At first glance, it’s a bit like Disneyland, a facade of “old Texas” eager to part swarms of tourists from their dollars. Ten dollars for parking, five to take a photo of your child on a longhorn steer, and unknown amounts to ride the electronic bull or try to find your way through a maze built of cattle pens and fencing. And yet, beneath the capitalist exterior, excited children, and rows of souvenir shops lies something that is, at its heart, real. The Fort Worth Stockyards are touristy, yes, and kitschy. But for almost a hundred years, this place was the heart of a booming livestock trade, where millions – yes, millions – of cattle, sheep, and pigs were bought, sold, traded, and slaughtered to provide a growing United States with much of its meat supply.
The first thing I notice is the smell. Rather, I notice a series of smells. There is the smell of livestock, of cattle and horses that call this place home. There is the smell of barbecue, as apparently nothing makes one hungrier for meat than meeting those very animals. There is the smell of exhaust as the trucks – most people in Texas seem to opt for pickup trucks – pass down the central road toward one of half a dozen parking lots. And there is the smell of leather from any number of shops selling hats and boots, quintessential Texas souvenirs for the eager tourist trying to fit in with the local stereotype. (Many visitors are indeed wearing such things, though I have no way of knowing if it is part of their daily wear or simply dressing up for the occasion.)
I bypass the most touristy-looking gimmicks and head for the cattle pens. The Fort Worth Stockyards has a herd of 22 longhorn steers, and I climb onto a viewing platform to see them better. They are truly magnificent animals. Horns can grow up to eleven feet from tip to tip, though these are smaller, albeit still impressive.
From the end of the Civil War until the establishment of the railroads in Fort Worth in 1876, cattle from south Texas were driven north to be sold for higher profit in Kansas, where the rail terminuses were. The route taken was known as the Chisholm Trail, named for Jesse Chisholm, a Cherokee merchant. The route actually comes down the main road here at the Fort Worth Stockyards, and so here the tradition of the cattle drive lives on.
Each day at 11:30am and 4pm, the local herd of 22 longhorn steers are marched down the street to the delight of tourists, led by a few horseback cowboys. The event is tame, although frequent warnings to stay on the curb, combined with the size and pointiness of the long horns, lead me to believe that perhaps it can get a bit more, uh, exciting. I stay back just in case, as being gored is not on my to-do list for my visit here.
Texas longhorn cattle actually faced near extinction in the early 20th century. Their meat was less valued, so herds were virtually nonexistent, with enclosed ranches making their ability to subsist on poor vegetation less prized. The 1917 adoption of the longhorn as the mascot of the University of Texas led to some positive publicity, and in 1927 a breeding program was started. Today, these magnificent creatures are valued for their appearances, and are the dominant breed for rodeo and parades. (Those interested in seeing a rodeo can do so here on weekends, with the historic Cowtown Coliseum hosting the experience.)
In 1890, the Fort Worth Union Stockyards opened. It covered 206 acres, making use of both the nearby Trinity River and railroads for transportation needs. By 1907, more than a million cattle were sold here each year, along with millions of sheep and pigs, led by Swift and Armour, two of the most successful packing houses. Today, 46 of the historic buildings remain, most notably the Livestock Exchange Building. Many of the storefronts are also built into historic facades.
Waving at cattle and shopping (I don’t buy anything, but I do consider a hat for a brief moment before realizing I’d never wear it again) done, it is time to eat. Riscky’s BBQ seems to be the happening spot. (Note: you will NOT be eating the longhorn herd, in case that is an issue.) They offer a special of all-you-can-eat beef ribs for $15, and I demolish seven of the behemoths before giving up and conceding defeat. (My server says the record is upwards of 40, which gives me a stomach ache to think about.)
Fort Worth, shockingly the twelfth largest city in the country, is known as Cowtown. The Fort Worth Stockyards is the reason why. Here, visitors can have an experience that is authentic and kitschy in relatively equal parts. One can celebrate the history of both the city and its historically important meat industry in a method that seems completely removed from the morbid realities of that past life. Here, old Texas meets modern capitalist culture, and somehow it works for me.
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