After returning to Kansas City from an Iowa interview during a break in the recent snow storms, I traveled through the West Bottoms on my way to the Western Farm Show. I'll admit I hadn't been through this historic part of downtown before, but what stood out to me, along with the American Royal Center, was the old Kansas City Livestock Exchange Building – a perfect example of how tightly wound urban centers are with agriculture. Some might say the old stockyards made Kansas City a contender for the dominant Midwest metropolis, although Chicago has maintained this title.
Like many urban stockyards, Kansas City's flourished in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It operated until 1991, when, like many urban stockyards, it shut down. The 1951 flood played a role in shutting down the local packing plants, followed by a gradual shift in farmers dealing directly with packers and moving to regional auction barns. This is apparent in many small Midwest towns – a departure from the usual rural flight trend.
In its heyday, it was crucial to the development of Kansas City and beef producers various parts of the country. According to KCLibrary.org, it was at one point the second busiest in the nation after Chicago's. Developer J.C. Nichols once said, "There never would have been a Country Club Plaza had it not been for the livestock industry." The American Royal Center is still going strong and serves as a reminder of this importance, hosting several big agriculture events each year.
The Stockyard District also serves as a reminder. While the Livestock Exchange Building now houses offices, just across the street is the well-known steakhouse, Golden Ox Restaurant and Lounge, signifying Kansas City's barbeque heritage. The restaurant, called "The real reason Kansas City is famous for steak," was originally built to serve farmers and ranchers who made their way to the stockyards.
Both Chicago and Kansas City's stockyards have drawn criticism – anyone who has read or heard of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle knows of this. The Kansas City Star article, "Beef's Raw Edges," references the rise and fall of the stockyards. While sources in the article criticized beef production practices, the article still pointed out the importance the stockyards played in not only building Kansas City but also helping immigrants rise from the working class to middle class.