The Chicago Stockyards – American Travel

IT is rather widely known, I think, that Chicago built the first steel-frame skyscraper—the Tacoma Building—but I do not believe that the world knows that Kohlsaat’s in Chicago was the first quick-lunch place of its kind, or that the first “free lunch” in the country was established, many years since, in the” basement saloon at the corner of State and Madison Streets. Considering the skyscrapers and quick lunches and free lunches that there are to-day, it is hard to realize that there ever was a first one anywhere. But the origin of things which have become national institutions, as these things have, seems to me to be worth recording here. It may be added that the loyal Chicagoan who told of these things seemed to be prouder of the “free lunch” and the quick lunch than of the skyscraper.

Of two things I mentioned to him he was not proud at all. One was the famous pair of First Ward aldermen who have attained a national fame under their nicknames, “Hinky Dink” and “Bathhouse John.” The other was the stockyards.

“Why is it,” he asked in a bored and irritated tone, “that every one who comes out here has to go to the stockyards?”

“Are you aware,” I returned, “that half the bank clearings of Chicago are traceable to the stockyards ?” He answered with a noncommittal grunt.

His was not’ the attitude of the Detroit man who wants you to know that Detroit does something more than make automobiles, or of the Grand Rapids man who says: “We make lots of things here besides furniture.” He was really ashamed of the stockyards, as a man may, perhaps, be ashamed of the fact that his father made his money in some business with a smell to it. And because he felt so deeply on the subject, I had the half idea of not touching on the stockyards in this chapter.

However the- news that my companion and myself were there to “do” Chicago was printed in the papers, and presently the stockyards began to call us up. It didn’t even ask if we were coming. It just asked when. And as I hesitated, it settled the whole matter then and there by saying it would call for us in its motor car, at once.

I may say at the outset that, to quote the phrase of Mr. Freer of Detroit, the stockyards “has no esthetic value.” It is a place of mud, and railroad tracks, and cattle cars, and cattle pens, and overhead runways, and great ugly brick buildings, and men on ponies, and raucous grunts, and squeals, and smells—a place which causes the heart to sink with a sickening heaviness.

Our first call was at the Welfare Building, where we were shown some of the things which are being done to benefit employees of the packing houses. It was noon-time. The enormous lunch room was well occupied. A girl was playing ragtime at a piano on a platform. The room was clean and airy. The women wore aprons and white caps. A good lunch cost six cents. There were iron lockers in the locker room—lockers such as one sees in an athletic club. There were marble shower baths for the men and for the women. There were two manicures who did nothing but see to the hands of the women working in the plant. There were notices of classes in housekeeping, cooking, washing, house furnishing, the preparation of food for the sick—signs printed in English, Russian, Slovak, Polish, Bohemian, Hungarian, Lithuanian, German, Norwegian, Swedish, Croatian, Italian, and Greek. Obviously, the company was doing things to help these people. Obviously it was proud of what it was doing. Obviously I should have rejoiced, saying to myself : “See how these poor, ignorant foreigners who come over here to our beautiful and somewhat free country are being elevated!” But all I could think of was: “What a horrible place the stock-yards is! How I loathe it here !”

On the North Side of Chicago there is an old and exclusive club, dating from before the days of motor cars, which is known as the Saddle and Cycle Club. The lunch club for the various packing-house officials, at the stockyards, has a name bearing perhaps some satirical relation to that of the other club.. It is called the Saddle and Sirloin Club, and in that club I ate a piece of sirloin the memory of which will always remain with me as something sacred..

After lunching and visiting the offices of a packing company where, we were told, an average daily business of $1,300,000 is done—and the place looks it—we visited the Stockyards Inn, which is really an astonishing establishment. The astonishing quality about it is that it is a thing of beauty which has grown up in a place as far removed from beauty as any that I ever looked upon outside a mining camp. A charming, low, half-timbered building, the Inn is like something at Stratfordon-Avon; and by some strange freak of chance the man who runs it has a taste for the antique in furniture and chinaware.. Inside it is almost like a fine old country house—pleasant cretonnes, grate fires, old Chippendale chairs, mahogany tables, grandfather’s clocks, pewter, and luster ware. All this for cattlemen who bring their flocks and herds into the yards ! The only thing to spoil it is the all-pervasive smell of animals.

From there we went to the place of death.

Through a small door the fated pigs enter the final pen fifteen or twenty at a time. They are nervous, perhaps because of the smell coming from within, perhaps because of the sounds. A man in the pen loops a chain around the hind foot of each successive pig, and then slips the iron ring at the other end of the chain over a hook at the outer margin of a revolving drum, perhaps ten feet in diameter. As the drum revolves the hook rises, slowly, drawing the pig backward by the leg, and finally lifting it bodily, head downward. When the hook reaches the top of its orbit it transfers the animal to a trolley, upon which it slides in due course to the waiting butcher, who dispatches it with a knife thrust in the neck, and turns to receive the next pig.

The manners of the pigs on their way to execution held me with a horrid fascination. Pigs look so much alike that we assume them to be minus individuality. That is not so. The French Revolution—of which the stockyards reminded Dr. George Brandes, the literary critic, who recently visited this country—scarcely could have brought out in its victims a wider range of characteristics than these pigs show. I have often noticed, of course, that some people are like pigs, but I had never before suspected that all pigs are so very much like people. Some of them come in yelling with fright. Others are silent. They shift about nervously, and sniff, as though scenting death. “It ‘s the steam they smell,” said a man in overalls beside me. Well, perhaps it is.. But I could smell death there, and I still think the pigs can smell it, too. Some of the pigs lean against each other for companionship in their distress. Others merely wait with bowed heads, giving a curious effect of porcine resignation. When they feel the tug of the chain, and are dragged backward, some of them set up a new and frightful squealing; others go in silence, and with a sort of dignity, like martyrs dying for a cause.

As I stood there, studying the temperament of pigs, I saw the butcher looking up at me at he wiped his long, thin blade. He was a rawboned Slav with a pale face, high cheek bones, and large brown eyes, holding within their somber depths an expression of thoughtful, dreamy abstraction. I have never seen such eyes. Without prejudice or pity they seemed to look alike on man and pig. Being upon the platform above him, right side up, and free to go when I should please, I felt safe for the moment. But suppose I were not so—suppose I were to come along to him, hanging by one leg from the trolley—what would he do then? Would he stop to ask why they had sent another sort of animal, I wondered? Or would he do his work impartially?

I should not wish to take the chance.

The progress of the pig is swift—if the transition from pig to pork may be termed “progress.” The carcass travels presently through boiling water, and emerges pink and clean. And as it goes along upon its trolley, it passes one man after another, each with an active knife, until, thirty minutes later, when it has undergone the government inspection, it is headless and in halves—mere meat, which looks as though it never could have been alive.

From the slaughter-house we passed through the smoke-house, where ham and bacon were smoking over hardwood fires in rows of ovens big as blocks of houses. Then through the pickling room with its enormous hogs-heads, giving the appearance of a monkish wine cellar.

Then through the curing room with its countless piles of dry salt pork, neatly arranged like giant bricks.

The enthusiastic gentleman who escorted us kept pointing out the beauties of the way this work was done : the cleanliness, the system by which the rooms are washed with steam, the gigantic scale of all the operations. I heard, I noticed, I agreed. But all the time my mind was full of thoughts of dying pigs. In-deed, I had forgotten for the moment that other animals are also killed to feed carnivorous man. However, I was reminded of that, presently, when we came upon another building, consecrated to the conversion of life into veal and beef.

The steers meet death in little pens. It descends upon them unexpectedly from above, dealt out by a man with a sledge, who cracks them between the horns with a sound like that of a woodman’s. ax upon a tree. The creatures quiver and quickly crumple.

It is swift. In half a minute the false bottom of the pen turns up and rolls them out upon the floor, inert as bags of meal. Only after death do these cattle find their way to an elevated trolley line, like that used for the pigs. And, as with the pigs, they move along speedily; shortly they are to be seen in the beef cooler, where they hang in tremendous rows, forming strange vistas—a forest of dead meat.

The scene where calves were being killed according to the Jewish law, for kosher meat, presented the most sanguinary spectacle with which my eyes have ever burned. Two rabbis, old bearded men, performed the rites with long, slim, shiny blades. Literally they waded in a lake of gore. Even the walls were covered with it. Looking down upon them from above, we saw them silhouetted on a sheet of pigment utterly beyond comparison—for, without exaggeration, fire would look pale and cold beside the shrieking crimson of that blood —glistening, wet, and warm in the electric light.

I shall not attempt to conceal the fact that I was glad to leave the stockyards.

When, a short time later, the motor car was bearing us smoothly down the sunlit boulevard, the Advertising Gentleman who had conducted us through all the carnage put an abrupt question to me.

“Do you want to be original?” he demanded.

“I suppose all writers hope to be,” I answered.

“Well,” he replied, tapping me emphatically upon the knee, “I ’11 tell you how to do it. When you write about the Yards, don’t mention the killing. Everybody ‘s done

that. There ‘s nothing more to say. What you want to do is to dwell on the other side. That ‘s the way to be original.”

“The other side?” I murmured feebly.

“Sure!” he cried. “Look at this.” As he spoke, he produced from a pocket some proofs of pen-and-ink drawings—pictures of sweet-faced girls, encased in spotless aprons, wearing upon their heads alluring caps, and upon their lips the smiles of angels, while, with their dainty rose-tipped fingers, they packed the luscious by-products of cattle-killing into tins—tins which shone as only the pen of the “commercial artist” can make tins shine.

“There’s your story!” he exclaimed. “The poetic side of packing ! Don’t write about the slaughter-houses. Dwell on daintiness—pretty girls in white caps—everything shining and clean ! Don’t you see that ‘s the way to make your story original ?”

Of course I saw it at once. Original? Why, original is no name for it! I could never have conceived such originality ! It is n’t in me! I should no more have thought of writing only of pretty girls and pretty cans, after witnessing those bloody scenes, than of describing the battle at Liege in terms of polish used on soldiers’ buttons.

But original as the idea is, you perceive I have not used it. I could not bear to. He thought of it first. It belonged to him. If I used it, the originality would not be mine, but his. So I have deliberately written the story in my own hackneyed way.