In the late 1870s, Kansas City was a cowtown. The West Bottoms were home to the second largest stockyard complex in the country. Kansas City sits in the center of the country but also on the edge of one of the largest grasslands of the planet, with cattle drives crossing the open range from Canada to Mexico.
All that made this cowtown integral to the birth of modern urban society.
“In a lot of ways, the stockyards made the modern world possible because it allowed people to leave farms and ranches and go into town and get jobs like what you and I have now,” says Eric Grant, whose St. Joseph-based marketing firm serves large agricultural companies including the KC-based Holstein Association, famous among city folk for the bull statue erected on Quality Hill.
Kansas City grew along with the cattle industry. By 1899, ranchers had organized the American Royal cattle show in KC, which has spun off into barbecue and horse shows over the past century. Kristie Larson, director of education at the American Royal, appreciates the journey of the beef industry in KC, which started with the stockyards.
“Where we sit here at the American Royal in the West Bottoms, I’m looking out my window and I see where thousands of cattle would have been in the late 1870s through 1991,” she says.
As the prairie was settled at the turn of the twentieth century, more ranches and farmers sold cattle to be slaughtered and shipped back east. Business at KC’s stockyards peaked at about two and a half million head of cattle in the 1920s, Grant says. That’s enough beef to make more than two billion burgers—all from an expanse of grasslands that was poorly suited to farming at the time.
“Cows are kind of a magical animal,” Grant says. “The bulk of the surface of the planet is either water or grass, and humans can’t eat grass. What cows do is, you give ’em a little sunlight, a little bit of water to drink, and they go out and graze, and they grow and they turn grass into something that’s nutrient dense and a really good product for people to eat.”