Since Bricktown’s revival three decades ago, entertainment districts have emerged across the city, but none can match Stockyards City’s history or western wear options.
Oklahoma City’s first industrial district predates the oil boom and has survived every crisis, the Spanish flu and COVID-19.
“I’m 45 and I’ve been coming to the Stockyards since I was 5,” said Kelli Payne, CEO and chair of the Oklahoma National Stockyards board of directors. “Our industry is very invested in this community and in preserving our way of life.”
In 1992, Stockyards City became a Main Street urban project, which led to it becoming a tourist destination in the Old West.
Born in a fog of high crime and misdemeanor, Stockyards City is now where families go for holiday parades and where real cowboys still go to work.
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No weak stomach in Packingtown
Violence was no stranger to what was first called Packingtown; it was part of the job. Cattle processing was bloody and grueling work.
People looking to wet their whistle with a libation in dry Oklahoma need look no further than Packingtown where places like the Stockman Cafe sold liquor in the stable.
But on July 23, 1923, its owner, Charles Pinkerton, was found shot dead in his barn, a .38 thrown next to his lifeless body.
The police knew the barn. They had already attacked him. However, an 18-year-old named Hurley Slitt, a juvenile delinquent since he smashed a downtown streetlight in 1918, confessed to the shooting but claimed self-defense. Witnesses, however, said the shooting took place after Pinkerton kicked Slitt out of Stockman’s the previous Saturday for flirting with his 16-year-old stepdaughter.
The Stockman’s dangerous practice of topping up the service with hooch was the norm in Packingtown cafes, except for one.
“It was strange because (Cattlemen’s) was the haunt of smugglers and gamblers, but the driest cafe in town,” according to a 1985 interview with former Stock Yards Bank chairman Bob Empie.
Current Cattlemen owner Dick Stubbs has a theory as to why then-owner Hank Frey didn’t sell alcohol.
“Frey really controlled the bootlegging activity in Oklahoma City,” Stubbs said. “He lived in one of the upstairs apartments, and that’s where a lot of the gambling was going on.”
Frey’s position in the underworld had its advantages.
“We would have advance warning if bank robbers were heading into Oklahoma City,” Empie recalls. “The police would come and occupy rooms above the bank and in the nearby pharmacy. There was never a robbery.”
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Giving birth to a cash cow
At statehood, the parcel of land now called Stockyards City was flat prairie with good access to the Santa Fe Railroad. Greater Oklahoma City Chamber President Sidney Brock bet it was ideal for new meatpacking plants.
He sent letters in 1908 to factories in the north and east, touting vacant land.
Chicago’s Nelson Morris & Co. responded with a $3 million slaughterhouse and meatpacking plant.
To get it, local investors invested $300,000 in it, the city added hydro, sewer and streetcar lines, and no municipal or county taxes were collected for five years.
Then Morris, which became Armor, established a stock exchange called the Oklahoma National Stockyards Co. in October 1910.
Packingtown was visited by 15,000 people on the day the first factory opened, according to news reports.
Several months later, Schwarzchild & Sulzberger of New York (later Wilson) made a similar deal plus a fire station. Ancillary businesses followed and soon Packingtown was employing over 24,000 people while Oklahoma City’s population was 60,000.
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Packingtown to Stockyards City
As lucrative as the packing houses were, they brought environmental concerns that eventually drove them out of town. The Wilson factory closed in 1979 as part of nearby urban renewal.
But foresight prevailed.
“In 1978, George Hall and local businesses formed the Stockyards Town Council to protect against the wrecking ball,” Payne said.
Stockyards City Council led a campaign to have a four-block area of old Packingtown listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. This made Stockyards City, which entered the local lexicon after World War II, the official name.
In 1991, the National Main Street Center accepted Stockyards City’s request for urban revitalization.
“We were the first location west of the Mississippi selected,” Stubbs said.
He said the selection not only secures the future of Stockyards City, but also that of Cattlemen’s Steakhouse.
“The area had gotten a bad rap, and it was for good reason,” Stubbs said. “We had to change that.”
Gas lamps were installed and wooden exteriors rejuvenated around the main plaza, and a new walkway over Agnew Avenue was erected in 2009.
Exchange Pharmacy opened in 1910, Langston’s was founded in 1913 and moved to the Stockyards in 1952, while the National Saddlery and Wright Library opened in 1926.
Shorty’s Caboy Hattery, 30, is barely beyond puberty by Stockyards City standards.
Food and drink today is pure Wild West at McClintock Saloon, Stockyards Sarsaparilla and Cattlemen’s, but Taqueria Los Comales offers a contrast to authentic Mexican cuisine.
Rodeo Cinema took over the former Rodeo Opry theater in 2019, adding a modern dimension to the Stockyards experience.
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It’s old hat to find boots, belts, buckles, Stetsons and beaded snap shirts in Stockyards City because the area is still a hub for working cowboys.
Parades were nothing new to the area before the Main Street campaign, but Stockyards City now hosts annual parades for St. Patrick’s Day and Christmas.
“We just had the Christmas parade last month,” Payne said. “We had between 5,000 and 7,000 people.
And the public can still attend livestock auctions on Mondays and Tuesdays.
“Auctions are really at the heart of Stockyards City,” Payne said. “We love for audiences to come out and experience it with us.”
A fifth-generation rancher, Payne wears her cowgirl pride like a badge.
“These people are resilient by nature, but when you know everyone is counting on you, there’s nothing you can’t get through, including a pandemic.”