By Michael Schuman
FOR THE TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Travel back to 1849. A troop of soldiers is ordered to northeast Texas to protect settlers scattered along the wild southern plains. One soldier writes, "Buffalo all around. There were more panthers than I have seen before or since. Antelope without number, and wild turkeys in every tree."
The soldiers proceed to build a fort and name it in honor of Maj. Gen. William Jenkins Worth. Fort Worth, Texas, is born.
Skip ahead 17 years to 1866, the first full year of peace since the Civil War ended. As in most wars, sacrifices were called for. Now, those who did their parts want the good life again. They desire shoes on their children's feet, and meat on the kitchen table. Way down in Texas, longhorns are running free on the open range. If only Texans could get these cattle to a railroad, what beef bonanza there would be!
Young men hired to drive longhorns across the Chisholm Trail, beginning in Forth Worth through Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) to Abilene, Kan., the closest railroad stop. And an American icon, the cowboy, is born.
Fast forward to the 21st century. It is over 150 years since Fort Worth's founding. In the city's Stockyards area, a national historic district, the cowboy and the mythology surrounding him are celebrated. So are the railroad, the ranchers, the meat packers, the auctioneers and everyone else who had anything to do with bringing meat to market.
Yet there has been something missing in today's stockyards: cattle. That changed a few years ago. In honor of the city's sesquicentennial, a new tradition began. Twice a day, roughly a dozen cattle are corralled and driven to the city's Trinity River to graze to their bovine hearts' content before being returned to Stockyards area pens. There, modern-day cowboys chat with visitors about the industry which turned this fort city on the plains into Cowtown USA.
To add a full dinner to this hors d'oeuvre, take a guided walking tour of the Stockyards district. Today, many of the cattle pens are home to shop selling Western art and apparel and restaurants serving catfish and barbecue. Many tourists who browse the stores in Stockyards station or along Exchange and Main streets think they've seen the stockyards. What they've seen is a prime example of adaptive reuse. The tour allows visitors inside places which would otherwise deny them entrance. And even those places they can enter mean little without worlds to put them in the perspective of history.
For example, one learns that cattle drives continued along the Chisholm Trail well into the 1890s when Fort Worth boosters began seriously looking into building their own meat-packing plants.
A local newspaper explained why. "Steaks should be sweet and juicy. Yet, cattle arrive in the North exhausted from riding in a crowded boxcar with little food or water. They suffer shrinkage. The juices in their meat have evaporated. And those Northerners must eat dry, tasteless steak."
Local prayers were answered by corporate gods named Armour and Swift. The Chicago-based meat-packing firms had Fort Worth plants up and running by 1904. Northerners now had their steaks sweet and juicy.
In the late 1950s, they still had sweet and juicy steaks, although Fort Worth's big plants had less to do with it. By then trucks were moving meat. Since proximity to a railroad was no longer necessary, there were smaller, streamlined competitors. The huge packing plant was an anachronism. Armour shut down its Fort Worth plant in 1962, Swift in 1971. The plants were razed. Armour's office burned in the late 1960s. Swift's office is today an Italian restaurant.
At one point, a guide escorts visitors to the top of an elevated catwalk, where they overlook rows of animal pens where live beef lived in one-room, open-air apartments. Today, it's a livestock ghost town with cement troughs and brick floors still in place. Why were cattle pens paved with brick? Brick is fireproof and easy to wash with a hose, and clean animals in the stockyard meant clean animals at the packing house.
The view from the catwalk emblemizes the city of Fort Worth. At one's feet are the cattle pens; two miles distant is the downtown skyline; iron and wood with a backdrop of steel and glass. There are plans to put the pens to use once more, to hold cattle for sales of special breeds.
In 1960, an auction arena was built. Cattle were taken from the pens to the arena, still used today for private speciality sales. Because of the arena's rickety seats and ragged upholstery, we chose to sit at the base of the chairs to watch a three-minute videotape in which a motor-mouthed auctioneer spews current prices as the animals parade below. Yes, some cliches are real.
Today, most cattle are sold via closed-circuit television. Animals no longer have to be moved and cattlemen no longer need to leave their homes. A camera operator takes a portable camera into the pasture and videotapes the cattle. Telephone operators in Fort Worth take bids from ranchers across the country.
One place those not on a guided tour can step inside is the Stockyard Museum. It holds a pleasant clutter of items no early 20th-century resident of Fort Worth would have been without: a washboard, a sewing machine, saddles. There are also Swift and Armour employee group photographs taken during the depths of the Great Depression.
"We had probably every country in Europe represented here," said Sue McCafferty, former president of the North Fort Worth Historical Society. "Czechs, Greeks, Germans, as well as Blacks and Hispanics all worked here. Each had their own church which was also their cultural center. Everyone had their own identity but they lived and worked together."
The noise and commotion has been transferred a bit north to a former animal exhibition barn that is home to Billy Bob's, promoted as the world's largest honky-tonk (capacity 6,000). It was often said when the site was in its first incarnation that workers came here after hours to clean up after the animals. Today, it is said that workers come here after hours to clean up after the party animals.
The walking tour took us where no uninvited person can go - backstage, where the best of country music have left their own souvenirs. Alan Jackson, Garth Brooks, Tanya Tucker, Carlene Carter, Willie Nelson, the guys in Exile and so many others have autographed the walls in Billy Bob's dressing room. In a nearby hallway is the wall of fame, where many of the same have their handprints embedded, a la Hollywood Boulevard, in cement. Jackson's and Brook's are dotted with lipstick prints; Nelson's is cracked.
If you do not stay at the Stockyards Hotel (outlaws Bonnie and Clyde did in the 1930s), at least take a walk through Booger Red's Saloon, named for a Texas rodeo star. The bar stools have saddles on them and jutting out from the tin ceiling are belt-driven fans. Across the street is the White Elephant saloon where myriad cowboy hats are displayed. To allow for increased seating, the restaurant portion of Booger Red's was expanded and reopened in 1998 in an adjacent room as Hunter Brothers H3 Ranch.
More icons of the West are outside. In front of the Cowtown Coliseum is a bronze sculpture of African-American cowboy Bill Pickett, twisting and turning with steer in hand. At the corner of North Main Street and Stockyard Boulevard is "Texas Gold," one of the world's largest bronze castings, portraying a cowboy leading his herd up the trail.
If the West doesn't begin in Fort Worth, it certainly thrives here.
OTHER HERITAGE SITES
More sites relating to Fort Worth's Western heritage are outside the Stockyards. A treat: there is no admission to any of the following:
# THE CATTLEMAN'S MUSEUM, 1301 W. Seventh St., (817) 332-7064. Life-size dioramas, talking mannequins, interactive displays, and collections of cowboy boots, barbed wire (one cannot imagine the different types) and saddles highlight the museum. Learn how computers are used to track today's cattle thieves. The museum is located inside Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Foundation headquarters.
# CHISHOLM TRAIL MURAL: The impressive trompe l'oeil ("fool the eye") mural, painted by Richard Haas, covers an outside wall of the Jett Building in Sundance Square downtown. It depicts two cowboys on horseback watching over a cattle roundup and it appears that the longhorns are charging right off the building.
# SID RICHARDSON COLLECTION OF WESTERN ART: 309 Main St., (817) 332-6554. Also in Sundance Square, the gallery consists of paintings by Western artists Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell.
# AMON CARTER MUSEUM: 3501 Camp Bowie Blvd., (817) 738-1933. Located in the Cultural District, the museum has a huge Western collection.
The museum is located inside the Livestock Exchange Building, built in 1902 in the Spanish mission style and according to McCafferty, "the most modern building that could be built at the time." It was also long known as the "Wall Street of the West." At one time, commission companies had offices here, along with a bank, post office, and rail and telegraph offices. Activity was as hectic as it was on the floor at the other Wall Street. Today, things are more placid. THe offices of the Texas Angus Association, Superior Livestock Auction (a video auction production company) and several unrelated businesses are here.
INFORMATION: Fort Worth Convention & Visitors Bureau, 415 Throckmorton, Fort Worth, TX 76102-7410; phone, (817) 336-8791 or (800) 433-5747; fax, (817) 336-3282; www.forthworth.com or www.forthworth150.com.