The legendary Union Stock Yard & Transit Co. of Chicago closed more than four decades ago, but that’s done little to dampen enthusiasm for stockyard memorabilia. If anything, passion for relics of the stockyard’s glory days is on the upswing, a fact demonstrated at the annual conference of the Stockyard Collectors Club held in Davenport, Iowa, in June.
A crowd of about 200 attended the weekend conference, which included memorabilia displays and an auction. “People age out,” says club president Mitch McKay, “but the group has perpetuated itself.”
Nostalgia fuels that continuing interest. “A lot of our members had relatives who worked at stockyards or they were truckers,” he says. “For others, it brings back memories of their parents’ trips to the stockyards.” Among the group’s new members this year, each once showed cattle at the Union Stock Yard’s annual International Live Stock Exposition and Horse Show before that event was discontinued in 1976.
For the cattleman, selling cattle was a momentous event. “In the cattle business, you got paid once a year,” Mitch says. “You’d go to Chicago, stay in a nice hotel near the stockyard, buy some new clothes and have a big dinner out.” Stockyard memorabilia, he says, takes people back in time. “It’s a link to a way of life that is gone,” he says.
Now in its 16th year, the Stockyard Collectors acts as an umbrella group for people nostalgic for the old days of the livestock industry. Launched in 1999 with a barbecue on the steps of the Peoria Stockyard Exchange, the organization has grown to encompass those with a fondness for the Union Stock Yard, International Live Stock Exposition and smaller stockyards across the Midwest.
Members, who gather annually for a two-day conference, collect everything from pins to trophies, bullet pencils to watch fobs, photos to ephemera. The memorabilia auction is a particular highlight. Members use the auction to thin out duplicates and acquire new treasures. Buyers sometimes include museums, particularly those looking for vintage photographs. This year’s auction of 110 items netted nearly $12,000, a near-record figure for the event.
The group is doing all it can to sustain interest in the category, and acquaint the next generation with the stockyard tradition. “We make a real push to young people,” Mitch says. “We know this club could never survive without supporting a little younger group.”
At the annual conference, young people work as auction runners and man display tables. “They learn a little about buying and selling,” Mitch says, “and they learn a little of the history. We pay them $10. It’s not a lot, but it’s better than fooling around. Some of them get really excited about it. One of them was at a garage sale recently, and asked, ‘Do you have any stockyard stuff?’”
Mitch, who worked as a cattle trader in Chicago for 37 years, got his start as a collector when he saw a celluloid sharpener with a picture of a longhorn on it at a flea market. Fobs are his favorite collectible. “I have at least 150,” he says. “I had 75 or 100 Chicago fobs and thought I needed six or seven more to complete the collection. Then we kept finding out about more Chicago livestock exchanges. Now we know there were at least 140, so I need about 14 more.”
He also collects bullet pencils. “Some are extra hard to find,” he says. “Some may be the only one known.” A rare one sold for several hundred dollars last summer. A handful of collectors share a lifetime goal of getting one pencil from each of the 140 known Chicago livestock companies. “We probably won’t be able to do it,” Mitch admits.
Other favorites in his collection include railroad lanterns, a menu and a pewter pitcher from the Stock Yards Inn, and a set of commemorative Union Stock Yard bookends. Collectors today buy pieces from other collectors or through online auctions. Some make the occasional antique store find. When Mitch began collecting, he bought relics from people whose relatives had once worked at stockyards. “An old-time commission man sold a whole truckload of stuff to me for $500,” he says. “My wife said, ‘What the heck are you doing?’”
Owen “John” Kalsem, Huxley, Iowa, is among the group’s charter members. “My dad and granddad fed cattle and shipped them to Chicago to sell them,” he says. “When my dad got there and consigned the cattle, the commission man would give him a bullet pencil and a commission book with the company name on it.” John’s dad gave them to his young son, who held on to them. Years later, the pieces formed the start of a collection.
In the early 1900s, more than 100 commission firms operated in Chicago. “I’ve acquired commission books from about 150 firms across the Midwest,” John says, “and I have more than 80 bullet pencils.” Among his treasures is a commission book his granddad gave him from Keenan & Sons Commission Co., Milwaukee. The book dates to 1892.
Now 84, John recalls the days when his dad and granddad drove cattle to the nearest rail connection and loaded them into a cattle car bound for Chicago. “My dad and granddad would ride to Chicago in the caboose,” he says, “and then the railroad would give them free passes to come home on the passenger train.”
Trucks began to replace rail transport in the mid- to late-1940s. “When they started with semitrailers, they’d haul 18-20 head of cattle in a load,” he recalls. “Now when people sell cattle, they haul 40 head.”
Trips to Chicago were eagerly anticipated. “We’d stay at the Stock Yards Inn and eat prime rib at the Sirloin Room. That’d set you back $3.75,” he says. “Sometimes we’d take in a baseball game. Then we’d take the train home. There were dining cars with linen tablecloths; it was quite a deal. I have great, great memories of it all. I was fortunate to be able to live during that time.”
Sue Secondino, West Terre Haute, Indiana, has equally golden memories of the Chicago stockyard. In 1957, her 1,035-pound grand champion Hereford steer, “Honeymoon,” sold at the International Live Stock Exposition there for the record price of $30/pound. The buyer was famed entertainer Arthur Godfrey.
“The auction netted for the overwhelmed owner, Mrs. Sue Secondino, 19, farm bride of New Goshen, Ind., the price of a farm: $31,050,” gushed a Dec. 5, 1957, account in the Chicago American. In a whirlwind no one could have predicted, Godfrey then invited Sue and her husband, Pete, to join him and his entourage on a jaunt to Florida. “He treated us like we were somebody,” Sue recalls with a smile. “It was quite a fairy tale.”
At the June conference, Sue displayed photo albums and scrapbooks tracing her family’s involvement in the International. “It was the first time we’ve had a display at the Stockyard Collectors’ show,” she says. The couple bought some things at the auction, but pieces in their display – records of special memories – were not for sale. “What we have, we wouldn’t part with for anything,” she says. FC
Opened on Christmas Day in 1865, the Chicago Union Stock Yard & Transit Co. was long the heart of the American meatpacking industry. By 1900, Chicago’s meatpacking industry employed more than 25,000 – providing jobs for thousands of immigrants – and produced more than 80 percent of all meat consumed in the U.S. At its peak, the district occupied nearly 1 square mile, surrounded by hotels, saloons and offices, and was encircled by 130 miles of rail line.
For decades, the Chicago stockyard held a prime piece of real estate in the national consciousness. “Three or four U.S. presidential campaigns were launched there,” says Mitch McKay, president of the Stockyard Collectors Club. “Dwight Eisenhower won the Republican nomination at the Union’s International Amphitheatre in 1952.”
The years following World War II delivered dramatic change to stockyards across the U.S. Rapid growth of the interstate highway system and development of the refrigerated truck eliminated the need for a centralized facility served by rail. Meat packers suddenly had no compelling reason to remain in an expensive urban area. As urban growth in Chicago exploded in the postwar years, the stockyard felt an uncomfortable squeeze.
The exodus began in earnest in 1955, when packers began departing Chicago. Creating a new business model, the packers began to build sophisticated mechanized plants in rural areas and deal directly with producers, bypassing the need for stockyards.
The Chicago Union Stock Yard & Transit Co. closed on July 30, 1971. To make way for an industrial park, more than 100 acres were cleared, including 50 acres of animal pens, structures and the eight-story Exchange Building. The only remaining vestige of the yard today is an enormous, ornate limestone arch erected in 1879 at what was then the site’s entrance.
For more information: The Stockyard Collectors Club’s 2016 conference will be held in June in Davenport, Iowa. Members receive a quarterly newsletter and are allowed to consign up to 10 items in the annual auction. Contact Mitch McKay, 5 Seneca W., Hawthorne Woods, IL 60047; (847) 566-5914; or by email.