History of the stockyards is saved from the trash and now on display

We wouldn’t even have known if an essential record of the Kansas City story had gone to the dumpster of history.

Fortunately, thousands of documents, blueprints and other materials pertaining to the old Kansas City stockyards were rescued from destruction and now form the basis of a new and free display at the main Kansas City Public Library.

“They were saved from oblivion, that’s true,” said Bill Haw, owner of the Livestock Exchange Building on Genessee Street in the West Bottoms, just about the only physical remnant left of the stockyards.

The materials, enough to fill 40 to 50 refrigerator-size boxes, had been left in otherwise empty rooms when Haw bought the building in 1991.

“At some point, we were leasing the building up so completely that we couldn’t keep shifting them to other places,” Haw recalled. “At that point, I or one of my associates thought, ‘Well, gosh, I wonder if the library would have a use for some of these documents?’ 

It was an archivist’s dream.

“We showed up and walked into a room full, just full, on the floor, on tables, and there was no kind of order, just complete chaos,” said Lucinda Adams, senior archivist at the library’s Missouri Valley Special Collections.

“We didn’t even know what we were taking,” Adams continued, laughing. “We just said we would take it all. We kind of crammed them into boxes to get them out of there as fast as we could, before anything happened.”

The bulk of the material comes from the offices of various chief engineers of the stockyards, which were first organized in 1871 after the opening of the Hannibal Bridge in 1869 made possible the commercial linkage of livestock and railroads. In the early 20th century, the stockyards and meatpacking area straddled the state line and employed as many as 20,000 local and immigrant laborers.

For better or worse, it gave us the moniker “Cowtown.”

“This is the industry that made Kansas City what it is,” said Eli Paul, manager of the Missouri Valley Special Collections.

The approximately 5,000 individual pieces of material exponentially increase the resources about the stockyards that had previously been in Missouri Valley Special Collections. Kansas City had the second largest stockyards in the country, after Chicago, but Paul said he is not aware of a comparable record of those stockyards.

The collection includes abstracts recording land transfers in the West Bottoms at least as far back as 1831 between the U.S. government and a member of the Chouteau family.

A 1906 booklet contains the specs for “standard gate hinges, hooks, staples, bolts, rods, plates, etc. etc.” that were to be used at the stockyards. With documents like that, and blueprints, the stockyards could be re-created today.

A promotional card from the Peet Brothers Manufacturing Co., which made soap from livestock byproducts, touted “fancy toilet and laundry soaps.”

Working in the district wasn’t pleasant, even aside from the smell. A locker room blueprint for the Standard Rendering Co. marked segregated entrances for white, Mexican and black workers.

The yards were beset by floods in 1903 and 1908, and the salvaged material includes correspondence from 1911 about efforts to move railroad tracks so dikes could be built. But that could not forestall the devastation of the 1951 flood.

Haw donated the material to the library in 2008, but sorting through it has been a huge and ongoing task. Kara Evans, project archivist for the library, was able to do a preliminary inventory through the generosity of Henry Marder of Mission Hills.

“I made a fairly substantial contribution to honor the memory of my father, who was involved in the livestock business at the yards for a number of years,” said Marder. “He was a commission man. He bought and sold cattle.”

Irving Marder left the business during the Depression, but his son has memories of riding horses around the stockyards in the 1940s and 1950s. He later raised cattle himself.

Marder’s gift allowed the library to get the material in shape to apply for and receive a competitive grant of $101,000 from the Council on Library and Information Services, which promotes public access to “hidden collections.” With that grant, Evans in January began a two-year project to properly catalog the material. Much of it eventually will be digitized and available online.

The Kansas City stockyards operated for 12 decades before succumbing to feed operations away from urban areas. The last animal was sold there in 1991.

“We’re hoping the more attention we get to this collection, the more stuff turns up about the history of the stockyards that may still be in private hands,” said Paul. “We need more information on who worked in the stockyards, who worked in the packing plants. Those are the stories that don’t get saved and told.”

About the stockyards

• “Cowtown: History of the Kansas City Stockyards” is an exhibit based on salvaged documents. It is on display through the end of the year on the fifth floor of the Kansas City Public Library, 14 W. 10th St.

• “Steaks, Stockyards and Sin: Kansas City’s Meat Potato Past” is a free lecture by Charles Feruzza at 2 p.m. May 18 at the Central Library, 14 W. 10th St.