On The Fort Worth Trail

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This was largely a self-contained company town, a headquarters for livestock dealers and for suppliers of rope, boots, and grain as well as for bankers and merchants. At its peak the place was in action round the clock, seven days a week. Each day five hundred or more cars of livestock arrived and at least seventy-five cars of processed meat were shipped out. There were brawls and the occasional shoot-out as cattlemen and townsfolk crowded into the saloons that lined Exchange Street. There was the bawling of cows and the braying of mules. And there were the smells. Sue McCafferty, who with her husband, Charles, founded the North Fort Worth Historical Society, grew up here. She claims that the only unbearable stench was from the rendering plant: “It could take your head off.” Otherwise she recalls with affection the odor of the cow pens, hay, and alfalfa: “I never felt I was home until I got close enough to smell that.”

It’s not hard to conjure up the gritty, raucous days of the stockyards while wandering the square mile or so that makes them up. Cowboys still amble dusty, arcaded streets, and rails mark the places where horses were tied. Dark, leathery-smelling shops still purvey saddles and boots, and you can buy a drink at the Star Cafe or the White Elephant Saloon. You can even stay overnight at the Stockyards Hotel, a comfortable 1907 building with Western furnishings, reproduction and antique. The majestic 1902 Livestock Exchange Building—all forty-six thousand square feet—continues to preside over the scene, the only exchange of its era left in the country. This was once home to dozens of livestock-related businesses; now there are only a few, along with several art galleries and the historical society. Plenty of offices are empty. The historical society’s director, Sue McCafferty, asked me to write that her group is trying to raise funds to buy the Livestock Exchange from its New York owners to ensure its preservation. I gladly oblige.

The stockyards roared to life in the early 1900s; they provide the best sense of the once gritty, raucous frontier town.

Next to the Exchange stands the Cowtown Coliseum, built in 1908 for livestock shows and now home to a Saturday-night rodeo. The humble mule barns actually have a stake in history; as the largest horse and mule market in the world during the First World War, they drew agents from Europe who came to bid for the stock. Flanked by slender towers, the gateway to the barns achieves a kind of splendor more appropriate to a church than to a mule’s home.

Flaunting a style variously called Cowtown Baroque, Mission, or Spanish Revival, all these buildings have a presence and an aura that goes beyond their homely functions. Their parapets, bell towers, cupolas, shaded verandas, red tile roofs, and graceful railings, their height and breadth and airy interior spaces, seem to express perfectly the pride that drove Fort Worth at just that time and place.

—Carla Davidson