The rise and fall of KC’s meatpacking industry

In the 1990s, local historians and labor groups, arranging a bus tour of important industrial sites, scoured Kansas City’s West Bottoms for whatever remained of the meatpacking giants that grew the city.

Not a smokestack. Not an employee parking sign. Not a whiff of odor.

“We looked everywhere for a building still in existence,” said Judy Ancel of the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Institute for Labor Studies. “Only under the Central Avenue bridge did we see some remnant of a ramp.”

Below the bluffs in the flatlands that join Kansas and Missouri, there once stretched a web of ramps — the wooden chutes in which cows, pigs and other farm life marched to their slaughter.

Floodwaters devastated the infrastructure in 1951 but hardly carried away the industry. For many years after the flood, a few slaughterhouses hung on, and livestock pounded up the ramps.

A slow, certain death would claim a packing trade that, through Kansas City’s first century, shaped our economy and branded us “Cowtown,” even still.

More than any private employer in the area, the Big Four (sometimes Big Five) beef companies provided jobs to three or four generations of Kansas Citians. Grisly work on the cutting floor lifted tens of thousands into the middle class.

But in the last half of the 20th century, disparate events herded those jobs from the West Bottoms to the countryside.

And by then many Kansas Citians were glad to see the jobs go, along with the penned critters and foul smells that made Cowtown.

“Too many city folk didn’t get the big picture,” said John Dillingham, a third-generation stalwart in local livestock lore. He has an office in the century-old Livestock Exchange Building, now leasing to artists and lawyers.

“It wasn’t about the stuff that stuck to the bottom of your shoes,” he said. “What mattered was the food on the table.”

Dillingham still sees the region as a world food capital. Development wonks today expect animal health, “life sciences” and veterinary pharmaceuticals to help carve our future.

Yet the old stamp of meatpacking, that business of carving up animals, remains fixed to Kansas City, even if most people don’t know it.

The city’s barbecue heritage didn’t spring out of nothing. Credit the synergy of slaughterhouses and skilled butchers in an area rich in hickories and tomatoes.

The largest of the local plants, run by Chicago-based Armour & Co., bequeathed its burly name to the Armourdale district in Kansas City, Kan., Armour Boulevard in midtown Kansas City, the ASB Bridge (Armour-Swift-Burlington) and Armour Road north of the Missouri River.

Developer J.C. Nichols bought up Armour family property south of Brush Creek and built the Armour Hills neighborhood. He then acquired more Armour land that spilled west across the state line, erected a mecca of mansions and called it Mission Hills.

The Kansas City strip steak. The American Hereford Association. The minor-league T-Bones baseball club.

Even our big-league club owes its moniker to the beef business.

Royals founder Ewing Kauffman, a citizen of Mission Hills, thought to name the franchise after the American Royal, which started out mostly about cows, not horses. The yearly “fat stock shows” saluted a cattle trade that hauled its bawling bounty by rail to the West Bottoms to unload in the shadow of the slaughterhouses.

Despite the industry’s influence on the city, just about everyone — most notably, the packers themselves — had a hand in shuttering the big plants.

Builders of interstate highways made it possible, and cheaper, for meat companies to leave urban railroad centers and operate closer to livestock squeezed into rural feedlots.

Chemists and farmers, aided by irrigation canals, figured out how to grow corn and other feed in the high plains, allowing packers to flourish in the arid reaches of Greeley, Colo., and Garden City, Kan.

Consumers demanding the least-expensive beef in the world drove processors to carve away costs wherever possible, from employing in low-wage towns to shipping in tightly packed boxes.

Environmental advocates called for rules that made any place that cut apart beasts less likely to do its dirty work in population centers — especially here, where the plants and pens clustered at the confluence of the Missouri and Kaw rivers.

In image-sensitive Kansas City, the relationship always was uneasy and, of course, the state line factored in: Slaughterhouses lined the Kansas side of the bottoms, while the livestock crammed into Missouri pens and were weighed on Missouri scales. The arrangement allowed the industry to get around laws in each state.

Since the 1890s, when 5 to 10 percent of the local labor force toiled in the packing plants or stockyards, civic circles have much favored “Paris of the Plains” and “City Beautiful” over Cowtown.

Consider the elite 250 whose portraits and achievements graced the pages of “Men of Affairs in Greater Kansas City,” printed in 1912. Fewer than a dozen claimed to owe their livelihoods to livestock, though livestock helped build wealth in local lumber, banking, soap-making, leather tanning, milling, fertilizer and pharmaceutical manufacturing, cold storage and trucking.

Those “Men of Affairs” hardly could care less: “The magnitude of the live stock and packing industry in Kansas City is too well known … to need more than a cursory mention here.”

When the Civil War ceased, the 4,000 residents of the muddy Town of Kansas, Mo., occupied the right spot at the right time.

Two burgeoning interests — railroads and meat producers — were soon to be married. They would pick the emerging Kansas City as one of their homes.

The war ravaged Southern herds and depleted Northern cities of meat needed to feed Union troops. When the guns were silenced, beef-craving population centers looked to the vast grasslands of Texas to supply their dinner tables.

In 1866, Kansas City had rail lines heading east to St. Louis and the beginnings of the Kansas Pacific, lurching west. That year the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad, its investors clustered in Boston, selected Kansas City as the site of the first bridge to span the Missouri River.

The decision would cause the town’s population to explode, line the pockets of railroad men who bought up land in the West Bottoms and provide a rail link to Chicago, a packing center.

Enter Joseph G. McCoy, 29, an Illinoisan with no ties to Kansas City but for an idea. He hoped to get rich by devising a plan to move longhorn herds from Texas to slaughtering plants in Chicago.

The Kansas Pacific out of Kansas City reached as far west as Abilene, Kan. That is where McCoy would establish pens and coax drovers to parade Texas cattle north, along the Chisholm Trail, to board eastbound trains.

The railroad agreed to pay McCoy $5 for every boxcar he filled. McCoy also talked the Kansas governor into erasing bans on cattle passing through, many carrying “Texas fever” that could sicken Kansas livestock.

The traveling cows rested in the West Bottoms and fattened themselves on corn before continuing, by rail, east and north to the slaughterhouses.

In 1871, Chicago meat magnate Philip Danforth Armour brought slaughtering to the West Bottoms, erecting a plant run by brothers Kirkland, Simeon and Charles Armour and butchering 13,000 cattle and 15,000 hogs its initial season.

Soon, the railroads organized the Kansas City Livestock Exchange, with railroad men on the governing board. Railroad men, too, sat on the board of the First National Bank, offering liberal loans to cattle ranchers who paid shipping fees to the railroads.

The early reins of the Kansas City Stock Yard Co. went to railroader Charles Francis Adams, a descendant of U.S. presidents John and John Quincy Adams, of Boston. Named general manager of the stockyards was another Boston railroad honcho and Adams family friend, Charles F. Morse.

By century’s end, the then-Big Five meatpackers — Armour, Swift, Schwarzchild & Sulzberger, Cudahy and, soon, Wilson — were the biggest employers in the biggest U.S. city between St. Louis and San Francisco.

Travel writer Emma Gage from Maryland marveled at the technology while touring the local Armour plant, then the tallest packinghouse in the world, in 1899.

On the seventh and top floor, the killing commenced. “One man takes the head off quicker than you can wink,” Gage wrote, and carcasses descended on hooks to lower floors — “the disassembly line.” (Henry Ford would incorporate some of these design concepts into mass-producing Model Ts.)

Gage: “We saw hogs cleaned, dressed and going into the refrigerating room 10 minutes after we had seen those same hogs alive. Everything is done with neatness and dispatch.”

From there Gage rode the streetcars to downtown, where she recognized the sloppier aspects of Cowtown: A white dress will be ruined after a day’s wear in Kansas City, she wrote, because “specks of greasy smut float about in the air, and lodge everywhere.”

Many across the spreading metro held dim regard for the packers: Boston-bred interlopers, mostly, investing in smelly and lethal workplaces. (Labor records for just one plant, Swift, cited 13 men killed between 1907 and 1910.)

One afternoon, The Kansas City Star chimed in: “Saturday was an unlucky day at Armour’s packing house.

“Silas Brown had his right hand laid open by accident, the cleaver of his companion descending upon it …

“A carpenter fell into a vat where three feet of water received him and scalded his limbs till the skin peeled off.”

The forgotten Joseph McCoy never got rich introducing Texas longhorns into the Kansas City marketplace. Before his death in 1915, he told a journalist how the railroads reneged on paying his commission for the cattle climbing into boxcars:

“I reaped what the pioneer often reaped — financial ruin. The men who came after me reaped the profits.”

At his dining room table, Don Wolf opened a boot box containing the tools of his father’s trade.

One by one, he placed the items on the tabletop: A narrow knife with a 9-inch blade. A sharp hook with a perpendicular handle, resembling a tiny clothes hanger.

A leather strap for sharpening. A glove made of steel mesh to protect the non-cutting hand.

“A guy on the floor would lose a finger, and Dad would see that it got wrapped up,” said Wolf, 76. “And the worker would be back out there cutting that afternoon.”

Joe Wolf, a second-generation meatpacker, detoured around high school to get an early run at work in the slaughterhouses. His Croatian parents immigrated to Kansas City, Kan., in 1906 after the industry, spurred by labor demands, sent agents to Eastern Europe on orders to recruit workers.

In time more than one-third of the employees at the Kansas City plants would be of Eastern European descent.

They formed tight-knit neighborhoods, churches and charity networks on the steep bluffs overlooking the Kaw. On Strawberry Hill, where the sidewalks remain brick, they built homes practically rubbing against one another. Croatians, Serbs, Slovenians and Poles who filled St. John the Baptist Church witnessed an average 100 baptisms every year from 1910 to 1960.

A 9 p.m. work-shift whistle blasting from the West Bottoms signaled to parents that their children ought to be home.

“If you were still out after that whistle sounded,” Don Wolf said, “there’d be hell to pay with your father. And come the weekend, with your uncles and aunts.”

For those workers who could tolerate the mess and monotony of meatpacking, the lifting and repeated arm gestures that breed arthritis, a middle-class American Dream was attainable.

The packinghouses also proved to be laboratories for racial and ethnic unity, a rare co-existence of whites, blacks and immigrants in a city cleaved by segregation.

African-Americans made up about a quarter of the local plants’ work force throughout the industry’s existence here.

In 1879, thousands of black “Exodusters” from the South traveled up the Missouri River to reach Kansas. Those unable to settle elsewhere often squatted on the banks of the Kaw, taking unskilled jobs at the slaughterhouses.

“We lived first, near Armour’s packing house … for one year,” an Exoduster stated in an 1886 survey cited in a UMKC dissertation by Darryn Snell. “We then moved to our present comfortable home which is all paid for.”

In later decades, black workers at the Kansas City packinghouses supported striking white workers, a solidarity unseen in other packing cities.

“African-Americans in Kansas City were more established at their plants, having been there early on,” said Roger Horowitz of the Delaware-based Center for the History of Business, Technology, and Society.

National unions rallied Kansas City plant workers to organize as one in the 1930s. “Everybody participated, and everyone sat together,” recalled mechanic and union founder Charles R. Fischer a half-century later. “There wasn’t any of this segregation business.”

In interviews given to Horowitz and chronicled in the 1997 book “Black and White, Unite and Fight!,” Fischer, a white ex-socialist, and other laborers shared stories of their collective struggle for better pay and working conditions.

Earlier union groups had pitted ethnic groups against one another, as did the packing companies. But in the face of the Great Depression, “the CIO came along and said, well, if you get on a job, from the day you’re hired, your seniority starts,” remembered William Raspberry, a black worker. “I felt like a human being.”

Slaughterhouse activity reached its zenith during World War II, when the Kansas City plants were cranking out rations for the troops.

More than 2 million head of cattle, 500,000 hogs and 2.2 million sheep passed through the stockyards in 1945. The following spring, stockyard officials announced their business was trading a million dollars a day.

They foresaw “an ever increasing volume of livestock.”

But as Kansas City settled into peacetime, things would change.

“More than eighty policemen, almost every man on the force, swung clubs this morning in a bloody outbreak at the strikebound Cudahy plant,” The Kansas City Kansan reported in 1948.

Rising labor costs. Shrinking reliance on the railroads. For the packinghouses, the postwar economy pointed to the outback.

And science was on their side: Surplus supplies of nitrates, needed during the war to make ammunition, would help boost crop yields needed to fill the troughs of rural feedlots.

The 1951 flood didn’t cause the industry’s exit, but it made it easier, for sure.

Cudahy never reopened. The other plants and the surrounding stockyards were back in business within weeks, but the recovering city turned its gaze to other industries, including aviation and tourism.

When Bob Hope flew TWA into Municipal Airport in 1958, he joked about knowing he was in Kansas City from the aroma of manure wafting from the south.

In the years before construction of Kansas City International Airport, air travelers encountered a rude welcome of smoke and smells just across the Missouri River from the Municipal tarmac.

Even the art deco Power & Light Building seemed to turn its back on that scene. The architect, making best use of the interior space, chose to run elevators and the heating-and-cooling grid along the skyscraper’s west wall. The design eliminated windows that would’ve faced the packing district.

Armour closed its main plant in 1965, and Joe Wolf, a 30-year employee, declined the company’s offer to relocate him to Alabama. “They knew he wouldn’t leave his Croatian roots here,” his son speculated.

Swift halted 80 years of slaughter operations on Berger Street in 1968.

“Era in Beef Industry Nears End,” The Kansas City Times headlined the news of Wilson’s planned closure in 1972. The story ran in the middle of Page A4, all nine paragraphs.

By this time the city was pulling out the stops for visitors. A gleaming Truman Sports Complex was just finished. Former stockyard ground was broken for Kemper Arena, site of the 1976 Republican National Convention and American Royal rodeos.

The stockyards sold off the last of its merchandise, hay wagons, branding irons, bolts, padlocks and some cattle, in 1991.

“Cowtown means ‘backward’ and ‘slow,’ ” said the head of the city’s Convention and Visitors Bureau, Wayne Chappell, in 1997.

“It’s the image of being redneck. It has been our consensus that we don’t want that kind of image.”

The cows made brief cameos for a few years, thanks to downtown “cattle drives” promoted by radio personality Mike Murphy. The worst fears of city leaders came true on the second annual event, when 103 longhorns veered off the route and loped through lunch-hour traffic.

The last one was rounded up on the eighth floor of a parking garage.

The American Royal remained a strong draw, but the Future Farmers of America, which had convened in Kansas City for 70 years, bringing 20,000 blue-jacketed students from across the nation, left.

Somewhere in an unused room in Union Station, two dozen boxes that hold the stockyards’ history — payroll records, drawings, blueprints, field notes, photographs — wait to be archived.

The Kansas City Public Library, which acquired the collection, applied for a six-figure grant earlier this year to start the job of sifting through the material and providing it to scholars.

“Neither the general public nor the scholarly community know of this collection’s existence,” the library said in its application to a private foundation. “Their lack of knowledge makes this special collection not just ‘hidden,’ but totally invisible.”

Grant denied.

A federal study a century ago called meatpacking in Kansas City, Kan., “not only the principal industry, but the only industry of importance.” Yet the Wyandotte County Historical Museum directs no attention to the industry.

Only in a back room of storage cabinets, where archivist Monte Gross works, will anyone see Plate 79, a huge, colorful map that shows it all: The slaughterhouses in pink, marked Morris, Armour, Swift and Cudahy. The residential areas in white.

The railroads, quarantine pens, grain operations and soap factories that turned beef byproducts into cleaning agents.

Gross unrolls Plate 79 across a table 8 feet long.

“You can see the story right off these maps,” he says. “It’s artwork, I tell you.”