It was the heart of a veritable small town — Packingtown, as it was known — in the midst of a metropolis.
It had a baseball league. According to the Trib's score card, on opening day 1918, the Wilsons beat the Soap Works, 14-8. It had its own police chief and "L" loop. A branch of the South Side elevated servicing the yards had stops named Swift and Armour, after major packers. It lent its name to an adjoining neighborhood with its own fight song:
Back o' the yards — back o' the yards
In old Chicago town,
Where each fellow and gal is a regular pal. ...
Packingtown inspired civic pride. When in 1906 Upton Sinclair published "The Jungle," a novelistic expose of the dark side of working-class life, the Tribune's reviewer dismissed it as "an attempt to create a sensation by an attack on the stockyards." The yards also made appearances in novels by Willa Cather and Thomas Pynchon. Its literary fame extended to Europe. In "Saint Joan of the Stockyards," the German playwright Bertolt Brecht reset the French heroine's story on the South Side.
Long before becoming mayor, Richard J. Daley worked as a bookkeeper in Packingtown. But most workers toiled under miserable working conditions. An 1886 strike failed to win a reduction of the workday from 10 to 8 hours. A 1904 walkout provided an unaccustomed holiday from back-breaking labor, as a Tribune reporter observed. "Many of the strikers went to the new McKinley Park, where they bathed in the large swimming tank." A federal investigation sparked by "The Jungle" found that girls as young as 16 worked 10-hour days in refrigerated rooms in standing water.
The yards, which covered a huge area from Halsted Street to Ashland Avenue and Pershing Road to 47th Street, were a kaleidoscope of constant motion and deafening noise. In 1904, the Tribune painted a word picture of "a vast sea of pens, viaducts, buildings, railroad tracks, etc, the whole paved with brick and divided into blocks and streets like a city."
At the yards' peak in 1924, more than 18.6 million cattle, hogs and sheep passed through that labyrinth — leaving an odoriferous trail behind.
In "City of the Century," historian Donald Miller quotes a description by Mary McDowell, who ran a Packingtown settlement house, of what life was like in the shadow — and smell — of the yards. "In the night we would be awakened by a choking sensation. One night it would be the odor of burned flesh, another of feathers, another of sties, etc, etc."
Cather observed that especially where life is harsh "beauty is necessary, and in Packingtown there is no place to get it except at the saloons, where one can buy for a few hours the illusion of comfort, hope — whatever one most longs for."
Packingtown had its natural disasters — like the 1910 fire that took the lives of 24 firefighters including the department's chief, and the 1934 fire that raged across much of the yards and the surrounding area. It had its own un-natural wonder, Bubbly Creek, a stub of the Chicago River where the slaughterhouses dumped offal. On its hardscrabble streets, community organizing was largely invented by Saul Alinsky, lately decried by Newt Gingrich as Barack Obama's spiritual godfather.
But Packingtown also had an upscale restaurant, the Stockyards Inn, where steaks were branded with patrons' initials. And its International Amphitheater hosted an annual livestock exhibition as well as national political conventions, including the notorious 1968 Democratic National Convention. (Both buildings had to be rebuilt after the '34 fire.)
The stockyards opened on Christmas Day 1865 as a consolidation of older stockyards scattered around the city, and during its 106 years curiously so endeared itself to Chicagoans that some couldn't afterward let go. It produced a terrible stench, but for some Chicagoans it was our stench.
"That smell is sweeter than a bunch of American beauty roses to me," Frank Keigher told the Trib's "Inquiring Reporter" in 1920. Even now, some swear that on warm summer evenings a whiff of the yards returns. Along the bar at nearby Schaller's Pump, bits of family lore are dated with phrases like: "That was when my granddad had a job in a packing house."
And on a blistering hot day in 2005, Cook County Commissioner John Daley, a son of one mayor and brother of another, came to Packingtown for a centennial commemoration of "The Jungle," which was serialized in a magazine a year before the book was published. Why was he out there in the burning heat, a Trib reporter asked?
Gesturing toward the Union Stock Yards Gate, a lonely sentinel of its place in history, Daley said: "My father walked through that gate to work in the stockyards."
Editor's note: Thanks to Jessie Young of Clinton, Iowa, and Lenore Glanz of Lakeview, for suggesting this Flashback.
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