For many decades after the late 1800s, stockyards – from smaller ones to huge central terminals, drew livestock from hundreds of miles. Cattle, hogs and sheep were sometimes driven on foot, but more often loaded on rail cars and later brought by trucks.
As an example, the large Omaha stockyards, recently razed, received livestock from at least seven states. The yards had their own rail line, and the pens stretched for many city blocks. Today, there's growing interest in stockyards collectibles, many of them issued by commission firms and other advertisers. A collector's club and newsletter promote that interest, specializing in stockyards and Western memorabilia. "Things like bullet pencils (pull-apart models that look like cartridges) are getting pretty scarce, but they can still be found," says Vernie McCoy, a former buyer at the Omaha stockyards. Other collectibles include medals, medallions and knives. Collector Jack Preston, Lyman, Neb., says he especially likes paper stockyards collectibles such as calendars, seller's ledgers and newspaper advertisements and photos. Jack's interest is rooted in family ties: his grandparents shipped cattle to the Omaha market. He tracks the vintage pieces with state-of-the-art technology.
"I keep my collectibles indexed by commission company on a laptop computer I carry with me on buying trips," Jack says. "I especially value a jigsaw puzzle owned by my grandmother that was issued by the Bowles Livestock Commission Co." He also has letterhead stationary, advertising cards, a clothes brush, sales tickets and a paper ax.
Ed Czerwien, who heads the St. Joseph (Mo.) Stockyards, says bound copies of the Stockyards Journal are valuable enough to be kept in a locked vault. Some editions are more than 100 years old, detailing stockyards activities and those of large packers such as Swift and Armour.
Gene Salmans, a hog buyer at the St. Joseph yards, is surrounded in his office by old lard cans and tins, many rare and valuable.
"We're seeing more interest in stockyards collectibles all the time," Gene says.
Prices for rare items, like I.D. badges worn by stockyards personnel, have been increasing steadily, bringing $65 to $75. Ledgers given to livestock customers by commission merchants usually bring $20 to $25 or more, depending on age, rarity and condition. There were 155 different commission firms from the five major central markets, Gene notes, including Omaha, St. Joseph, Kansas City, Chicago and Sioux City, Iowa.
"There's a national spur and bit club, with many unusual and historic designs coming from the stockyards," Gene says. "These sometimes command very high prices, in the thousands of dollars. More affordable are older bullet pencils in good condition, usually bringing $5 to $7.50. But an Omaha stockyards padlock and key cost me $50."
Gene's favorite collectibles include a razor and a knife sold by "Jack Knife Ben," an immigrant who drifted into Chicago's National Stockyards. Jack Knife Ben sold a variety of knives and cutlery bearing his emblem and mottoes, and he became a fixture at the stockyards.
Gene says old commission company and yards calendars usually sell in the $30 to $50 range, but sometimes go much higher, according to condition and rarity. He also owns a wooden thermometer issued by Clay Robinson Commission Co., a Stetson hat with "Ship to Chicago" printed on the sweatband along with names of commission house in the now-gone Chicago Exchange Building, a Burlington Commission Company metal screwdriver, and a sewing kit in a metal capsule from Crider Brothers at the Kansas City stockyards.
Besides tins for lard, others Gene owns include a Swift's Premium Peanut Butter and a Savortite Meats for Babies. Max Nordeen, owner of the Wheels Museum, Alpha, Ill., has in his mirror collection one with a picture of the Chicago Stockyards on the back. While the mirror is a family heirloom and not for sale, Max estimates its value at $100 or more.
Mitchell McKay, Hawthorn Woods, Ill., says he looks for anything connected with livestock commission firms, especially paper items and calendars. Also, he notes, the collector may choose one firm, such as that owned by John Clay, who was probably the largest advertiser and promoter of the industry through his commission business.
"Clay's yearly calendar giveaway was a beauty," Mitchell says. "Other things associated with him were watchfobs, match safes, bullet pencils, postcards and market reports."
For lots of stockyards history and collectibles news, check out Mitchell's newsletter, and the related Stockyard Collectors Club gives members a chance to share information, plus show and trade collectibles. FC
For more information: Mitchell McKay, (847) 566-5914. email: firstname.lastname@example.org.