Tumbleweed Smith
Tumbleweed Smith

The cowboy era, which brings up images of trail drives and things having to do with cattle and life on the range, lasted less than 20 years, but the legacy of that time carries through to today.

When I was growing up in Fort Worth I used to drive to the stockyards to pick up sides of beef for my father’s grocery store. Being there made me feel like a cowboy.

After the Civil War, Americans acquired a taste for beef. There was plenty of it on hoof in Texas, where cattle sold for four dollars a head. In Kansas, the same cow brought 40 dollars. So great cattle drives started from the Rio Grande northward.

The Chisholm Trail passed through Fort Worth. When the railroad arrived in 1876, Fort Worth became a major shipping point for livestock. So the city built the stockyards two- and-a-half miles north of the Tarrant County Court House. They opened in 1887.

One of the investors was Louville Niles of Boston, whose primary business was meatpacking. He convinced the investors that instead of shipping the cattle to other markets to be processed, they should build meat packing plants. So by 1900 both Swift and Armour started building facilities. They were completed in 1902.

That same year the Livestock Exchange Building was built which housed livestock commission companies, telegraph and railroad offices and other support businesses. It became known as the Wall Street of the West.

In 1911 the stockyards and packinghouse area became a little village called Niles City, which at the time was known as the richest little city in the world with a property value of 30 million dollars. In 1923 it was annexed as part of Fort Worth.

The stockyards needed a show facility, so in 1907 construction began on the Cowtown Coliseum. It became home to the first indoor rodeo.
Five million head of livestock passed through the Stockyards. In 1917, during World War One, the stockyards were the largest horse and mule market in the world. Military officers came from allied countries to purchase animals.

The peak year for the stockyards was in 1944. Then began the decline of the railroads, which brought about the decline of the stockyards. After WWII, newly paved roads gave rise to the trucking industry, so the market moved to ranches and feed lots. Armour closed in 1962, Swift in 1971. The Armour plant was demolished, but Swift became the Old Spaghetti Warehouse. Now it houses an energy company.

In 1976 some citizens established the North Fort Worth Historical Society, which helped organize the Stockyards National Historical District. They built a museum in the Exchange Building.

The area is one of the state’s most popular tourist attractions. Visitors enjoy a little bit of the old west with the twice daily cattle drives at 11:30 AM and 4 PM when cowboys on horseback guide a herd of longhorns down exchange avenue.