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The Union Stockyards

Today, the idea of millions of farm animals being transported hundreds of miles to a large city for slaughter and processing seems bizarre. But for more than a century, that is exactly what happened at the Union Stockyards in Chicago. For generations, the Stockyards virtually defined Chicago, dubbed "Hog Butcher to the World" by Carl Sandburg.

Established in 1865, "The Yards" processed two million animals yearly by 1870. By 1890 the number had risen to nine million. In 1921, the Stockyards employed 40,000 people, and occupied more than a square mile of Chicago's South Side from 39th to 47th and from Halsted to Ashland. Chicago had become the meat-processing center of the world.

Meat Storage LockerThe impact on Chicago - and on labor history - was monumental. The Stockyards story is teeming with strife: a bitter, ongoing struggle between labor and management, and ethnic conflict among strikers and strikebreakers. Labor negotiations at the Stockyards resulted in improvements in conditions that would benefit the industry nationwide. It even had an impact on the Chicago River: when the City reversed the flow of the Chicago River in 1900, it was largely to keep the Stockyards' enormous volume of waste products from flowing into Lake Michigan. By mid-20th century, the industry began to decentralize, and the Stockyards faded with little fanfare; the last pen and killing floor were closed in 1971.

Today the site is occupied by a flourishing industrial park.

The Stockyards
Memories of the Stockyards and Commentary by Dominic Pacyga
Dominic Pacyga is a Columbia College professor who grew up in the back of the yards in the 1950's and 1960's, and who worked at the stockyards at the age of 20.

Memories of the Stockyards and the Labor Movement by Les Orear
Les Orear, President of the Illinois Labor History Society, worked at the stockyards beginning in 1932.

Behind the Scenes: What It Was Like to Film Around the Stockyards By Tracy Ullman

It was unbelievable how much the original architecture of the Stockyards had been dismantled and how in its place stood the modern buildings of the Stockyards Industrial Park. To think that there were several "L" stops, an entire set of tracks devoted solely to transporting thousands of tourists and workers to the site daily--it had all been dismantled without a trace. Many of the people we interviewed in the program were able to point out where buildings had been, such as the prominent Armour and Swift factories and the innumerable wooden pens for holding livestock, but it was hard to imagine.

When cameraman Roy Alan and I went to shoot in Chiappetti's, the last veal and lamb slaughterer in the city, it was the one remnant we could use to qualify the smells, the look and the feel of the Union Stockyards. Very few people driving by on Halsted around 39th Street would know that there were hundreds of head of lamb and calves being held there--but once you're inside, the smell is overpowering. Just north of Chiappetti's main offices on Halsted is where the animals are slaughtered. Everyday, as part of a kosher kill, a Rabbi stands at the front of a conveyor belt and slits the throats of a seemingly endless supply of livestock. As the carcasses go down the production line, they're cleaned and skinned and are prepared to be broken down into edible cuts. When we went in to shoot on the kill floor, both Roy and I feared getting hit by the fast-paced stream of carcasses moving from one station to the next.

It was much the same in Lincoln Provisions, which is just around the corner. They used to slaughter cattle, but now just break down the carcasses for top quality cuts, such as filet mignon, that are then shipped around the world. To be surrounded by so much dead flesh, many people asked us if we wanted to go vegetarian. In fact, we never ate such good meat in our lives and got a great feel why Chicago was and still is a meat capital in the nation.

TRACY ULLMAN, producer of "The Union Stockyards" for Chicago Stories began working on documentaries at the BBC. Her previous docs have been on an eclectic variety of subjects, including British politics, Greek Rush in the United States, and dating over the age of 50.

Links of Interest
"The Jungle" by Upton Sinclair
Complete online text of the novel by Upton Sinclair (who'd worked in the meat packing plants on assignment for a journalistic expose), detailing illegal practices, unsafe food handling, and the squalor of the yards neighborhoods.

Review of "The Yankee of the Yards"
Written by the Progressive Calvinism League, it details comparisons between Upton Sinclair's account of the Stockyards and this biography of Gustavus Franklin Swift, which gives the history of the meat packing industry from the viewpoint of the son of the founder of the largest meat packing company in the world.

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