From Packingtown to Stockyards City: OKC's first industrial district evolves into a tourist spot – Oklahoman.com
Since Bricktown’s revival three decades ago, entertainment districts have emerged across town, but none can match the history or Western wear options of Stockyards City.
Oklahoma City’s first industrial district predates the oil boom and has survived every bust, the Spanish flu and COVID-19.
“I am 45 and have been coming to the Stockyards since I was 5,” said Kelli Payne, general manager and board president for the Oklahoma National Stockyards. “Our industry is very much invested in this community and preserving our way of life.”
Back in 1992, Stockyards City became an urban Main Street project, which steered it toward becoming an Old West tourist destination.
Born in a fog of high crimes and misdemeanors, Stockyards City today is where families go for holiday parades and real cowboys still go to work.
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Violence was no stranger in what was first called Packingtown; it was part of the job. Processing livestock was bloody, grueling work.
Folks looking to wet their whistle with libation in bone-dry Oklahoma needed look no further than Packingtown where places like the Stockman Cafe sold liquor in the horse barn.
But on July 23, 1923, its owner, Charles Pinkerton, was found shot to death in his barn, a .38 flung next to his lifeless body.
Police knew the barn. They’d raided it before. However, an 18-year-old named Hurley Slitt, a juvenile delinquent since busting a downtown street light in 1918, confessed to the shooting but claimed self-defense. Witnesses, however, said the shooting came after Pinkerton threw Slitt out of Stockman’s the preceding Saturday for flirting with his 16-year-old stepdaughter.
The Stockman’s dangerous practice of supplementing service with hooch was the standard in Packingtown cafes, save for one.
« It was strange because (Cattlemen’s) was the hangout for bootleggers and gamblers but the driest cafe in town, » according to a 1985 interview with former Stock Yards Bank president Bob Empie.
Current Cattlemen’s owner Dick Stubbs has a theory why then-owner Hank Frey didn’t sell booze.
“Frey really controlled the bootlegging business in Oklahoma City,” Stubbs said. “He lived in one of the apartments upstairs, and that’s where a lot of gambling took place.”
Frey’s position in the underworld did have advantages.
« We would get advance warning if bank robbers were headed toward Oklahoma City,” Empie recalled. “The police would come and occupy rooms over the bank and in the nearby drugstore. There never was a robbery. »
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At statehood, the tract 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 newfangled meat-packing plants.
He sent letters in 1908 to plants north and east, extolling the vacant land.
The Nelson Morris & Co. of Chicago responded with a $3 million slaughterhouse and meat-packing plant.
To get it, local investors seeded it with $300,000, the city added electricity, sewer and streetcar lines and no city or county taxes were collected for five years.
Then Morris, which became Armour, created a livestock exchange called the Oklahoma National Stockyards Co. in October 1910.
Packingtown was visited by 15,000 people the day the first plant opened, according to news reports.
Several months later, New York’s Schwarzchild & Sulzberger (later Wilson) made a similar deal plus a firehouse. Ancillary businesses followed and soon Packingtown employed more 24,000 people when Oklahoma City’s population was 60,000.
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As lucrative as packing plants were, they brought environmental concerns that eventually drove them out of town. The Wilson plant closed in 1979 amid nearby urban renewal.
But foresight won the day.
“In 1978 George Hall and local businesses formed Stockyards City Council to protect against the wrecking ball,” Payne said.
The Stockyards City Council drove a campaign to get a four-block area of old Packingtown placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. That 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 application for urban revitalization.
“We were the first place west of the Mississippi selected,” Stubbs said.
He said the selection not only secured the future of Stockyards City but also Cattlemen’s Steakhouse.
“The area had developed a bad reputation, and it was for a good reason,” Stubbs said. “We needed to change that.”
Gas lamps were installed and wooden exteriors rejuvenated around the main square, and a new gateway 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 the Wright Library opened in 1926.
Thirty-year-old Shorty’s Caboy Hattery is barely beyond puberty by Stockyards City standards.
Food and drink today is pure Old West at McClintock Saloon, Stockyards Sarsaparilla and Cattlemen’s, but Taqueria Los Comales offers contrast with authentic Mexican cuisine.
Rodeo Cinema took over the old Rodeo Opry theater in 2019, adding a modern dimension to the Stockyards experience.
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It’s old-hat finding boots, belts, buckles, Stetsons and pearl snap shirts in Stockyards City because the area is still a hub for working cowboys.
Parades weren’t 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 put together 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.
“The auctions really are at the core of Stockyards City,” Payne said. “We love for the public to come out and experience it with us.”
A fifth-generation rancher, Payne wears her cowgirl pride like a badge.
“These folks are resilient by nature, but when you know everyone is counting on you there’s nothing you can’t push through including a pandemic.”