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Life Itself IV: Links to stories about South Omaha and the Latino community – Past and present


Life Itself IV: Links to stories about South Omaha and the Latino community – Past and present
 
Find these and many other stories about people, their passions and their magnificent obsessions at Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories:
 
Having attained personal and professional goals, Alina Lopez now wants to help other Latinas
 
Heartland Dreamers have their say in nation’s capitol
Roni Shelley Perez:
A Nebraska Great gets her due
https://leoadambiga.com/2018/02/01/roni-shelley-per…xt-broadway-baby/
 
Gabriela Martinez: 
A heart for humanity and justice for all
 
Park Avenue Revitalization & Gentrification:
InCommon focuses on urban neighborhood
https://leoadambiga.com/2018/02/25/park-avenue-revi…ban-neighborhood/
 
Boxing coach Jose Campos molds young men
https://leoadambiga.com/2018/02/01/boxing-coach-jos…-molds-young-men/
 
Juan Vazquez:
From couch potato to champion pugilist
https://leoadambiga.com/2017/11/22/from-couch-potat…hampion-pugilist
 
Maria Teresa Kumar and Voto Latino dig down on civic engagement
https://leoadambiga.com/2017/11/16/maria-teresa-kum…civic-engagement/
 
Rony Ortega follows path serving ever more students in OPS
https://leoadambiga.com/2017/10/22/ortega-follows-p…-students-in-ops/
 
Finding Home: 
David Catalan finds community service niche in adopted hometown of Omaha
 
New OLLAS Director Cristián Doña-Reveco eager to engage community
 
A book a day keeps the blues aways for avid reader and writer Ashley Xiques
https://leoadambiga.com/2017/03/03/a-book-a-day-kee…er-ashley-xiques
 
One Hundred Years Strong: 
Bryant-Fisher Family Reunion
 
Art in the heart of South Omaha
 
SAFE HARBOR
Activists working to create Omaha Area Sanctuary Network as refuge for undocumented persons in danger of arrest-deportation
 
South Omaha Neighborhood Alliance

 
 
Health and healing through culture and community 
https://leoadambiga.com/2017/11/17/health-and-heali…re-and-community/
 
Frank LaMere: A good man’s work is never done
https://leoadambiga.com/2017/07/11/frank-lamere-a-g…rk-is-never-done/
 
Futures at stake for Dreamers with DACA in question
https://leoadambiga.com/2017/10/09/futures-at-stake…daca-in-question
 
Of Dreamers and doers, and one nation indivisible under…
 
Amanda Ryan:
Omaha School Board member
https://leoadambiga.com/2017/10/04/amanda-ryan-brin…-to-school-board
 
South Omaha Museum
https://leoadambiga.com/2017/04/13/a-melting-pot-ma…s-its-own-museum/
 
South Omaha Mural Project El Museo 
https://leoadambiga.com/2016/07/19/mural-project-ce…th-omaha-culture/
 
Mural Man:
Artist Mike Giron captures heart of South Omaha
https://leoadambiga.com/2017/05/02/mural-man-artist…t-of-south-omaha
 
South Omaha takes center stage
 
El Museo Latino Artist Residency Program
https://leoadambiga.com/2016/06/10/new-artist-resid…l-latino-artists/
 
Noah Diaz:
Metro theater’s man for all seasons and stages
https://leoadambiga.com/2016/07/19/noah-diaz-metro-…asons-and-stages/
 
Film is both a heart and a head thing for Diana Martinez
https://leoadambiga.com/2016/12/11/film-is-both-a-h…r-diana-martinez/
 
Storybook hoops dream turns cautionary tale for Omaha South star Aguek Arop
 
Tony Vargas beats the bushes for votes in pursuit of history
 
Lourdes Gouveia:
Leaving a legacy but keeping a presence
https://leoadambiga.com/2015/12/18/lourdes-gouveia-…eping-a-presence/
 
 

South Omaha

 
 
The Long Goodbye for Bohemian Cafe: 
Iconic Omaha eatery closing after 92 years
https://leoadambiga.com/2016/08/25/the-long-goodbye…g-after-92-years/
 
Bright Lights
Teen designer Ciara Fortun mines Filipino heritage in Omaha Fashion Week collection
https://leoadambiga.com/2016/07/29/bright-lights-te…-week-collection/
 
South High Soccer:
Pushing the envelope 
https://leoadambiga.com/2016/05/06/south-high-socce…ing-the-envelope/
 
Pad man Esau Dieguez gets world champ Terence Crawford ready
https://leoadambiga.com/2015/04/25/pad-man-esau-die…e-crawford-ready
 
Hair stylist-makeup artist Omar Rodriguez views himself as artisan
https://leoadambiga.com/2015/05/13/hair-stylist-mak…mself-as-artisan/
 
Austin Ortega leads UNO hockey to new heights
 
Homegrown Joe Arenas made his mark in college and the NFL
https://leoadambiga.com/2015/03/05/homegrown-joe-ar…lege-and-the-nfl/
 
Beto’s way:
Gang intervention specialist tries a little tenderness
https://leoadambiga.com/2015/10/28/betos-way-gang-i…ittle-tenderness
 
Saving one kid at a time is Beto’s life work
 
“Bless Me, Ultima”: Chicano identity at core of book, movie, movement
 
After decades in NYC, Omaha native jazz pianist Paul Serrato proves you can come home again
https://leoadambiga.com/2013/06/06/jazz-pianist-pau…in-new-york-city/
 
Two graduating seniors fired by dreams and memories, also saddened by closing of  school, St. Peter Claver Cristo Rey High
https://leoadambiga.com/2011/05/11/two-graduating-s…igh-in-omaha-neb
St. Peter Claver Cristo Rey High:
A school where dreams matriculate
 
Salvation Army Kroc Center and Omaha Conservatory of Music partner to give kids new opportunities
 
A good man’s job is never done:
Bruce Chubick honored for taking South to top
https://leoadambiga.com/2016/07/19/a-good-mans-job-…ing-south-to-top/
 
Louder Than a Bomb Omaha: 
Stand, deliver and be heard
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/04/08/louder-than-a-bo…ver-and-be-heard
 
Omaha South High student Marissa Gomez will stand, deliver and be heard at Louder Than a Bomb Omaha Youth Poetry Festival and Competition
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/04/08/omaha-south-high…-and-competition/
 
Long-separated brother and sister from Puerto Rico reunited in Omaha
https://leoadambiga.com/2011/07/18/separated-siblin…eunited-in-omaha/
 ‎
South Omaha Renaissance
 
When a building isn’t just a building: 
LaFern Williams South YMCA facelift reinvigorates community 
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/08/03/when-a-building-…-just-a-building
 
El Museo Latino opened as Midwest’s first Latino art and history museum-cultural center
https://leoadambiga.com/2011/06/14/el-museo-latino-…r-in-the-midwest/
 
Tiempo Libre kicks off Jazz on the Green at Midtown Crossing in Omaha
https://leoadambiga.com/2011/07/04/tiempo-libre-kic…rossing-in-omaha/
 
“Paco” proves you can come home again
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/04/09/paco-proves-you-…-come-home-again/
 

 
Grassroots Leadership Development Program provides opportunities for students 
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/03/25/grassroots-leade…ies-for-students
 
Community and coffee at Omaha’s Perk Avenue Cafe
https://leoadambiga.com/2011/06/04/community-and-co…perk-avenue-cafe
 
Giving back and moving forward at heart of Sagrario “Charo” Rangel’s life
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/07/21/giving-back-and-…aro-rangels-life/
 
Nebraska Medal of Honor Winners: 
Above and beyond the call of duty
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/08/11/nebraska-medal-o…the-call-of-duty
 
Bruce Chubick builds winner at South:
State title adds capstone to strong foundation
https://leoadambiga.com/2016/03/18/bruce-chubick-bu…trong-foundation/
 
Standup comic Felipe Esparza
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/07/27/last-comic-stand…lines-omaha-show
 
El Puente 
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/07/22/el-puente-attemp…y-and-the-system/
 
A South Omaha best-kept secret: 
American GI Forum Mexican Restaurant
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/02/10/a-south-omaha-be…xican-restaurant/
 
Indigenous music celebrated in Omaha Conservatory of Music Nebraska Roots concert
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/03/25/indigenous-music…ka-roots-concert/
 
Itzel Anahi Lopez:
Young Latina on the rise
 
Authors Joy Castro and Amelia de la Luz Montes
https://leoadambiga.com/2011/05/12/writers-joy-cast…rty-to-privilege/
 
OLLAS: 
A melting pot of Latino/Latin American concerns
 
Gina Ponce:
Leading women on a change 
https://leoadambiga.com/2015/03/11/gina-ponce-leads…hange-conference/
 
Heartland Latino Leadership Conference 
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/11/24/heartland-latino…cognition-events/
 
Writing close to her heart:
Author Joy Castro
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/11/23/author-joy-castr…in-two-new-books/
 
Center for Rural Affairs Outreach Project for Latino farmers and ranchers
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/07/31/new-outreach-pro…ers-and-ranchers/
 
Maria Walinski-Peterson:
Omaha South High Buffett Outstanding Teacher Award winner follows her heart
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/07/24/omaha-south-high…ollows-her-heart
 
Tito Munoz:
Rising young conductor leads Omaha Symphony Chamber concert
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/07/22/rising-young-con…-chamber-concert/
 
A. Marino Grocery closes: 
An Omaha Italian landmark calls it quits
 
Favorite Sons:
Weekly Omaha pasta feeds at Sons of Italy Hall draw diverse crowd
https://leoadambiga.com/2011/04/28/favorite-sons-we…lse-little-italy/
 
Cumbre
Hundreds attend OLLAS conference
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/07/17/hundreds-attend-…migration-issues/
 
Native American survival strategies shared through theater and testimony
https://leoadambiga.com/2011/07/18/native-american-…er-and-testimony/
 
Omaha address by Cuban Archbishop Jaime Ortega sounds hopeful message that repression in Cuba is lifting
 
Long Live Roberto Clemente
New exhibit looks at this late king of Latino ballplayers and human rights hero
‎‎
 


 
Featured Great Plains Theatre Conference playwright Caridad Svich explores bicultural themes 
https://leoadambiga.com/2011/05/29/featured-great-p…icultural-themes/
 
Q&A with playwright Caridad Svich, a featured artist at Great Plains Theatre Conference
 
Omaha St. Peter Catholic Church revival based on restoring the sacred
https://leoadambiga.com/2011/05/12/omahas-st-peter-…oring-the-sacred
 
The Chubick Way comes full circle with father-son coaching tandem at Omaha South
https://leoadambiga.com/2017/03/03/the-chubick-way-…m-at-omaha-south/
 
Masterful Joe Maass leads Omaha South High soccer evolution
https://leoadambiga.com/2015/04/24/masterful-joe-ma…soccer-evolution/
 
U.S.-Cuba begin a dance of possible reconciliation
https://leoadambiga.com/2015/03/07/u-s-cuba-begin-a…e-reconciliation/
 
Justice for Our Neighbors: Treating the immigrant as neighbor
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/07/22/justice-for-our-…rant-as-neighbor/
 
Jose and Linda Garcia find new outlet for their magnificent obsession in the Mexican American Historical Society of the Midlands
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/03/25/jose-and-linda-g…-of-the-midlands/
 
A Family Thing: Bryant-Fisher Family Reunion
https://leoadambiga.com/2011/08/04/a-family-thing-b…r-family-reunion
 
Tired of being tired leads to new start at the John Beasley Theater & Workshop
https://leoadambiga.com/2011/09/30/tired-of-being-t…-beasley-theater/
 
Omaha’s Vinton Street Creativity Festival celebrates a diagonal cultural scene
https://leoadambiga.com/2013/07/02/omahas-vinton-st…l-cultural-scene
 
Jazz-Plena fusion artist Miguel Zenon bridges worlds of music
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/07/21/jazz-plena-fusio…-worlds-of-music/
 
Marisol Rodriguez helps Hispanic businesses grow
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/07/21/marisol-rodrigue…-businesses-grow
 
Educator Ferial Pearson’s Secret Kindness Agents project now a book:
Random acts of kindness prove healing and habit-forming
https://leoadambiga.com/2014/09/05/teachers-secret-…nd-habit-forming
 
Ferial Pearson, award-winning educator dedicated to inclusion and social justice, helps students publish the stories of their lives
https://leoadambiga.com/2011/08/25/ferial-pearson-a…s-of-their-lives/
 
Graciela Sharif’s mission is to empower parents
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/07/21/graciela-sharifs…-empower-parents
 
Community trumps gang in Fr. Greg Boyle’s Homeboy model
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/07/21/community-trumps…es-homeboy-model/
 
Home is where the heart Is for activist attorney Rita Melgares
 
Masterful: Omaha Liberty Elementary School’s Luisa Palomo displays talent for teaching and connecting
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/07/06/masterful-omaha-…g-and-connecting/
 
Evangelina “Gigi” Brignoni immerses herself in community affairs
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/04/09/evangelina-gigi-…ommunity-affairs/
 
Omaha South High student Marissa Gomez will stand, deliver and be heard at Louder Than a Bomb Omaha Youth Poetry Festival and Competition
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/04/08/omaha-south-high…-and-competition/
 
From reporter to teacher:
Carol Kloss McClellan enjoys new challenge as an inner city public high school instructor
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/03/25/from-reporter-to…chool-instructor/
 
Playwright Carlos Murillo’s work explores personal mythmaking
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/07/26/playwright-carlo…sonal-mythmaking/
 
Entrepreneur, strategist and nation builder:
Taylor Keen 
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/03/13/entrepreneur-str…lder-taylor-keen/
 
New approach, same expectation for South soccer
 
Project Improve aims to make best of bad situation with illegal immigrant detainees
 
Diana Acero heads county effort to get the lead out
 
Cinco de Mayo.jpeg

 
 
UNO/OLLAS resident expert on Cuban and Latino matters Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado 
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/07/18/unoollas-residen…enjamin-alvarado/
 
Coming to America:
Immigrant-Refugee mosaic unfolds in new ways and old ways in Omaha
 
Episcopal Priest Rev. Ernesto Medina never forgets his Latino hertitage
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/07/18/episcopal-priest…latino-hertitage/
 
Turning kids away from gangs and toward teams in South Omaha
 
Cinemateca series trains lens on diverse films and themes
 
Institute for Latin American Concern at Creighton has Dominican focus
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/07/17/institute-for-la…-dominican-focus/
 
African presence in Spanish America explored in three presentations
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/03/25/african-presence…ee-presentations/
 
Where community, neighborhood and representative Democracy meet
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/07/15/where-community-…e-democracy-meet
 
Art and community meet-up in artist’s public projects; Watie White mines urban tales
 
Born again ex-gangbanger and pugilist, now minister, Servando Perales, makes Victory Boxing Club his mission church for saving youth from the streets
 
Omaha South soccer poised for another state title run
 
Yolanda Diaz success story with Little Miss Fashion nets her new recognition
 
The History Man, Gary Kastrick, and his Project OMAHA lose home bases
 
Young Latina’s unbridled energy making a difference in her community
https://leoadambiga.com/2011/12/20/a-young-latinas-…in-her-community/
 
Rosenblatt-College World Series
 
The series and the stadium:
CWS and Rosenblatt are home to the Boys of Summer
https://leoadambiga.com/2016/06/25/the-series-and-t…e-boys-of-summer
 
The Little People’s Ambassador at the College World Series
https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/26/the-little-peopl…ege-world-series
 
Los Dias de Los Muertos festival offers three weeks of exhibits and events
https://leoadambiga.com/2015/10/16/los-dias-de-los-…ibits-and-events
 
South Omaha Stories on tap for free PlayFest show; 
Great Plains Theatre Conference’s Neighborhood Tapestries returns to the south side
https://leoadambiga.com/2015/05/06/south-omaha-stor…o-the-south-side/
 
Mark Martinez embarks on new chapter in his law enforcement career
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/07/12/mark-martinez-em…forcement-career/
 
Martinez Music Legacy: 
311’s SA Martinez takes music tradition laid down by father and grandfather in new Direction
 
The Garcia Girls
 
Artist Claudia Alvarez’s new exhibition considers immigration
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/03/23/artist-claudia-a…ders-immigration/
 
Omaha Corpus Christi procession draws hundreds
 
Tapestries to celebrate Omaha neighborhoods; Theater by any other name
https://leoadambiga.com/2013/05/21/tapestries-to-ce…y-any-other-name
 
OneWorld Community Health: 
Caring, affordable services for a multicultural world in need 
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/04/09/oneworld-communi…al-world-in-need/
 
Nancy Oberst:
Pied Piper of Liberty Elementary School
https://leoadambiga.com/2011/09/06/nancy-oberst-the…lementary-school/
 
Fast Times at Omaha’s Liberty Elementary: Evolution of a school       
New school ringing in Liberty for students
https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/06/new-school-ringi…rty-for-students/
 
Carolina Quezada leading rebound of Latino Center of the Midlands
https://leoadambiga.com/2012/05/03/carolina-quezada…-of-the-midlands
 
Filmmaker explores Latina whose story defies conventions; 
Maria Agui Carter to speak after El Museo Latino screening of her film ‘Rebel’
 
Devotees hold fast to the Latin rite
https://leoadambiga.com/2010/06/15/devotees-hold-fa…o-the-latin-rite
 
Prodigal Son:
Marlin Briscoe takes long road home
https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/13/prodigal-son-mar…e-long-road-home/
 
Soul on Ice – Man on Fire: 
The Charles Bryant Story
 
South Omaha’s Jim Ramirez: 
A Man of the People
 
Get on the Bus: 
An Inauguration Diary
https://leoadambiga.com/2010/05/11/get-on-the-bus-a…auguration-diary/
 
It was a different breed then: 
Omaha Stockyards remembered
https://leoadambiga.com/2016/06/24/it-was-a-differe…yards-remembered/
 
An ode to the Omaha Stockyards:
Last days and halcyon times  

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/06/14/from-the-archive…omaha-stockyards


 

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South Omaha Museum: A melting pot magic city gets its own museum

April 13, 2017 2 comments

South Omaha’s history is a heady brew of industry, working class families, immigrants, refugees and migrants, tight-knit ethnic neighborhoods, high spirits and fierce pride and though it took more than a century to get one, it finally has its own museum to celebrate all that rich heritage. This is my recent El Perico story about the newly opened South Omaha Museum. It’s a true labor of love for the three men most responsbile for pulling it together: Gary Kastrick, Marcos Mora and Mike Giron. But the heart and soul of it, not to mention most of the collection it displays, comes from Mr. South Omaha, Gary Kastrick, a historian and educator whose dream this museum fufills.

 

South Omaha Museum: A melting pot magic city gets its own museum

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico (el-perico.com)

 

Just like the community that forged him, the dreams of South Omaha native and historian Gary Kastrick don’t die easy. The educator developed the Project Omaha teaching museum at South High but when he retired the school didn’t want it anymore.

For years he stored his collection’s thousands of artifacts at his home while seeking a venue in which to display them. An attempt at securing a site fell through but a new one recently surfaced and has given birth to the South Omaha Museum. The nonprofit opened March 15 to much fanfare. Fittingly, it’s located in a building at 2314 M Street he helped his late father clean as a boy. It’s also where he found his first artifact.

Building owner Marcos Mora of the South Omaha Arts Institute wanted Kastrick’s font of history to have a permanent home.

“He’s got this knowledge and we need to share it with  everybody,” said Mora. “If we don’t preserve that history now, it’s going to go away.”

 

Lima01.jpg

 

A $10,000 City of Omaha historical grant helped but it still took 12-hour days, sweat equity and hustle to open it. Kastrick’s family, friends and former students pitched in. Artist Mike Giron designed the exhibit spaces.

Funding is being sought. Donations are welcome.

The founders are pleased by the strong early response.

“People are overwhelmed,” said Kastrick.

“People come in with expectation and come out with gratitude,” Giron said.

Offers of artifacts are flooding in.

The free admission museum marks the third leg of Kastrick’s three-pronged campaign to spark interest in “a South Omaha renaissance.” Between the museum, historical walking tours he leads and the South Omaha Mural Project he consults, he aims to bring more people to this history-rich district.

“My main goal is to generate traffic.”

The museum’s opening exhibition, “The Smell of Money,” which runs through April 15, chronicles the stockyards and meatpacking plants that were South O’s lifeblood and largest employer.

Kastrick said, “There was a pride in this industry. The owners did everything first-rate. They put money into it. They made innovations. They created state-of-the-art sheep barns. They did everything right. It’s why Omaha’s stockyards kept growing. It wasn’t expected to be bigger than Chicago but in 1955 it became the world’s largest livestock market.”

He estimates it generated $1.7 million a day.

“It was an extremely wealthy area.”

Ancillary businesses and services sprung up: bars, cafes, hardware stores, feed stores, rendering plants, leather mills, a railway, a newspaper, a telegraph office, grocers, banks, brothels. South O’s red light district The Gully offered every vice. The Miller Hotel was notorious.

Fast growth earned South O the name Magic City.

Rural families taking livestock to market also came for provisions and diversions.

“This was their visit to the big city,” Kastrick said, “so they’d do their shopping, playing, gambling here. It was a treat to come into South Omaha.”

For laborers, the work was rigorous and dangerous.

“There was a comradeship of hard labor. It defined who we were and that definition gave us a color and a flavor other parts of the city don’t have,” Kastrick said. “We’ve always been tougher than those who have it easy.”

 

 

The packing plants drew European immigrants and African-American migrants. Then the antiquated plants grew obsolete and got razed. The loss of jobs and commerce triggered economic decline. The South 24th Street business district turned ghost town. New immigration sparked revival. New development replaced the yards and plants. Only the repurposed Livestock Exchange Building remains. Kastrick’s museum recalls what came before through a scale model layout of the yards, photos, signs, posters, narratives. He has hundreds of hours of interviews to draw on.

“It’s a fascinating history.”

He envisions hosting classes and special events, including a scavenger hunt and trivia night.

Future exhibits will range from bars, brothels and barber shops to Cinco de Mayo to ethnic groups.

Kastrick, Mora and Giron all identify with South O’s melting pot heritage as landing spot and gateway for newcomers.

“There’s that common gene in South Omaha of the immigrant,” said Kastrick, whose grandparents came from Poland. “Wherever people are from, they uprooted themselves from security to come here and start over. It takes a lot of guts. It’s a great place because you run into so many different nationalities. We’re such a compact area – it’s hard not to be with each other.”

Mora, whose grandparents came from Mexico, said

“South Omaha is in our heart.”

Giron, the son of Cuban emigre parents, said, “What I see and identify with here is the underdog. People willing to sacrifice, to work hard, to do what it takes but also knowing how to have a good time. It isn’t an area where everybody takes everything for granted.” Giron said the museum’s “not just about history and facts, it’s about people’s lives,” adding, “It’s like you’re touching or expressing their experience.”

Once a South Omahan, always a South Omaha, said

Mora. “People might have moved out, but they still have that connection. Those roots are still down here. It’s a neighborhood community and extended family network.”

Kastrick said, “We have our own unique identity. It’s       something special to be from here. We enjoy who we are. We have kind of a defiant pride because we’ve always been looked down as the working class, the working poor and everything else. We don’t care. We created our own nice little world with everything we need.”

Through changing times and new ethnic arrivals the one constant, he said, “is the South Omaha culture and concept of who we are – tough, good people” who “won’t be stopped.”

For hours, visit http://www.southomahamuseum.org.

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It was a different breed then: Omaha Stockyards remembered

June 24, 2016 5 comments

I have been meaning to post this story for some time and only now got around to it. It’s a Reader (www.thereader.com) cover story from 1999 that takes a look back at the Omaha Stockyards only months before the whole works closed and was razed. Its demise, after years of decline following decades of booming business, ended a big brawny empire that at its peak was a major economic engine and a dominant part of the South Omaha landscape. I interviewed several men and one woman whose lives were bound up in the place and they paint a picture of a city within a city about which they felt great pride and nostalgia. The Stockyards was its own culture. These stockmen and this stockwoman were sad seeing it all go away, as if it was never there. Around that same time, I wrote a second depth story about the Stockyards for the New Horizons that gave even more of a feel for the scale of operation it once maintained. Here is a link to that story–

https://leoadambiga.com/2012/06/14/from-the-archives-an-ode-to-the-omaha-stockyards/

 

 

 

 

It was a different breed then: Omaha Stockyards remembered

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Unfolding a stone’s thrown away from a South Omaha strip mall is a scene straight out of the Old West. A sturdy codger called B.J. drives a dozen burnt orange cows through a mosaic of wooden pens and metal gates. As he flogs the recalcitrant beasts with a whip, his sing-song voice calls to them in a lingo only wranglers know.

“Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey…yeh, yeh, yeh…Whoa! Get up there. Whoa! Yeh, yeh, yeh…Go, get up there. High, high, high, high. Whoa. Gip, gip, gip, gip…High, high, high, high…Yeh, yeh, yeh, yeh…C’mon, babies. C’mon, sweethearts. C’mon, darlings. Get up there.”

Welcome to the Omaha Stockyards, a once immense marketplace and meatpacking center which, owing to changing marketing trends and public attitudes, has gone to rack and ruin. Since 1997, when Mayor Hal Daub announced a city-led plan to buy the site, raze nearly the entire complex and redevelop it, the Omaha Livestock Market, which operates the yards, has been marking time. In March, market staff and traders vacated offices in the Livestock Exchange Building and have since taken up makeshift quarters in a nearby cinder-block structure. The yards are expected to close early this fall, possibly by October, and the market will move from the site it has operated at for 116 years and re-open in Red Oak, Iowa. Just as the Stockyards will soon disappear, its halcyon days are now distant memories.

But for survivors of those times, like Bernie J. McCoy, the past is very much alive. As painful as the impending end is for them, they revel in the spirit of the people who worked there and their special way of doing business. To the hard physical labor performed, the injuries incurred, the grueling dawn to dusk schedule and harsh elements endured.

“You had to want to be here and work those long hours. It was a different breed then,” McCoy says.

Yes, the fat times are long gone, never to return, but their legacy lives on in the work McCoy and others still do there. They retrace the very paths taken by countless others before them, forging a direct link to the area’s frontier past. In the yards’ cavernous, skeleton-like environs, McCoy’s voice blends with the sound of bawling calves, squealing hogs and creaking gates to resonate like the mourning, wailing echo of restless souls from long ago. Requiem for the Stockyards.

Recently, McCoy and some fellow Stockyards veterans recounted for The Reader the good old days at this soon to be vanished landmark. Their memories unveil a rich, vibrant, muscular chapter of Omaha’s working life well worth preseving. Their words celebrate an enterprise that dominated the landscape and shaped the city unlike no other. Where the once overbrimming yards pulsed with the lifeblood of Omaha’s economy, it is now a relic condemned to the scrap heap – a decript place largely given over to pigeons and rats. Blocks of abandoned, weed-strewn pens stand empty. Crumbling, sagging buildings blight the landscape. Where it took hundreds of men many hours to drive, feed, water, sort, weigh, trade and load livestock daily, now all activity unfolds in an hour or two amid a dozen pens holding perhaps a hundred cattle, a few hands putting them through their paces.

The traffic whooshing past on L Street overhead is a metaphor for how this forsaken former juggernaut has been passed by in the wake of progress, leaving it an anachronism in a city grown intolerant. Yet, it lingers still – a ghostly visage of another era.

By the close of 1999 only tracts of of dilapidated pens and barren livestock barns will remain. Soon even these meager traces will vanish when the city levels the whole works in a year or two. leaving only the looming presence of the massive Exchange Building  – for decades the focal point and symbol of the sprawling , booming market. Even its future is not secure, hinging on if if developers find  financing for its pricey renovation.

We helped build this city

Today, from atop the weather-beaten wooden high walk spanning the grounds, it’s hard imagining when the yards teemed with enough acitivty to make it the largest livestock market/meatpacking center in the nation. Oh, animals still arrive at market every week but comprise only a trickle of the mighty stream that once flowed around the clock.

Unless you’re pushing middle age, you never saw the Stockyards at its peak. When tens of thousands of cattle, hogs and sheep arrived daily by rail and truck. Millions of animals a year. All transactions, each worth many thousands of dollars, were consummated by word of mouth alone. Trading generated millions of dollars a day, perhaps billions over time.

Livestock were sold primarily to the big four packing plants and the many smaller independent plants then dotting the yards’ perimeter. Stock were also shipped to other parts of the country, even overseas. The place was once so big, its impact so vast, that the Omaha market helped set the prices for the industry nationwide and ran its own radio station and newspaper. As a center of commerce, the Stockyards ruled. At their peak, the packing plants employed more than 10,000 laborers. The Stockyards company itself employed hundreds, including office staff to manage the business as well as outdoor crews to handle animals, maintain pens, chutes and barns and run its own railroad line. Hundreds more did business there as livestock commission salesmen, order-buyers, inspectors, et cetera. The people converging there on any trading today ranged from frugal farmers to rough-hewn truckers to smooth-talking traders to well-heeled bankers.

Besides being THE meeting place for anyone who was anybody in the agriculture industry, the Exchange Building offered an oasis of comfort with its cafeteria, dining room, ballroom, bar, soda fountain, cigar stand and barbershop. Basement showers let you wash the stink off but somehow you always knew when a hog man was around. Nearby watering holes, eateries, stores and hotels catered to the stock trade’s every pleasure. The aroma of sweat, blood, manure, hay, grain, cologne, whiskey and tobacco created what Omaha historian Jean Dunbar calls, “The smell of money.”

“Fifty years ago the Stockyards and packing plants were the hub of Omaha, Nebraska. Nowadays, young people don’t appreciate what the Union Stockyards Company did for Omaha. We helped build this city. Everyone wanted to work here. You don’t know the pride we had. Come November, there will be nothing left to remember we were ever here or even existed. Nothing,” declares McCoy, 69, a livestock dealer who’s worked at the Omaha Stockyards for 54 years.

 

 

  • Aerial stockyards, circa 1950. Photo provided by the Douglas County Historical Society.
  • Chicken plant. Photo provided by the Douglas County Historical Society.
  • Meat inspectors. Photo provided by the Douglas County Historical Society.
  • Omaha: World’s largest livestock and meat-packing center. Photo provided by the Douglas County Historical Society.
  • Ak-Sar-Ben stockyard judging pens. Photo provided by the Douglas County Historical Society.
  • Stockyard view of the pens, circa 1927. Photo provided by the Douglas County Historical Society.
  • Trucks backed up to chutes, circa 1926. Photo provided by the Douglas County Historical Society.
  • Wentworth stockyards. Photo provided by the Douglas County Historical Society.

 

 

It was the people

From 1934 to 1969 Doris Wellman, 83, was one of the few women executives in the livestock trading business. Her ties to the place run deep. Her grandfather and father worked there, as did her late husband Ralph and his grandfather and father before him. Incidentally, she never minded the stench because she never forgot “that was my bread and butter.” Above all, the genuineness and the esprit de corps of the people there impressed her. “Every man at that Stockyards was a gentleman as far as I’m concerned. Everybody was always very cordial to you. Everybody spoke to everybody else. There was nothing phony about it. We had our own little community there. That camraderie you will never find anyplace else.”

“When someone was in the least anount of distress,” she adds, “a collection was taken up.” McCoy says, “One trip through the Exchange Building might net  10 or 15,000 dollars,” like the time enough funds were raised to stop foreclosure on Carl “Swede” Anderson’s house.

“Of course, it was the people that made the Stockyards. They took care of their own. That’s what I miss more than anything about it,” says Jim Egan, 66, whose memory of the place goes back before World War II, when as a boy he hung around his father, a livestock order-buyer. Egan later became a livestock dealer himself. “I kind of grew up there as a little kid. I looked up to the head cattle buyers for the big packers, but they were as common as could be. They didn’t look down at anybody. There was never any airs put on. Absolutely not.”

Not that there wasn’t a caste system owing to one’s position and seniority. “There was kind of a pecking order,” Egan says. The more experienced men bought and sold the prime, top-dollar beef, while the green ones learned the trade from the bottom up. Those who carried the most weight and the longest length of service, he says, earned a wider berth, a choicer selection and a primer office location. “Back in the ’50s the head cattle buyers with Armour. Swift and Wilson all wore suits and ties. They had on boots, too, in those days. If you wanted to sell one some cattle you didn’t call him by his first name – it was Mister,” says Ron Ryhisky, 63, a packer-buyer now in his 46th year at the yards. “They thought they were God,” says cattle seller Art Stolinski, who adds that cattle buyers were made even more intimidating by working on horseback.

Men only advanced after an apprenticeship learning breeds, grades, weights. “I drove cattle 10 years for Omaha Packing Co. before I got a chance to buy a few cows, Ryhisky says. Stolinski, now in his 61st year, adds, “I came to work as a yardman for my father. I was a gofer – I cleaned pens, I shook hay, I drove cattle. That’s how you came up the ladder.”

Doing business

Haggling in the yards got heated. Bidding became a pitched battle. Harsh words exchanged between buyers and sellers were soon forgotten though because everyone understood being an S.O.B was just part of doing business. “That was the other guy’s way of trying to beat you,” Ryhisky says. “Sure, the guys argued and everything, but as soon as the trade was done, it was done. Nobody stayed mad,” Egan notes. He adds that men cursing each other over the price of bulls played cards or shared a meal and some drinks a few hours later.

Egan found no “softies” among buyers. “The only time they’d be a soft touch is if they were really desperate for cattle.” Stolinski says some shippers made for tough customers. “Some guys were just hard to sell for. They’d go, ‘Well, that ain’t enough. Get more. Them cattle are worth more than that.’ So you didn’t sell them cattle and then risked not getting them sold for what they were bid, and getting set.”

Like any other traded commodity, livestock were subject to supply and demand dynamics. As Egan explains, “The buyer was trying to buy the cattle for as cheap as he could. The salesman was trying to get as much as he could for his customer. Both knew pretty close where those cattle were going to sell. When it got right down to the nitty-gritty, if the buyer had another load of cattle he thought he could get, then he probably had a little leverage. If he didn’t, then the man selling the cattle had the leverage. That knowledge moved around the yards fairly quick.”

One way the latest market updates and bid orders reached buyers and sellers was by runners. “The packer might decide to take off 50 cents or a dollar (per hundred pounds) and the only way to tell those buyers was to send a runner, usually some kid, who’d run around that high walk trying to get the word to the cow buyers, the heifer buyers, the steer buyers. That kid was running, too,” Stolinski says. “When you saw that kid running fast, you knew he had something to tell the packer-buyer.” Later, radio transmitters replaced runners.

Ball-busting tactics aside, the yards brooked no dirty deeds. As soon as a swindler got exposed for “welshing on a deal,” Egan says, the word spread and he was banned. “You’d never get another animal.”

“If you were a cheat,” Ryhisky adds, “you never came back in.”

Badmouthing a competitor was strictly taboo. Wellman explains, “I can remember whenever my husband Ralph hired a cattle salesman the first thing he told him was, ‘When you go to the country to solicit business, don’t knock any of your opponents. Every knock is a boost. I never want to hear you maligned another commission man on the road.’ We trained people like that and they grew up knowing that’s the way to do business.”

A sense of trust and fair play permeated the yards. It’s what allowed trading to unfold entirely by spoken word – with no written contracts. A man’s word or handshake was enough. It’s still done that way.

“The uniqueness of the way business was conducted,” distinguished the stockyards industry,” Egan says. “Everything was done by word of mouth. It was an honor system you adhered to. It’s just the way it was.”

“Integrity is a word that comes to mind. Anyone that was here any time at all had it. There was nothing signed,” Stolinski says, adding sarcastically, “Now, you go buy a necktie and you gotta make three copies.”

As Wellman put it, “Do you of another business where you can transact millions of dollars worth of business everyday without signing a paper? Where you word is your bond, and if it isn’t, you won’t last?”

According to Gene Miller, a long-time commission man, any livestock deal was the sole province of the buyer and seller. The shipper or producer who consigned his livestock for sell to a commission firm was usually present but only participated if the salesman conferred on the bid. Rare disputes were mediated before a board of livestock exchange officials. “It was up to the buyer and seller to settle. If they couldn’t settle then they went before the Livestock Exchange Board. At any rate, your word had to be all of it or otherwise you had no market.”

Consistent with its open market concept, the Stockyards brought many buyers and sellers together in one spot to arrive at the fairest market price. A single load of cattle might be shown to and bid on by any number of buyers. To prevent a free-for-all, rules governed the bidding process.

If a buyer looked at a load of cattle and made a bid that the salesman accepted, the buyer was bound to take them. However, if  the buyer left the salesman’s alley before the bid was accepted, the buyer was not obligated.  Similarly, Egan explains, “If a guy was buying, say, steers and another order-buyer or packer-buyer came along, he had to wait outside the alley until the salesman got through showing that first buyer. If the salesman got the price, he might sell a load of cattle to the first guy that looked at ’em. But that buyer wouldn’t sit on a load of cattle and let everybody in the Stockyards look at ’em because he’s got the pressure of the second buyer breathing down his neck.”

Once cattle arrived at the yards, they were usually bedded down a night before traded. The idea was to feed and water stock in order to put weight back on lost (shrinkage) during shipping. While the market didn’t open until 8 or 8:30 a.m., commission men started their workday by 4:30 or 5 in order to get the cattled consigned to them out of holding pens and driven to their firms’ alleys and pens. As the cattle were locked up, sales agents had to find a “key man” at the yards to unlock the pens. Each saleman hustled to get his cattle released ahead of the others.

Stolinski says tempers often flared over who was first in line. “If he happened to be bigger than you, you wouldn’t argue, but some of that happened, too.”

The volume of livestock being traded was so thick that men often had to wait hours in line to get their bunch released or weighed. Each time cattled were moved they were counted, a serious business too given the sheer numbers of animals and the hefty dollar values they represented. A paper trail of receipts and weigh bills followed each load.

Livestock being led to a local packinghouse were driven through an underground tunnel. To help track each load chalk marks were applied to animals. Aptly named Judas goats were used to lead the packs, mostly sheep, placidly through. Steers were run through to chase out the foot-long rats. To control fighting bulls cows were often mixed in. Even with this confluence of activity – trucks and trains arriving and departing and assorted livestock being sorted and driven through a mazework of pens – the stockmen agree there were few major screwups. “It was amazing to me that with the thousands and thousands of livestock that moved through here, we kept them straight,” says Carl Hatcher, a 44-year veteran of the yards and today manager of the Omaha Livestock Market.

“It was amazing how few miscounts we had,” Stolinski says.

More amazing still because despite the paper trail dealers kept most of the figures in their head. “When I went to work for my dad I came out with a tab and pencil and started writing stuff down, and he said, ‘Throw that away. If you have to start writing everything down, forget it. Learn to remember.’ You did,” Stolinski recalls. “You developed your memory that way. Even now, I can remember cattle I sold a couple weeks ago – what they were, what they brought, what they weighed. A lot of buyers could just look at cattle and remember, too.”

 

In this January 1942 photo, a line of cattle trucks extended 4 miles at the Omaha Stockyards. THE WORLD-HERALD

In this January 1942 photo, a line of cattle trucks extended 4 miles at the Omaha Stockyards. THE WORLD-HERALD

 

Out of harm’s way

As smoothly as it all ran, some things could still foul up the works, like one of the 11 scales breaking or an animal going down and not being able to get back up. Then there were close calls with ornery animals. Some broke containment, leaping fences and escaping into surrounding streets, where crews shooed them into the yards or cowboys roped and dragged them back. The wildest ones were shot dead. A mean animal in an alley or a pen sent men scurrying for the fences; the lucky ones clambered atop unscathed; the less fortunate ones got pinned, stomped or gored. Every man can tell you about his close calls and rough scrapes. Harold Hunter, a 78 year old cattle delaer who’s been hit by a heifer and rolled by a bull, among other things since his 1944 start, recalls, “I’d only been here two weeks when I was holding a gate while my boss was on a horse sortin’ these steers. They were probably 3 and 4 year-olds, weighing 1,250, and they moved fast. Two of ’em went by me just like that. My boss said, ‘Kid, they ain’t going to hurt you, just stop ’em.’ Well, the next one went right through the gate and broke it down. Those western range cattle had never seen a man on foot, They respected a horse, but not a man on foot.”

It paid knowing how to stay out of harm’s way. “If you had the gate,” Stolinski says, “you didn’t get behind it to hold ’em back because they’d hit that gate and you’d go with it. You always had to have that gate on the side of you, so when they hit it the gate went and you climbed up the fence…maybe.”

Hatcher, who saw plenty of busted noses and broken bones from swinging gates, says you were well advised “to have your escape route” planned. “Like when we unloaded cattle off the box cars, the way the railroad set the cars , they wouldn’t match up with the opening into the chute. Well, when you’d open a box car door and flop a board in for them to come out, you hoped you could shout and move ’em into the chute opening. But sometimes they’d get upset seeing the fences and turn the wrong way and go down the dock where you were standing. One night a fellow named Dale Castor was there with our night foreman, Orlin Emley, when some old western wild cows came out and turned down the dock, Emley already had the escape route figured. He was climbing the fence when Castor, who hadn’t figured his out, grabbed a hold of Emley and tried to crawl right up his back. Emley was shouting, ‘Get off me, find your own goddamn fence.’ That happened a lot.

“The sound of a gate slamming or people yelling can cause soome animals to run over or through everything they can fin. A wild or mean one like that won’t stop no matter how much you yell or wave a stick or whip or cane or anything else. You know which ones are comin’ out lookin’ for you. you can’t top ’em. You look for your spot on the fence and keep your distance. You gotta know what your doin’ and pay attention.”

Egan says hard to handle animals were often red-flagged on the paperwork accompanying them to give men a heads-up warning.

The risk of injury never goes away. Only two years ago Bernie McCoy had a run-in with a heifer that left him with three cracked ribs. There’s no end of hazards either. Try negotiating a narrow, icy, wind-swept high walk in winter. Or lashing a cow with a whip and a piece of leather tearing off into your face or leg. “It’s like getting shot with a pellet gun,” says Stolinski.

Bulls, because of their size and disposition, pose real trouble. As Stolinski says, “If a bull hits you, he don’t (sic) let you fall to the ground. He just keeps hittin’ you into the fence. Gettin’ kicked would hobble you most because you either got it in the knee or hip.”

But other animals could hurt you, too. Stolinski recalls a yardman named Dale Lovitt who had a leg ripped open by a boar in the hog yards and, true to the stockmen’s macho creed, got stitched and returned for a snort.

“They took him to the hospital, sewed him up, and he got back here and went rght to the bar and had a shot.”

Hatcher witnessed the grit of yardman Hubert Clatterbuck, who took a nasty spill “when the wild horse he was training reared up. causing him to lose his balance. He went right over the back of the horse and fell right on the concrete in the alley…landing on his shoulders and head. Hell, I thought sure he was dead. I called a rescue unit but, shoot, he just shook it off.”

 

 

You gotta have it in you

“The hours got terrible with the commission firms, let me tell you,” says Gene Miller. “Today, you couldn’t pay any man enough to work the way we did, and those hours, 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. The hours were too long . The work was too hard. It was seven days a week.” Yet, to a man, they say they don’t regret any of it. Not one hour or day.

And Bernie McCoy adds, “You were always moving,” whether fetching cattle from the hill (the west yards stretching clear to 36th Street) or driving them to the hole (the sloping southwestern yards). “I don’t how many miles we walked a day,” Ryhisky adds. The work went on regardless of the weather. “Sometiimes the conditions were just just rotten,” Stolinski notes. “Standing out there weighing cattle when it was rainy and sloppy like hell. The cattle snapped their hoofs in a puddle and it would splash all over you. We didn’t have rain suits in those days. You had a jacket and you just got wet. You had to keep just working. There wasn’t time to go in and change because those cattle had to be weighed in so many minutes.”

Away from the yards, commission men traveled weekends soliciting business from farmers and ranchers. It was not uncommon for a salesman to put 40,000 miles a year on his car. Since the advent of direct selling in the ’60s. packer-buyers like Ryhisky now solicit customers.

Yardmen have always had it the roughest, facing the same risks from animals and the same dismal weather conditions while building and repairing pens, throwing bales of hay, cleaning alleys and chutes, et cetera. “You gotta have it in you,” Stolinski says. Plenty haven’t. Hatcher saw many men quit after a day or two slogging through muck and shoveling manure. He says the worst jobs included clearing snow atop the auto park, aka, Hurricane Deck, in the winter and picking up animal dumps and hauling them away in the summer.

 

Stockmen's and farmers' and truckers' hotel near Union Stockyards. South Omaha, Nebraska

Stockmen’s and farmers’ and truckers’ hotel near Union Stockyards. South Omaha

 

They played hard

After a hard day’s work or big sell, men unwound bending an elbow at nearby gin joints. A few braced themselves before punching in each morning, like notable imbiber Claude Dunning, who is said to have drained a half-pint daily before the market even opened. “Some of the old guys would walk in the front of the building, make a left turn into the bar and get a drink of whiskey, then change clothes and off they’d go,” Stolinski says. “Most of the commission men had charge accounts in the bar. If you were a regular, they’d give you a second shot free.”

Fights inevitably broke out.

“They played hard,” Hatcher says, so much so the yard company cracked down. Still, there were ways, like riding in the caboose of a train shipping bulls to Chicago. Two men went along to see the bulls go watered and got tanked themselves on a case of beer. “We had fun,” Ryhisky says.

Other diversions ranged from regular craps and gin rummy games to sports betting. Once, the Stockyards took up a collection to bankroll local gin rummey king Art Jensen, a livestock trader, for a Las Vegas tournament. “They bought shares in him,” Jim Egan says. “He lost.” A good friend of Jensen’s was future Nevada gambling maven Jackie Gaughan, then a bookmaker, who allegedly used a livestock trading office as a bookie front. “You could get a lot of bets laid down there,” recounts Egan. Legend has it local stockmen sold cattle on a cash-only basis to one shady character back east who reputedly once brought a suitcase with $250,000. It’s said the fellow eventually ran afoul of the mob and was killed.

Francis “Doc” Stejskal, a former livestock commission salesman and later a packer-buyer, says people at the yards were not necessarily the raucous bunch many outsiders assumed. “I think a lot of folks thought it was rough and rowdy. That when business was over we all went down to some South Omaha cathouse. It wasn’t that way.”

Doris Wellman adds, “It was the wrong interpretation completely.” That’s not to say there weren’t establishments where women of ill repute rendered certain illicit services. “The dollies were in the Miller Hotel. The guys would take care of things there,” Harold Hunter says. “Big Irene” is said to have been a favorite among johns frequenting the whorehouses and clip joints comprising South O’s red light district.

Those who could not control their appetites were brought down. “Wine, whiskey and women ruined quite a few guys out here,” Ron Ryhisky contends. “I’d hate to have seen the casinos here back in the ’50s. We would have had a lot of broke men.” Adds Stolinski, “A lot of money was made and a lot of good men were lost to high living.”

But for most a big night on the town meant downing a few drinks and eating a hearty meal at Johnny’s Cafe, where stockmen had carte blanche. Many a farmer came to market with his family. While his stock was traded his family waited in the Exchange Building and later, fat check in hand, they went for a shopping spree. Philip’s Department Store was a favorite stop. In an industry that was a crossroads for people from nearly every strata of society – rural-urban, rich-poor – the Stockyards saw its share of memorable characters. Take Gilley Swanson, for instance. The stockmen say Swanson, a farmer, had such utter disregard for his own hygeine that he was infested with lice and slept in the yards’ hay manger. It got so bad, they say, that he was barred from the Exchange Building and people steered clear of his approach. Then there was Bernard Pauley, a mammoth shipper who overwhelmed his bib overalls and had a habit of stepping right from the feedyard into his latest Cadillac, soiling the interior. Forbidden from drinking at home by his wife, he went on benders in the big city, buying endless rounds for himself and his cronies.

Looks could be deceiving. A rancher might pass for a ripe vagrant after traveling by rail with his cattle, yet could pocket enough from one sale to pay cash for a new car and still have ample money left over. Eastern dudes passing through often didn’t know one end of a cow from the other, but knew balance sheets and some say the New York-based Kay Corp., which bought the ailing ards in 1973, simply wrote it off.

These are Stockyards people

Then, as now, money talked. For decades the Stockyards pumped the fuel powering Omaha’s economic engine. Sotuh Omaha owed its existence to the place. The Stockyards wielded power and commanded respect via the jobs it provided, the charitable works its 400 Club performed, the goodwill tours its members made and the boards its executives served on. This far-reaching impact is why stockmen feel such pride even today. “More than you’ll ever know,” says Ryhisky. As business there steadily declined the last 25 years the Stockyards saw its influence wane, operations shrink and grounds deteriorate. Now, with the City of Omaha practically running the Stockyards out of town and erasing any remnant of the past (although, as bound by law, the city is paying the relocation costs and commissioning a historic recordation of the site), it’s no wonder survivors feel forgotten and belittled.

Doris Wellman tells a story about Johnny’s Cafe founder Frank Kawa that sums up how stockmen were once regarded and would like to be remembered. “A group of us were having dinner at Johnny’s one evening years ago and the people nest to us thought we were a little too noisy, so they complained to Mr. Kawa. He told them. ‘If you don’t like it, get up and leave. These are Stockyards people. They built this place.'”

From the Archives: An Ode to the Omaha Stockyards

June 14, 2012 4 comments

 

 

I grew up in North Omaha but most of my extended family lived in South Omaha, where my father was born and raised.  On visits to South O to see my paternal grandparents, Adam and Anna Biga, the impossible to ignore acrid stench emanating from the stockyards and packing plants located only blocks from their home burned my nostrils and eyes.  For that matter, anywhere in South O carried a whiff of the stink, which came to be known as the Smell of Money for the immense commerce those twinned industries represented.  I had many relatives work at the packing plants and my father, his brothers, and my grandfather certainly knew their way around the stockyards.  Growing up, my only contact with the yards was on a school field trip and my dad driving me and my brothers there a few times to catch the sights and sounds and, that’s right, smells, of that bustling place.  By the time I worked as a journalist the stockyards was on it’s last legs, a true anachronism and eye sore in a city trying to break from its cow town past and reimage itself as a progressive, cosmopolitan metropolis.  For a while there it looked like Omaha would never have the will and vision to do the necessary reset to rebrnad itself but as the national media has been reporting for a decade now the city got its collective act together and is in the midst of a full-scale makeover.  The downtown and riverfront transformation gets most of the attention but the decline and eventual move of the Omaha Stockyards and the closing and razing of the packing houses, followed by the subsequent redevelopment of the huge tracts of land they stood on is every bit as impressive.  Where the yards and plants operated are now apartments, businesses, a giant Kroc Center, a booming community college campus, and many more ameneties.  The one remnant of that industrial behometh that survived is the Livestock Exchange Building, which has a new life of its own.  This story, written and publsihed mere months before the stockyards shut down here and moved to Iowa, recounts all that was lost in this transition from the Old World to the New.  The stockyards had to go to make way for the new Omaha but its impact was so vast that its history and contributions to building Omaha should never be forgotten.  If you enjoy this kind of history, check out an even more extensive piece I did on the stockyards that I’ve posted on this blog.

Here is a link to another depth story I did around the same time on the Stockyards, in this case for The Reader (www.thereader.com), that takes a nitty-gritty and nostalgic look at what it was like to work in that culture and community that constituted the yards–

From the Archives: An Ode to the Omaha Stockyards 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons

 

By the turn of the century the historic Omaha stockyards will be gone from the site it’s operated at for 114 years, leaving an uncertain future for one of Omaha’s oldest active businesses.  The move, prompted by a city-sponsored redevelopment project, will mark the end of a once mighty enterprise built on brains, brawn, guts and ambition.  After surviving ownership changes, world wars and wild economic swings, the stockyards will finally succumb to changing times and attitudes.

A throwback to an earlier era, the stockyards was a male-dominated arena where high finance met Midwestern hospitality.  Where a man’s word was his bond and an honest day’s work his measure.  Its departure will close a rich, muscular chapter in Omaha’s working life — one whose like may not be seen again.  One where men moved a constant flow of animals through a maze of tracks, chutes, alleys and pens spanning 200-plus acres.

“This was a huge, huge operation.  A big mammoth place.  At one time we employed 350 to 400 people.  We stretched from the railroad yards at about 26th Street clear up to 36th Street.  We were beyond ‘L’ Street to the north and beyond Gomez Avenue to the south.  We ran crews 24 hours-a-day, seven days-a-week.  There was always something going on.  At times you never thought you had enough help with all the pens and animals to maintain,” said Carl Hatcher, a 43-year veteran at the yards and current manager of the Omaha Livestock Market.

The stockyards teemed with activity its first 100 years.  In 1955 Omaha overtook Chicago as the nation’s largest livestock market and meatpacking center, a position it held until 1973.

Today, the stockyards is but a shell of its former self.  With receipts in steady decline for three decades, it’s systematically shrunk operations to the present 15 acres, dramatically scaled back the market schedule and severely downsized the workforce.  Abandoned pens and dilapidated buildings stand as forlorn reminders of its former greatness.

“We’re not the big yards we used to be,” Hatcher, 60, said.  “It’s not a thriving business the way it used to be.  The only way we’ve been able to keep in business is to reduce the facility in proportion to the reduced demand in the industry.”

 

 

 

 

Those, like Hatcher, who recall the glory years know there can never be a return to the daily spectacle along “L” Street when livestock-laden trucks arriving from points near and far lined-up in a procession running from 36th to 60th, waiting to unload their mooing, squealing, bleating cargo.

“It was a sight to see,” said the City of Omaha’s official historian, Jean Dunbar, who saw the epic lines of trucks with his own eyes.

James Rosse, 95, a former editor with the Daily Journal Stockman and past executive with Livestock Conservation Inc., recalls a banner 1944 pig crop brought a convoy of hog-filled trucks extending to 72nd Street.

The congestion got so bad that stockmen often doubled as traffic cops to keep trucks moving smoothly on and off the “L” Street viaduct.  Truckers at the end of the line waited hours before unloading.

“We would on occasion send out coffee and sandwiches to the truckers,” recalls Harold Norman, 77, retired secretary-treasurer of the stockyards.  To try and avert logjams, he said, stalled trucks were pushed to the side.  The addition of chutes speeded up the delivery process.

While trucks replaced trains as the dominant mode of transporting livestock by the 1940s, large numbers of animals continued being shipped by rail through the ‘60s.  The stockyards even operated its own railway to handle incoming and outgoing loads.

“It was a continuous thing of livestock coming in here one day, being sold and then moving out,” Hatcher said from his office in the Livestock Exchange Building, the grand South Omaha landmark that’s long been the headquarters and hub for the livestock industry here.  “Whenever you’ve got thousands and thousands of head of livestock being moved, it’s a real challenge to do that on an orderly basis.  You never had a time, even in the wee hours of the morning, that there wasn’t some livestock either arriving or being delivered out of here.  It was amazing.”

“We were essentially a hotel for livestock — a place to bed, feed and water,” said Norman, adding the company had no stake in animal sales or purchases, but instead made money from yardage fees and office rentals.

More than a hotel, the yards constituted THE central market for livestock producers and buyers in the region.  During its peak years, anywhere from 30,000 to 50,000 head of cattle, 40,000 to 60,000 head of hogs and 10,000 to 20,000 head of sheep arrived weekly via rail and truck.  In a single year as many as six million head of livestock were received, with an estimated value of more than half-a-billion dollars.  By comparison, a good week’s receipts today total 1,000 cattle and 3,000 hogs.

With such a huge volume of activity, crews had to work effiiciently unloading unruly animals, flogging them down chutes and herding them through alleys into open pens.  Once stock was yarded, the real business of the marketplace commenced.  Commission men representing producers negotiated with buyers to obtain the fairest price on cattle, hogs, sheep.  Once a sale was made, the animals were driven to a scalehouse, weighed, and held in pens until the buyer led them off to slaughter or feed.

Somehow, it all worked like a well-oiled machine.  And the next day, the process began all over again.  It still works the same way today, only on a much smaller scale.

The bustling market was a melting pot of diverse interests and types.  A central gathering point where rural and urban America merged.  Where rich cattlemen in gabardine splendor and dapper bankers in double-breasted finery rubbed shoulders with overall-clad farmers and blood, mud, manure-stained laborers.  The massive Exchange Building was an oasis where one could eat a good meal, down a few drinks, buy a cigar, get a haircut, send a telegram and dance the night away in its ballroom.

“I’d like to live those days over again,” Rosse said, “because that was exciting.  There was always something new.”

Demolition of the stockyards
A commerical plaza, among other things, went up in its place
The Kroc Center is an impressive addition on the site of one of the old packing plants

 

 

For all the market’s staggering numbers and feats, one item bears special notice:  Then, as now, livestock deals were made verbally, without a written contract, and sealed with a handshake.

“Millions of dollars changed hands there just on a handshake,” Hatcher said.  “It’s not done in other businesses, where you gotta have contracts and a lawyer standing over each shoulder to make sure all the Is are dotted and Ts are crossed.”

“I can’t believe it yet,” said Rosse, who was also struck by the frank manner buyers and sellers transacted business.  “The way they talked to each other, you’d think they’d never speak to each other again.  They were rather a rough bunch.  They didn’t spend much time at it.  It was either yes or no, and away they’d go.  It was a tough business, and yet they were pals again when they weren’t working.  There was a lot of camaraderie.”

If the stockyards supplied the fuel for this powerful industrial machine, then its engine resided in the many meatpacking plants surrounding it.              Between the plants’ smokestacks and the waste-ridden yards, an acrid odor formed that carried for miles.  The yards, which earned the wrath of neighbors who daily lived with the stench, formed a Stink Committee to handle complaints and find solutions.  “The Smell of Money,” as Omaha
historian Jean Dunbar describes it, was a small price to pay as the industry employed thousands and provided thousands more customers for area businesses (bars, eateries, stores) catering to the stock-packing trade.

Said Hatcher, “A lot of businesses sprang up around here and thrived and survived on the people who worked at the market and the packing houses.”  Johnny’s Cafe, the noted steakhouse just east of the yards, benefited from the traffic streaming through. “There was just a huge concentration of people moving in and out of the ag business around here.  We served meals around the clock to the truckers, the cattlemen, the bankers, the commission men…anybody that had anything to do with the livestock industry,” said Jack Kawa, Johnny’s proprietor and a son of its  founder, the late Frank Kawa.

After selling livestock at market many producers spent their profits in South Omaha — on lavish meals or shopping sprees.  “It was kind of a culmination and celebration of feeding cattle or hogs for six or nine months,” Kawa said.  He adds these hearty men lived hard and played hard and concedes the restaurant’s heavy, masculine, western decor and emphasis on beef reflected their tastes.

The combined purchasing power of the stockmen and packers, as well as their customers, pumped countless millions into the South Omaha economy.  Indeed, the community owes its very existence to the stockyards.  What was farm and scrub land sprouted into the city of South Omaha soon after the yards opened in 1884.  An envious Omaha coveted its neighbor to the south and after much resistance finally annexed it in 1916.

If Chicago could rightly be called the city of broad shoulders, then surely Omaha was its husky little brother.  Early Omaha survived as an outfitting haven for Western pioneers and settlers. The growing city continued drawing industry here because of its direct river access and central location.  The event that opened Omaha to serious expansion was the transcontinental railroad’s coming through in the late 1860s.  With Omaha established as a major rail center, it fast became a convenient gateway for transporting goods and services east and west.

It wasn’t long before a group of Omaha businessmen, led by the formidable William A. Paxton, saw the potential for forming a stockyards that could provide a central market for western livestock producers and eastern packers.  At the time, Chicago was the nearest market for western producers, but with further westward expansion it became burdensome to ship cattle so far east.

Paxton, an ex-mule skinner, cattle ranch operator and bridge builder,  defended his stake in the venture from powerful interests that prized it too.

“He definitely was a guy who played hard ball.  He was a very hard-driving guy.  He was truly one of the ground-floor men,” said University of Nebraska at Omaha history professor Harl Dalstrom.

The stockyards deal swung on Paxton securing the backing of Wyoming cattle baron Alexander Swan, who craved a central market for his own vast herds.  Together with such local powerbrokers as John A. McShane and John A. Creighton, these men formed what became known as the Syndicate.  They bought 2,000 acres south of early Omaha, setting aside 200 for the stockyards and the rest for the community they envisioned developing around it.  The Union Stockyards Company opened in 1884 and, just as expected, a full-fledged city soon emerged.

“South Omaha grew up all of a sudden…in less than a generation.  It was a boom town,” said historian Jean Dunbar.   “It did not create the instant rich men that oil or mining towns produced.  South Omaha’s boom produced a lot of good jobs for a lot of immigrants.  It was an immigrant community.  A mosaic of Czechs, Poles, Irish and others.  For them, it was an opportunity to find a new life.  It was hard, dangerous work that took a strong, remarkable breed of men, just like the men it took to farm on the dusty, desert-like Great Plains.”

At first the yards served as little more than a feeding station for stock in-transit to Chicago, and would have remained so without meatpackers  opening plants.  To entice the packers the Syndicate gave away money, land, buildings and shares of stock in the company, and one by one they came, led by the Big Four — Cudahy, Swift, Armour and Wilson.

“The owners of the stockyards paid off these big packers and offered them inducements to do business here,” Dunbar said.  “These were big,
powerful men of tremendous personality.  Of course they were acting in their self-interest, but they also risked great sums of their own personal fortune to make Omaha a great city and Nebraska a great state.”

With the packers in place, the yards flourished.  “The stockyards were only the catalyst.  The packing houses were the key.  They’re the ones that employed people by the thousands.  The one’s the dog, the other’s the tail,” Dunbar said.

But after four generations of nearly unbroken success, the tide slowly turned and the frontier empire that rose up from nothing diminished in size and importance.  There are many reasons for the decline, but it really all boils down to economics.  It goes back to the mid-1960s, when a shift occurred away from central markets like Omaha’s to a more diffuse, direct marketing system.  When the Big Four found their massive multi-story plants too costly to modernize, they closed them and built smaller ones in rural areas closer to producers and feeders.

Large producers soon realized they had no need to ship to a central market, much less consign livestock to an agent, since packer-buyers were eagerly knocking on their door.  Instead, producers sold directly to buyers, who also found it a more economical way of doing business.  Thus, the traditional role played by a central market like Omaha’s — of bringing together producers and buyers in a competitive arena, became obsolete for most large producers.  The need for a middle man had vanished except for the smallest farmers or ranchers.

A concurrent trend found livestock being raised by fewer and fewer hands, as small farmers-ranchers were bought out or went belly up, leaving production in the hands of relatively few mega-producers who dealt directly with packers.  Consequently, the stockyards lost much of its customer-base, causing receipts and profits to dwindle, forcing cutbacks, et cetera.

Another factor accounting for the decline was that as the local livestock industry shrunk, it lost the economic-political clout it once wielded.  The stockyards also lost any leverage it might have still had when, in 1989, the Minneapolis-based United Marketing Services purchased the livestock operation from Canal Capital Corp. of New York.  The deal let Canal retain ownership of all the stockyards’ property and structures, leaving United a tenant subject to the whims of its landlord.  Prior to that the stockyards or its parent company always owned the property and buildings it occupied.

 
The Livestock Exchange Building has found new life

Making matters worse, as the stockyards consolidated on fewer and fewer acres, Canal let abandoned grounds and facilities fall into disrepair.  The blighted areas gave the stockyards a black eye as the public assumed it owned the problem, when Canal actually held title to the land, including buildings the city deemed “unsafe and dangerous” and had begun condemnation procedures on.

“I think we’re taking the rap for their (Canal’s) bad management.  Any of the property we’ve vacated has become an eyesore.  It looks bad for the city.  It looks bad for our livestock operation.  We would dearly love to have it cleaned up and made presentable,” Hatcher said.

A face-lift can’t save the stockyards now, however.  Bowing to pressure, the financially-ailing Canal entered negotiations two years ago with the city for the sale of 57 acres, including all of the stockyards.  Last November, Mayor Hal Daub unveiled the city’s plans for an office park at the site — minus the stockyards.  Metro Community College plans expanding there and is viewed as a magnet for attracting further development.

Hatcher and his bosses tried convincing city officials to allow the stockyards to remain on-site, even on half its present acreage, but officials wouldn’t budge, leaving the company with a December 31, 1999 deadline to leave.  In September, the city completed its purchase of the site.  Plans call for all traces of the stockyards to be razed, except for the Exchange Building, which is slated for renovation.

Meanwhile, Hatcher is looking for new office space for himself and his staff, as the Exchange Building must be vacated by March 31, and is searching for a new site the stockyards may relocate on.  United is commited to keeping a livestock market in the area, but will only relocate if a new site “makes economic sense,” Hatcher said.  The city is legally obligated to help pay the costs of any relocation.

Hatcher is unhappy with the stockyards’ rather ignoble fate, but he realizes why it came about.  In part, it’s a sign of the times.  As Omaha has moved further from its frontier roots and traditional ag-industrial base, the stockyards is viewed as an unwelcome remnant of the past in what is a politically-correct, environmentally-conscious age.  Neighbors and public officials no longer want livestock, or the unpleasant trappings they bring, confined in the middle of a modern city whose mayor is “re-imaging” it as clean, new age, high-tech — not grimy, old world, blue collar.

“People are not tolerant that way anymore,” Hatcher said.  “Manure being spilled on the streets is not tolerated today.  The smells are not tolerated.  The packing houses are not as welcome as they used to be.  People don’t depend on them for their livelihood.  A lot of the people in the city administration, on the city council and in the community don’t think the stockyards and packing houses pay a living wage.  They don’t feel we’re the type of industry they want in their glorious city.  And I feel sorry for them and feel doubly sorry for us and for our customers that depend on us.”

For Harold Norman, the stockyards ex-secretary-treasurer, it’s “a feeling of rejection, because the company was held in high repute for many, many years and now it seems like we don’t have any friends anymore.  Over the years there were people who opposed us but we were big enough that we could stand our own with them, but today…”

“The negative influences created by the livestock market were not desirable to retain in the future,” said Bob Peters, Omaha’s Acting City Planning Director.  “There is a great deal of respect and sympathy for the livestock market and its employees…and a great deal of warm and wonderful memories of the past heydays of the marketplace, however there is a realization that time has passed the market by.”

Hatcher disagrees.  “The stockyards is still a viable, profitable business,” he said.  “We paid all our bills.  We paid our taxes.  We had all our permits and licenses.  We were not asking anyone to subsidize our business.  But the city has told us they don’t want us here anymore.  To see this all come to an end and to think…there will be no legacy…no more ongoing central market here in Omaha, yeah, that saddens me.”

He will miss the yards, but most of all the people.  “I love the people and this business.  It’s been my life.  There are still some young people in the industry who would like to see this particular operation continue.  There’s still a lot of producers out there that would like to see us continue because they have no other choice to market their livestock.  This location is ideal for our customers in Nebraska and Iowa.”

According to James Rosse, “The city fathers have never appreciated what the stockyards meant to them or to the larger agribusiness economy.  This was a livestock center of national and international importance, but they’re trying now to eliminate that picture of Omaha.”

However, Peters insists the city does recognize the stockyards’ significance.  He adds the use of federal funds for the planned redevelopment requires the city to conduct an historic recordation of the stockyards so “the historical and cultural importance of that site is not lost and will be perpetuated forever in a series of documents, drawings, photographs and essays that deal with its development and its relationship to the development of the city and the region.”  The materials will be filed with the Library of Congress.

With the stockyards’ days numbered, perhaps it’s time some thought be given to erecting a permanent display commemorating the enormous commerce it generated and the vital impact it made.  Norman has tried unsuccessfully to launch such a display.  The city has no plans for one.

“It’s obvious this is a big part of our history and I think it needs to be preserved and interpreted to subsequent generations as effectively as we can,” UNO’s Dalstrom said.  Dunbar agrees, suggesting “a Magic City museum could tell the history of a great era in South Omaha.”

Absent any reminder, Omaha may re-cast itself as an ultra modern city but at the expense of sanitizing its rough-and-tumble roots right into oblivion.  With the stockyards demise, more than its mere physical presence will be lost.  Lost too will be a direct link to Omaha’s frontier heritage.  It will join Jobbers Canyon as a casualty to ‘progress,’ leaving one less trace of the burly, brawling, booming industrial center Omaha has been and still is.

Ironically, “stockyards” will likely be part of any name chosen for the office park replacing it.  The question is:  Will future generations know the rich story behind the name?

Last days and halcyon times of the Omaha Stockyards remembered

August 2, 2010 1 comment

The maze of livestock pens and walkways at the...

Image via Wikipedia

In 1999 the Omaha Stockyards was in its final throes.  An industry that helped build a city was being unceremoniously shown the way out of town, its messy, malodorous business no longer desired in an urban setting.  I had long been fascinated with the stockyards, going all the way back to my childhood, when my parents would take me and my brothers to visit my dad’s parents in South Omaha, my grandparents’ home located only a few blocks from the vast network of pens and chutes and alleys and from the massive packing plants that surrounded them.  My paternal grandfather, Adam Biga, worked as a meat cutter at one of those plants for something like half a century.  My dad took me on a couple visits to the yards, where I believe he and his brothers may have worked odd jobs summers as youths or where they certainly hung around.   I can remember at least one school field trip there.  I didn’t have a reason to visit there again until years later, when I filed the following story for the New Horizons.  I really enjoyed steeping myself in the history of the place and interviewing a cross-section of folks associated with it.  In the near future I will post an even more extensive piece I did on the stockyards and its history for another publication.  My intent with both stories was to bring that history alive and to express just how strongly the people who worked in the yards felt about it all, including their sadness over the impending move.

The story also makes the point that as vital as the yards and plants were to Omaha, the city seemed rather cavalier about their demise.  It turns out that once the stockyards and Big Four plants did leave and their properties were redeveloped, some markers were erected.  But it seems as though something more significant, such as a museum, would commemorate this epic history.

 

Last days and halcyon times of the Omaha Stockyards

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

 

By the turn of the 21st century the historic Omaha stockyards will be gone from the site it’s operated at for 114 years, leaving an uncertain future for one of Omaha’s oldest active businesses.  The move, prompted by a city-sponsored redevelopment project, will mark the end of a once mighty enterprise built on brains, brawn, guts and ambition.  After surviving ownership changes, world wars and wild economic swings, the stockyards will finally succumb to changing times and attitudes.

A throwback to an earlier era, the stockyards was a male-dominated arena where high finance met Midwestern hospitality.  Where a man’s word was his bond and an honest day’s work his measure.  Its departure will close a rich, muscular chapter in Omaha’s working life — one whose like may not be seen again.  One where men moved a constant flow of animals through a maze of tracks, chutes, alleys and pens spanning 200-plus acres.

“This was a huge, huge operation.  A big mammoth place.  At one time we employed 350 to 400 people.  We stretched from the railroad yards at about 26th Street clear up to 36th Street.  We were beyond ‘L’ Street to the north and beyond Gomez Avenue to the south.  We ran crews 24 hours-a-day, seven days-a-week.  There was always something going on.  At times you never thought you had enough help with all the pens and animals to maintain,” said Carl Hatcher, a 43-year veteran at the yards and current manager of the Omaha Livestock Market.

The stockyards teemed with activity its first 100 years.  In 1955 Omaha overtook Chicago as the nation’s largest livestock market and meatpacking center, a position it held until 1973.

Today, the stockyards is but a shell of its former self.  With receipts in steady decline for three decades, it’s systematically shrunk operations to the present 15 acres, dramatically scaled back the market schedule and severely downsized the workforce.  Abandoned pens and dilapidated buildings stand as forlorn reminders of its former greatness.

“We’re not the big yards we used to be,” Hatcher, 60, said.  “It’s not a thriving business the way it used to be.  The only way we’ve been able to keep in business is to reduce the facility in proportion to the reduced demand in the industry.” Those, like Hatcher, who recall the glory years know there can never be a return to the daily spectacle along “L” Street when livestock-laden trucks arriving from points near and far lined-up in a procession running from 36th to 60th, waiting to unload their mooing, squealing, bleating cargo.

“It was a sight to see,” said the City of Omaha’s official historian, Jean Dunbar, who saw the epic lines of trucks with his own eyes.

James Rosse, 95, a former editor with the Daily Journal Stockman and past executive with Livestock Conservation Inc., recalls a banner 1944 pig crop brought a convoy of hog-filled trucks extending to 72nd Street. The congestion got so bad that stockmen often doubled as traffic cops to keep trucks moving smoothly on and off the “L” Street viaduct.  Truckers at the end of the line waited hours before unloading.

“We would on occasion send out coffee and sandwiches to the truckers,” recalls Harold Norman, 77, retired secretary-treasurer of the stockyards.  To try and avert logjams, he said, stalled trucks were pushed to the side.  The addition of chutes speeded up the delivery process.

While trucks replaced trains as the dominant mode of transporting livestock by the 1940s, large numbers of animals continued being shipped by rail through the ‘60s.  The stockyards even operated its own railway to handle incoming and outgoing loads.

“It was a continuous thing of livestock coming in here one day, being sold and then moving out,” Hatcher said from his office in the Livestock Exchange Building, the grand South Omaha landmark that’s long been the headquarters and hub for the livestock industry here.  “Whenever you’ve got thousands and thousands of head of livestock being moved, it’s a real challenge to do that on an orderly basis.  You never had a time, even in the wee hours of the morning, that there wasn’t some livestock either arriving or being delivered out of here.  It was amazing.”

“We were essentially a hotel for livestock — a place to bed, feed and water,” said Norman, adding the company had no stake in animal sales or purchases, but instead made money from yardage fees and office rentals.

More than a hotel, the yards constituted THE central market for livestock producers and buyers in the region.  During its peak years, anywhere from 30,000 to 50,000 head of cattle, 40,000 to 60,000 head of hogs and 10,000 to 20,000 head of sheep arrived weekly via rail and truck.  In a single year as many as six million head of livestock were received, with an estimated value of more than half-a-billion dollars.  By comparison, a good week’s receipts today total 1,000 cattle and 3,000 hogs.

With such a huge volume of activity, crews had to work effiiciently unloading unruly animals, flogging them down chutes and herding them through alleys into open pens.  Once stock was yarded, the real business of the marketplace commenced.  Commission men representing producers negotiated with buyers to obtain the fairest price on cattle, hogs, sheep.  Once a sale was made, the animals were driven to a scalehouse, weighed, and held in pens until the buyer led them off to slaughter or feed.

Somehow, it all worked like a well-oiled machine.  And the next day, the process began all over again.  It still works the same way today, only on a much smaller scale.

The bustling market was a melting pot of diverse interests and types.  A central gathering point where rural and urban America merged.  Where rich cattlemen in gabardine splendor and dapper bankers in double-breasted finery rubbed shoulders with overall-clad farmers and blood, mud, manure-stained laborers.  The massive Exchange Building was an oasis where one could eat a good meal, down a few drinks, buy a cigar, get a haircut, send a telegram and dance the night away in its ballroom.

“I’d like to live those days over again,” Rosse said, “because that was exciting.  There was always something new.”

For all the market’s staggering numbers and feats, one item bears special notice:  Then, as now, livestock deals were made verbally, without a written contract, and sealed with a handshake.

“Millions of dollars changed hands there just on a handshake,” Hatcher said.  “It’s not done in other businesses, where you gotta have contracts and a lawyer standing over each shoulder to make sure all the Is are dotted and Ts are crossed.”

“I can’t believe it yet,” said Rosse, who was also struck by the frank manner buyers and sellers transacted business.  “The way they talked to each other, you’d think they’d never speak to each other again.  They were rather a rough bunch.  They didn’t spend much time at it.  It was either yes or no, and away they’d go.  It was a tough business, and yet they were pals again when they weren’t working.  There was a lot of camaraderie.”

If the stockyards supplied the fuel for this powerful industrial machine, then its engine resided in the many meatpacking plants surrounding it.  Between the plants’ smokestacks and the waste-ridden yards, an acrid odor formed that carried for miles.  The yards, which earned the wrath of neighbors who daily lived with the stench, formed a Stink Committee to handle complaints and find solutions.  “The Smell of Money,” as Omaha historian Jean Dunbar describes it, was a small price to pay as the industry employed thousands and provided thousands more customers for area businesses (bars, eateries, stores) catering to the stock-packing trade.

Said Hatcher, “A lot of businesses sprang up around here and thrived and survived on the people who worked at the market and the packing houses.”  Johnny’s Cafe, the noted steakhouse just east of the yards, benefited from the traffic streaming through. “There was just a huge concentration of people moving in and out of the ag business around here.  We served meals around the clock to the truckers, the cattlemen, the bankers, the commission men…anybody that had anything to do with the livestock industry,” said Jack Kawa, Johnny’s proprietor and a son of its  founder, the late Frank Kawa.

After selling livestock at market many producers spent their profits in South Omaha — on lavish meals or shopping sprees.  “It was kind of a culmination and celebration of feeding cattle or hogs for six or nine months,” Kawa said.  He adds these hearty men lived hard and played hard and concedes the restaurant’s heavy, masculine, western decor and emphasis on beef reflected their tastes.

The combined purchasing power of the stockmen and packers, as well as their customers, pumped countless millions into the South Omaha economy.  Indeed, the community owes its very existence to the stockyards.  What was farm and scrub land sprouted into the city of South Omaha soon after the yards opened in 1884.  An envious Omaha coveted its neighbor to the south and after much resistance finally annexed it in 1916.

If Chicago could rightly be called the city of broad shoulders, then surely Omaha was its husky little brother.  Early Omaha survived as an outfitting haven for Western pioneers and settlers. The growing city continued drawing industry here because of its direct river access and central location.  The event that opened Omaha to serious expansion was the transcontinental railroad’s coming through in the late 1860s.  With Omaha established as a major rail center, it fast became a convenient gateway for transporting goods and services east and west.

It wasn’t long before a group of Omaha businessmen, led by the formidable William A. Paxton, saw the potential for forming a stockyards that could provide a central market for western livestock producers and eastern packers.  At the time, Chicago was the nearest market for western producers, but with further westward expansion it became burdensome to ship cattle so far east.

Paxton, an ex-mule skinner, cattle ranch operator and bridge builder,  defended his stake in the venture from powerful interests that prized it too.

“He definitely was a guy who played hard ball.  He was a very hard-driving guy.  He was truly one of the ground-floor men,” said University of Nebraska at Omaha history professor Harl Dalstrom.

The stockyards deal swung on Paxton securing the backing of Wyoming cattle baron Alexander Swan, who craved a central market for his own vast herds.  Together with such local powerbrokers as John A. McShane and John A. Creighton, these men formed what became known as the Syndicate.  They bought 2,000 acres south of early Omaha, setting aside 200 for the stockyards and the rest for the community they envisioned developing around it.  The Union Stockyards Company opened in 1884 and, just as expected, a full-fledged city soon emerged.

“South Omaha grew up all of a sudden…in less than a generation.  It was a boom town,” said historian Jean Dunbar.   “It did not create the instant rich men that oil or mining towns produced.  South Omaha’s boom produced a lot of good jobs for a lot of immigrants.  It was an immigrant community.  A mosaic of Czechs, Poles, Irish and others.  For them, it was an opportunity to find a new life.  It was hard, dangerous work that took a strong, remarkable breed of men, just like the men it took to farm on the dusty, desert-like Great Plains.”

At first the yards served as little more than a feeding station for stock in-transit to Chicago, and would have remained so without meatpackers  opening plants.  To entice the packers the Syndicate gave away money, land, buildings and shares of stock in the company, and one by one they came, led by the Big Four — Cudahy, Swift, Armour and Wilson.

“The owners of the stockyards paid off these big packers and offered them inducements to do business here,” Dunbar said.  “These were big, powerful men of tremendous personality.  Of course they were acting in their self-interest, but they also risked great sums of their own personal fortune to make Omaha a great city and Nebraska a great state.”

With the packers in place, the yards flourished.  “The stockyards were only the catalyst.  The packing houses were the key. They’re the ones that employed people by the thousands.  The one’s the dog, the other’s the tail,” Dunbar said.

But after four generations of nearly unbroken success, the tide slowly turned and the frontier empire that rose up from nothing diminished in size and importance.  There are many reasons for the decline, but it really all boils down to economics.  It goes back to the mid-1960s, when a shift occurred away from central markets like Omaha’s to a more diffuse, direct marketing system.  When the Big Four found their massive multi-story plants too costly to modernize, they closed them and built smaller ones in rural areas closer to producers and feeders.

Large producers soon realized they had no need to ship to a central market, much less consign livestock to an agent, since packer-buyers were eagerly knocking on their door.  Instead, producers sold directly to buyers, who also found it a more economical way of doing business.  Thus, the traditional role played by a central market like Omaha’s — of bringing together producers and buyers in a competitive arena, became obsolete for most large producers.  The need for a middle man had vanished except for the smallest farmers or ranchers.

A concurrent trend found livestock being raised by fewer and fewer hands, as small farmers-ranchers were bought out or went belly up, leaving production in the hands of relatively few mega-producers who dealt directly with packers. Consequently, the stockyards lost much of its customer-base, causing receipts and profits to dwindle, forcing cutbacks, et cetera.

Another factor accounting for the decline was that as the local livestock industry shrunk, it lost the economic-political clout it once wielded.  The stockyards also lost any leverage it might have still had when, in 1989, the Minneapolis-based United Marketing Services purchased the livestock operation from Canal Capital Corp. of New York.  The deal let Canal retain ownership of all the stockyards’ property and structures, leaving United a tenant subject to the whims of its landlord.  Prior to that the stockyards or its parent company always owned the property and buildings it occupied.

Making matters worse, as the stockyards consolidated on fewer and fewer acres, Canal let abandoned grounds and facilities fall into disrepair.  The blighted areas gave the stockyards a black eye as the public assumed it owned the problem, when Canal actually held title to the land, including buildings the city deemed “unsafe and dangerous” and had begun condemnation procedures on.

“I think we’re taking the rap for their (Canal’s) bad management.  Any of the property we’ve vacated has become an eyesore.  It looks bad for the city.  It looks bad for our livestock operation.  We would dearly love to have it cleaned up and made presentable,” Hatcher said.

A face-lift can’t save the stockyards now, however.  Bowing to pressure, the financially-ailing Canal entered negotiations two years ago with the city for the sale of 57 acres, including all of the stockyards.  Last November, Mayor Hal Daub unveiled the city’s plans for an office park at the site — minus the stockyards.  Metro Community College plans expanding there and is viewed as a magnet for attracting further development.

Hatcher and his bosses tried convincing city officials to allow the stockyards to remain on-site, even on half its present acreage, but officials wouldn’t budge, leaving the company with a December 31, 1999 deadline to leave.  In September, the city completed its purchase of the site.  Plans call for all traces of the stockyards to be razed, except for the Exchange Building, which is slated for renovation.

Meanwhile, Hatcher is looking for new office space for himself and his staff, as the Exchange Building must be vacated by March 31, and is searching for a new site the stockyards may relocate on.  United is commited to keeping a livestock market in the area, but will only relocate if a new site “makes economic sense,” Hatcher said.  The city is legally obligated to help pay the costs of any relocation.

Hatcher is unhappy with the stockyards’ rather ignoble fate, but he realizes why it came about.  In part, it’s a sign of the times.  As Omaha has moved further from its frontier roots and traditional ag-industrial base, the stockyards is viewed as an unwelcome remnant of the past in what is a politically-correct, environmentally-conscious age.  Neighbors and public officials no longer want livestock, or the unpleasant trappings they bring, confined in the middle of a modern city whose mayor is “re-imaging” it as clean, new age, high-tech — not grimy, old world, blue collar.

“People are not tolerant that way anymore,” Hatcher said.  “Manure being spilled on the streets is not tolerated today.  The smells are not tolerated.  The packing houses are not as welcome as they used to be.  People don’t depend on them for their livelihood.  A lot of the people in the city administration, on the city council and in the community don’t think the stockyards and packing houses pay a living wage.  They don’t feel we’re the type of industry they want in their glorious city.  And I feel sorry for them and feel doubly sorry for us and for our customers that depend on us.”

For Harold Norman, the stockyards ex-secretary-treasurer, it’s “a feeling of rejection, because the company was held in high repute for many, many years and now it seems like we don’t have any friends anymore.  Over the years there were people who opposed us but we were big enough that we could stand our own with them, but today…”

“The negative influences created by the livestock market were not desirable to retain in the future,” said Bob Peters, Omaha’s Acting City Planning Director.  “There is a great deal of respect and sympathy for the livestock market and its employees…and a great deal of warm and wonderful memories of the past heydays of the marketplace, however there is a realization that time has passed the market by.”

Hatcher disagrees.  “The stockyards is still a viable, profitable business,” he said.  “We paid all our bills.  We paid our taxes.  We had all our permits and licenses.  We were not asking anyone to subsidize our business.  But the city has told us they don’t want us here anymore.  To see this all come to an end and to think…there will be no legacy…no more ongoing central market here in Omaha, yeah, that saddens me.”

He will miss the yards, but most of all the people.  “I love the people and this business.  It’s been my life.  There are still some young people in the industry who would like to see this particular operation continue.  There’s still a lot of producers out there that would like to see us continue because they have no other choice to market their livestock.  This location is ideal for our customers in Nebraska and Iowa.”

According to James Rosse, “The city fathers have never appreciated what the stockyards meant to them or to the larger agribusiness economy.  This was a livestock center of national and international importance, but they’re trying now to eliminate that picture of Omaha.”

However, Peters insists the city does recognize the stockyards’ significance.  He adds the use of federal funds for the planned redevelopment requires the city to conduct an historic recordation of the stockyards so “the historical and cultural importance of that site is not lost and will be perpetuated forever in a series of documents, drawings, photographs and essays that deal with its development and its relationship to the development of the city and the region.”  The materials will be filed with the Library of Congress.

With the stockyards’ days numbered, perhaps it’s time some thought be given to erecting a permanent display commemorating the enormous commerce it generated and the vital impact it made.  Norman has tried unsuccessfully to launch such a display.  The city has no plans for one.

“It’s obvious this is a big part of our history and I think it needs to be preserved and interpreted to subsequent generations as effectively as we can,” UNO’s Dalstrom said.  Dunbar agrees, suggesting “a Magic City museum could tell the history of a great era in South Omaha.”

Absent any reminder, Omaha may re-cast itself as an ultra modern city but at the expense of sanitizing its rough-and-tumble roots right into oblivion.  With the stockyards demise, more than its mere physical presence will be lost.  Lost too will be a direct link to Omaha’s frontier heritage.  It will join Jobbers Canyon as a casualty to ‘progress,’ leaving one less trace of the burly, brawling, booming industrial center Omaha has been and still is.

Ironically, “stockyards” will likely be part of any name chosen for the office park replacing it.  The question is:  Will future generations know the rich story behind the name?

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