For 150 years, people living and working in and around the Stockyards District in Fort Worth, Texas, seem to have been born with a double dose of resiliency, possessing a particular attitude that comes to the surface when someone tells them something cannot be done.
In 1876, when the Texas and Pacific Railroad stopped just shy of the city limits, the people of Fort Worth—spawned from an Army outpost nearly 30 years before—knew they needed that railroad. In response to that need, everyday citizens rolled up their sleeves and laid the last 36 miles of track themselves.
For nearly the next century, the growing cattle industry was king at the Stockyards. From the trail driving days when Fort Worth was the perfect stopover for drovers taking their herds north to Abilene, Kan., to the era of big-time, on-site meat processing by the Armour and Swift companies, the Fort Worth Stockyards was a burgeoning, thriving hub of activity and commerce.
Today, the Stockyards Museum—chock-full of cool cowboy items, fabulous vintage photos, and all sorts of historic memorabilia—tells the story of that era. Housed with a few other businesses in the 1902 Livestock Exchange building, the original vaults with ornate doors and substantial combination locks still line the hallways of the historic building.
Teresa Burleson, Director of the museum, and Ed Brown, a volunteer, explain that the amount of money being made in those early-1900s cattle boom days made the vaults necessary. Not surprisingly, the Fort Worth Stockyards became known as the “Wall Street of the West.”
On a tour of the Fort Worth Stockyards, Brown points out the location and remnants of the old Armour and Swift meat processing plants that drove the local economy for decades, starting in 1902. The volume of cattle, hogs, and sheep that were processed there boggles the mind. According to the museum, 1944 was the peak year of production, when more than 5.2 million head of livestock were processed.
Describing the infrastructure needed to handle so many animals, Brown shows us the old cattle chutes, the building where the stock were weighed, and the wooden cattle pens which, at one time, numbered more than 2,600. The smaller pens held about 15 head, and the larger ones 25, or more. Referring back to the earlier cattle drive days of the 1870s, Brown speaks of nearby Hell’s Half Acre—a notorious section of Fort Worth filled with gambling halls, saloons, and brothels. So many drovers, cowboys, and other men poured into this den of iniquity, that Hell’s Half Acre actually sprawled across 2.5 acres.
“We do things big here in Texas,” Brown declares with a Lone Star grin.
There’s an old saying, “Make hay while the sun shines,” which is exactly what the business people of the Stockyards did for nearly three-quarters of a century. However, as is often the case, the good days could not last forever. Because of evolving customer demands and the emergence of local livestock exchanges, both Armour and Swift closed their plants by 1971. Thousands of people lost their jobs and related businesses suffered equally. To most, it looked like the sun had set on the Fort Worth Stockyards.
That is, except for Steve Murrin and a loosely organized, but growing contingent of folks who envisioned a retooling and re-launching of the Stockyards. Rather than erasing their cattle heritage, as the city politicians wanted to do, these historically minded visionaries wanted to celebrate it.
Over breakfast with Murrin at Esperanza’s—a not-to-be-missed restaurant with “south of the border” flair about two blocks from the bustling intersection of North Main Street and Exchange Avenue—he explains that local government officials “wanted to put an industrial park [in the Stockyards.] You can put an industrial park anywhere.” Murrin began purchasing real estate in the area in 1974, he says, and “when they started talking about tearing everything down, we had to think about what we were losing.”
In response to those potential losses, a dream that the Stockyards could once again be a thriving place began to develop, and that don’t-tell-me-it-can’t-be-done attitude among Stockyards people was kicked back into high gear. Preserving the history, reviving the businesses that had made it through the lean years, seeing new shops and restaurants come in, attracting visitors from across the country and the world—this was going to happen. And it would happen with those invaluable, old-school commodities of determination, perseverance, hard work, that old Stockyards attitude, and probably a beer or two.
The loosely organized became legitimately organized and the Fort Worth Stockyards National Historic District and the North Fort Worth Historical Society were established. Looking back, it’s clear that experiences sought and found by visitors today are very much the result of efforts made in the early days of the new, historic Stockyards.
In the present day, the Fort Worth Stockyards appears to be on the verge of yet another chapter in its storied history. A large real estate development firm is considering investing in the redevelopment of certain areas of the Stockyards. While the Stockyards community welcomes the investment, concerned area business people and residents are seeking to ensure that anything done at the Stockyards is done in the right way. “It’s just as critical at this stage as in ’75,” says Murrin.
As a visitor to the Stockyards, pinpointing what to do first is a true challenge, especially when the options include grabbing a meal at one of the many great steakhouses, swinging into the iconic M.L. Leddy’s boot and saddle shop, trotting over to Billy Bob’s Texas—advertised as the World’s Biggest Honky Tonk—or watching Fort Worth’s famous herd of Longhorns being driven through the middle of the historic district. The point is, thanks to Murrin and a cast of many others from the mid-1970s through the present, there is an abundance of fun and good times to be had in the Stockyards, and it is all anchored in the rich cattle culture that made the town great in the first place.
Across Exchange Avenue from the Stockyards museum is the Texas Rodeo Cowboy Hall of Fame, boasting stories of nearly 400 honorees—men, women, livestock, and organizations that have made significant contributions to the sport of rodeo in Texas and the world. Neighboring shops sell shirts, mugs, Texas memorabilia, and, of course, cowboy hats, and just down the street, on the corner of Exchange Avenue and Main Street, is the White Elephant Saloon—a happening watering hole with daily live music and a Wild West vibe. The White Elephant was one of the pioneer establishments to open in the early years of the Stockyards’ rebirth.
Drawing me in like a compass needle to the North Pole, however, is M.L. Leddy’s, marked by an enormous, boot-shaped, retro neon sign that hangs from the building and dominates the corner opposite the White Elephant Saloon. This legendary establishment opened its doors in the Stockyards in 1941 and family-run roots can be traced back four generations. Fine hats, buckles, belts, and men’s and women’s clothing have been sold across that span of time, but the foundation of Leddy’s, both yesterday and today, is saddles and boots. Upon entering the store, the smell of leather welcomes visitors, as does the staggeringly wide selection of cowboy boots, which run the gamut in price and style.
Also running the gamut—twice, daily—between throngs of crowds and tantalizing storefronts is the Fort Worth Stockyards herd of Longhorn cattle as they are driven right down Exchange Avenue, in front of the Livestock Exchange building, by skilled cowboys in authentic, cattle-drive-era clothing. Whether 4 years old or 94, everyone loves this event, and especially the frontier-esque photo op it provides. Begun in 1999, The Herd is comprised of a dozen-and-a-half steers sporting names such as Rojo, Texas Red, Valentino, and Imperial Chex, and is managed by trail boss Kristin Jaworski—a veteran cattlewoman who has been running the show since 2002.
Once The Herd clears, it’s a quick hop over to Stockyards Station to catch a gunslinging act performed by the Legends of Texas each weekend. Train tracks that bring the Grapevine Vintage Railroad—home of the oldest continuously operating steam engine in the South—to the Stockyards on most weekends, run right through the middle of the open-air structure, which is lined with places to eat, a Cowboy Church, and a fun collection of shops offering everything from Western clothing, to souvenirs, to the biggest selection of beef jerky you have ever seen. And amidst all of it, a band of outlaws puts on a showdown that, of course, culminates with the lawman making sure the bad guys get what they deserve. Plenty of laugh-out-loud comedy is woven into the routine, and the authentic get-ups the Legends wear are nothing short of fabulous. From the hats and boots to the vests, badges, and mustaches, the Legends of Texas are over the top.
Having survived all the flying lead, my party heads down to Cattlemen’s Steakhouse, which opened its Stockyards doors in 1947. Now in its 70th year, this legendary restaurant serves premium beef to its guests, along with rustic wood décor, an unpretentious Old West feel, and many smiling faces. We settle in, look over the menus and—with no prompting from each other—order a round of Kansas City Strips. Our plates arrive, we sink our teeth into the choice cuts, and find ourselves somewhere between The Stockyards and Heaven.
The Legends of Texas crew also chose to visit Cattlemen’s in an effort to quench the thirst they worked up in the gunfight. They welcome us over and we shoot the bull for a while about the Stockyards, Wild West history, and what is involved in acting out a gunfight. I explain that I’m headed to Cowtown Coliseum, where every weekend afternoon, Pawnee Bill’s Wild West show takes place in this monumental, 3,400-seat arena that was built in 1908. On Friday and Saturday nights, it is the Stockyards Championship Rodeo, run by Hub Baker, that draws the crowds. At the mention of Baker, almost in unison, the Legends point to the next table and say, “He’s right there.”
Baker’s party is equally hospitable and, in no time, we are immersed in all things Stockyards Rodeo,from the layout of the arena, to the competitors, to the popularity of the event. Then, it is time to get to the Coliseum and experience the night’s action.
In the American tradition of rodeo, the event opens with a horseback rider carrying an American flag and circling the arena to the sounds of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.,” followed by a prayer for the contestants’ safety and the singing of our National Anthem. As the evening unfolds, the excitement of bronc riding, barrel racing, team roping, and bull riding, as expected, has the crowd pleased. Folks from home and abroad threw on their cowboy hats, snap selfies of their groups, and cannot seem to wipe the smiles off their faces—a common sentiment of the tens of thousands of yearly spectators to witness the only year-round rodeo in the world.
Walking into the historic Stockyards Hotel at the end of the night, guests passing through its front doors are seamlessly transported to the early 1900s. A decorative stamped ceiling with fans lazily spinning, cowhide-covered chairs beside leather-clad couches, and Will Rogers smiling at me from a large portrait in the open stairway, all add to the aura of the Wild West. Guests in modern attire mingle about, but it is hard to avoid the anticipation that someone from long ago is about to come around the corner or through the doors of Booger Red’s, the saloon adjacent to the lobby. Possibly it would be Clyde Barrow heading back upstairs to confer with Bonnie Parker about their next heist. (The notorious couple were guests of the hotel in 1933.)
Once upon a time, George Strait—who has played Billy Bob’s a time or two—asked the question, “Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind?”Modern-day Fort Worth is a big place and the Stockyards District is just one part of it, but take one stroll along Exchange Avenue with The Herd of Longhorns pushing your way, or one whiff of leather at Leddy’s, one country tune enjoyed at Billy Bob’s, or one cheer given for the best bull ride of the night at Cowtown Coliseum and you will certainly say “yes.” The Fort Worth Stockyards will cross your mind for a long time to come, and more than likely, thanks to the “Get ’er Done” mindset and the incredible vision of the Stockyards people, you’ll be smiling when it does.