Oklahoma City’s cattle auction has grown into the world’s largest.
In 1908, several members of the Oklahoma City Commercial Club, later the Chamber of Commerce, anxiously awaited the arrival of noted guest Thomas E. Wilson of Morris & Company, a meatpacking company based in Chicago. Wilson made the 800-mile trek at the invitation of business leaders Anton Classen, Sidney Brock and others including Charles Colcord.
Wilson was intrigued by Oklahoma City’s central location, its proximity to several railroad lines and its considerable livestock market. Classen and the chamber were interested in the boost Morris & Co. could give to Oklahoma City’s flagging economy at the time.
When he arrived, Wilson found an Oklahoma City that was a far cry from Chicago.
“According to fable, there was one automobile in Oklahoma City. While driving it to the edge of town (just 5 miles), they got bogged down in quicksand and plum thickets. It took hours and a lot of pushing to get there,” said Kelli Payne, president of Oklahoma National Stockyards.
Eventually a deal was struck for 200 acres of land on the south bank of the N. Canadian River, and Morris established a plant and the Oklahoma National Stockyards there in 1910.
That same year, Schwarzchild and Sulzberger — later Armour and Company — established a packing plant near the Morris facility, and the area took on the moniker of “Packingtown.”
“With the import of thousands of rugged cattlemen and ranchers, who had blazed a trail here with their cows, horses and other live- stock, plus huge packing plants which employed one-eighth of the population of Oklahoma City, it was a prime situation for mayhem,” wrote Bonnie Stahlman Speer in her book, Historic Stockyards City and Oklahoma National Stock Yards.
“Almost every business sheltered a house of prostitution on the top floor. Nearly everyone was involved in gambling and bootlegging, in one way or another,” she wrote.
During a Christmas Eve incident in 1945, legend has it that Hank Frey, owner of local landmark Cattlemen’s Café, got into a high-stakes dice game with rancher Percy Wade.
“In a smoke-filled room at the old Biltmore Hotel in downtown Oklahoma City … Frey put up Cattlemen’s as the pot if Wade could roll a ‘hard six,’ otherwise known as two 3s. Wade put up his life savings, which was a sizable amount of money. With one roll of the dice, Gene Wade was in the restaurant business. The ‘33’ brand on the wall of Cattlemen’s Hereford Room became a well-known symbol of Wade’s good fortune,” according to the Cattlemen’s Steakhouse website.
Ultimately, Oklahoma City grew around Packingtown, and the plants were forced to close in the 1960s and ’70s. However, the stockyards flourished, going to live auction in 1961.
It has since grown into the largest live auction in the world, Payne said. “This is a testament to the resilience of farmers and ranchers. When you come here, you’re walking on history.”