"Nebraska Farmer" magazine
January 15, 1999
Stockyards to leave South Omaha after 115 Years
by Beverly Todd Nolte , Murray, NE
Omaha, Nebraska -- for the last 115 years it has been home to one of the worldâ€™s
largest and most famous livestock markets. By the end of 1999, this Midwestern
community will say good-bye to the landmark operation that helped the city grow from a
dusty cow-town to an international leader in the livestock and meat-packing industry.
With the land sold out from under it, United Market Services, the company that
owns and operates the Omaha Stockyards, is looking for a new location to continue
bringing together farmers, ranchers, commission men and meat packers.
United Market Services learned it lost its lease Dec. 10, 1997, when Omaha
Mayor Hal Daub held a press conference in the Livestock Exchange Building lobby and
announced the city would buy the property the stockyards operates on and turn it into a
business park. The announcement came as a surprise to Carl Hatcher, operations manager
of the stockyards.
â€œIt has been a very disappointing and upsetting situation,â€ Hatcher said. â€œWeâ€™ve
been here for 115 years and were given very little consideration. Weâ€™re still viable, but
the city government has a lot of influence over whether we stay open or close.â€
City officials say the livestock market was left out because it would not be
compatible with the redevelopment plan and is a dying business. â€œTheir numbers are
declining. We believe their operation would cease anyhow,â€ said James Thele, Real
Property Manager with the City of Omaha.
â€œWhen we reached an impasse with the city, we started looking for a new
location,â€ Hatcher said. By early fall, Hatcher hopes to move the livestock market to one
of four sites that are under consideration. The sites, two in Iowa and two in Nebraska,
have current livestock operations and are within 40 to 50 miles of Omaha. â€œThis is a
good location for our Iowa and Nebraska customers and we wanted to maintain it,â€
United Market Service tried to negotiate with the city to maintain the stockyard
operation by consolidating the facilities from the current 15 acres it operates on to 5-6
acres. The best the city offered was a lease extension to January 1, 2000, when the
Omaha stockyards must be fully vacated. By March 31, 1999, the office facilities must
move from the Livestock Exchange Building to space across 29th Plaza in the Auto Park.
Keeping 3,500 customers updated about the situation is a priority for Hatcher. He
assures customers that the stockyards is still an ongoing, viable and profitable business,
and that it will continue operating during the move across the street in March and
relocation to a permanent site later in the year.
Nearly 30 other livestock-related businesses also are relocating, including the
USDAâ€™s market news service. The office, which has produced market reports for sellers
and buyers since 1917, moved to a new office in Kearney, Nebraska.
The City of Omaha and the nonprofit South Omaha Industrial Park Development
Corp. took possession of the 57-acre property Sept. 10, 1998. It purchased the property
for $900,000 from Canal Capital Corp. in New York. With a price tag of $8.2 million,
the redevelopment plan calls for the purchase and demolition of property, which will
begin this summer, followed by the development of streets and utilities in 2000. The city
expects to begin selling parcels of property in 2001.
The only structure that will be saved is 73-year-old Livestock Exchange Building.
Thele says the city is working with the Nebraska Historical Society and the National
Parks Service to restore the building as a National Historic Site.
The Livestock Exchange Building is the last reminder of the golden days when
the Omaha Stockyards was the jewel in Omahaâ€™s crown. It was built by Peter Kiewit and
Sons and was the companyâ€™s first $1,000,000 project.
When the Livestock Exchange Building opened its double set of brass doors in
1926, seven floors were dedicated to 60 commission firms and eight order buyers. Fitted
with mahogany, the Stockyards National Bank took its place on the second floor. Hand-
painted murals featuring farm and ranch scenes ringed the cafeteria. By 1950, more than
1,000 people a day crossed the Italian marbled lobby. The building boasted a first-aid
room with full-time physician, a clothing store, barber shop, cleaners, a market
newspaper and two radio studios. Market reports were broadcast live from KFABâ€™s
studio daily. A soda fountain, telegraph office and a cigar stand, that sold more than
1,500 cigars a day, also served the livestock industry.
The tenth-floor ballroom was the scene of the 1955 annual dinner celebration of
the Union Stock Yards Company (the founding company) when it marked the first of 18
consecutive years that the Omaha Livestock Market held the title of the worldâ€™s largest
livestock market. From 1955 to 1973, a billboard on the edge of the stockyards
proclaimed â€œOmaha, the largest livestock market and meat packing center in the nation.â€
Itâ€™s a sign that would have put a smile of the face of founder Alexander â€œAlecâ€
Hamilton Swan who had the vision to transform the South Omaha whistle-stop for
livestock on its way east into a thriving city and leading center for the livestock market
and meat-packing industry.
In 1882, this Wyoming cattle baron, along with six Omaha businessmen, put
together the capital and land and formed the Union Stockyards Company of Omaha. The
entranapuners included John A. Creighton, whose family founded Creighton University
At the time, cattle were shipped to market in Chicago. Swan was looking for a
closer market. He realized Omahaâ€™s railroad lines, abundant water and grain supplies and
location in the middle of cattle country could make it a leading livestock market. By
1883, the new business had accumulated nearly 2,000 acres of land â€“ 200 acres were set
aside for stockyards and packing house, leaving 1,800 acres for the development of South
The first shipment of 531 cattle arrived August 13, 1884, from Medicine Bow,
Wyoming, in 25 rail cars. Besides cattle, hogs, sheep, buffalo, deer, horses, mules and
chickens were sold on the market in early years. Growth came phenomenally quick to the
livestock market, packing houses and community.
By 1888, the â€œbig fourâ€ packing companies â€“ Hammondâ€™s, Fowler Brothers, Swift
and Company, and Armour-Cudahy â€“ were slaughtering more than 1 million cattle, hogs
and sheep each year. By 1892 the packing plants employed 5,000 people in
â€œPackingtown.â€ And in 1897 Armourâ€™s South Omaha plant was the nationâ€™s largest.By
1934, the big four included Armour, Cudahy, Swift and Wilson.
In 1955, Omaha was the only city in the world where Armour, Swift, Cudahy and
Wilson each slaughtered all three types of animals. And it was Armour who supplied the
American fighting forces and their allies with canned meat during World War II.
South Omahaâ€™s 150 residents of 1885 quickly grew to 8,000 people by 1890. The
first businesses were 15 saloons; churches, schools, hotels, general stores, blacksmiths
and butcher shops soon flourished in South Omaha. By 1908, 35,000 people lived in
South Omaha with one-fourth employed by the stockyards or packing houses.
In 1916, Omaha became the 16th largest city in the nation with the annexation of
South Omaha. The city and the stockyards worked together to improve conditions for the
people who lived and worked there. The famous â€œOâ€ Street viaduct took foot and car
traffic up and over the dangerous rail road tracks was one joint improvement. Two
second-hand bridges â€“ one from Idaho and the other from Wyoming â€“ were purchased
from railroads and spliced together to span the rail yards. The narrow bridge still ferries
traffic from â€œOâ€ Street into the stockyards. Redevelopment plans call for its demolition.
According to the Omaha Daily Journal-Stockman of June 6, 1957, fully one-half
of Omaha was employed in some facet of the livestock industry. And the Omaha
Chamber of Commerce said â€œLivestock is Omahaâ€™s lifeblood.â€ The claim didnâ€™t seem an
exaggeration, as food processing had become Omahaâ€™s number one industry, employing
13,000 people. By 1959, the Omaha World Herald declared the stockyards â€œthe backbone
of Omahaâ€™s economy ever since the first steer trotted into its pens in 1884.â€
The growing industry called for expanded and improved facilities. The stockyards
were under constant renovation.
At the turn of the century, new pens with concrete floors and watering troughs
were added. New scale houses were built. Elevated catwalks above the pens offered a
better view of livestock without having to thread through the maze of pens. A sheep barn
was rebuilt to hold 100,000 animals. In 1914, the new two-block horse and mule barn
was hailed as â€œthe largest and best single barn in the world.â€ It housed the largest ranch
horse market in the world drawing European nations that outfited their armies with
In 1910, 20,000 animals arrived at the market each day from farms and ranches in
20 states (mainly Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Utah and South
Dakota) and Canada, and 10 slaughtering house/packing plants were in operation.
â€œFloggersâ€ drove cattle, hogs and sheep through the alleys and great maze of pens.
It was said that if all the cattle, hogs and sheep that came in 1950 were lined up,
the whole column, walking by a certain point at the rate of one animal per 12 seconds,
would take almost two years of constant marching to get the last animal past the point. It
was calculated that the stockyards did $4,000 of business every minute. The livestock
business overall was so large that the profits from the manure alone rivaled the value of
the Florida citrus crop in 1951 (South Omaha Sun, October 18, 1951).
The 1960s brought change to the livestock market and packing industry. Cudahy
Packing Company stopped production at its South Omaha plant in 1967. The following
year Armour and Company, then Swift, followed suit. In 1968, receipts and revenue were
down for the Union Stockyards Company.
The industry faced major changes in the way livestock were marketed from the
central location of a public livestock market to â€œdirect sellingâ€ from the feedlot. Smaller,
decentralized packers were putting livestock buyers on the road. Smaller farmer-feeders
were soon competing with the large feedyards that found benefits in selling direct to the
More change awaited the Union Stockyards Company in 1973. It lost its title as
the nationâ€™s largest livestock market. Then, the 89-year-old company was sold. It would
change hands two more times in the next 15 years. United Market Service has owned the
company since 1989.
â€œWhile our numbers have dwindled, we still provided a much needed service,â€
says Hatcher, who oversaw the marketing of 197,575 animals in 1997. â€œWe offer a
service where people can bring livestock -- where sellers can get a competitive bid and
buyers can see a large number of livestock. We are the starting point for negotiations.â€
Hatcher, who began working for the stockyards in 1955 while in high school, has
seen the Omaha Stockyards through extreme change. He believes his company will
continue to be a player in the livestock market of the next century by mixing business
with tradition. â€œThis is the only business in the world where millions of dollars change
hands only by a gentlemanâ€™s agreement,â€ Hatcher says. â€œIt has worked for 115 years and
is still working today.â€
Reference: Historical data from:â€œA Century of Marketing Commemorative Book,â€
Omaha Stockyards 1884-1984, published by United Stockyards Corp. Material
obtained from the Nebraska State Historical Society.