Stockyards connected Rochelle to wider world

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The history of Rochelle has never existed in a vacuum. The stockyards of Rochelle are a perfect example of how our community is connected to the wider world.

By 1864, many of the smaller stockyards in Chicago had consolidated into the Union Stockyard. The Union Stockyard was served by nine rail lines and could hold 75,000 hogs, 22,000 sheep and 21,000 cattle. The demand was there, now the supply.

Rochelle was located at a hub between two railroads. The Chicago & Iowa and the Northwestern rail lines. In 1873, Mr. Stocking and Mr. King bought 16 acres of land between the rail lines (east end of 2nd Avenue) and constructed holding pens and loading chutes to both sets of tracks.

These pens were designed for cattle and hogs. By the 1890s, Rochelle was surrounded by several hundred acres of grazing and holding land. Rochelle became the final chance to fatten livestock before it was sent into the Union Stockyard to be weighed and sold.

Kennedy Sheep Yards of Rochelle could manage over 40,000 sheep. Kennedy had yards on the western edge of Rochelle and south of Spring Lake. Livestock was received from the western states and off loaded at the appropriate stockyard in Rochelle.

The stock was fed, watered and prepared for sale in Chicago. For the sheep this included shearing. John Riley had a crew of several men who would shear the sheep and bundle the wool. Once fattened and groomed the livestock was moved to the loading yards and placed onto the appropriate trains for transport.  

The Union Stockyard employed 25,000 workers in 1900 and increased to 40,000 employees by 1921. In 1870, over 2 million head of livestock went through the Union Stockyard. In 1890, it was more than 9 million.

Meatpackers built plants right in the stockyard if they had the money or next to the yards if they were smaller processors. Gustavus Swift, Armour, Morris, Hammond, and Wilson all located at the Union Stockyard.

At one point, the Chicago River was diverted to serve the meatpacking plants with over 50,000 gallons of water used per day. So much waste was drained into the South fork of the Chicago River that it became referred to as Bubbly Creek. The bubbles were the product of decomposing waste off gassing on the bottom of the river. The South fork still bubbles to this day.

The Union Stockyard suffered a major fire in 1921 causing $400,000 damage and killing 21 fire fighters, but it stayed open. The importance of the Union yard was further displayed by a fire in 1934 when 90 percent of the yard was destroyed on a Saturday night. The yard was reopened by the next Sunday.

At its height, the Union Stockyard produced 82 percent of the domestic meat consumed in this country. It appeared that nothing could stop the monolith that was the Union Stockyard. Such is not the way of progress.

The Rochelle stockyards handled thousands of head of livestock each and every day from the 1870s through the 1940s. The development of better highways and rail lines moved meat processing to a more regional distribution.

Smaller processing plants sprung up in rural areas (non-union) across the country. Swift was building a processing plant in Rochelle. The need for the stock yards faded and they were closed. The Swift plant in Rochelle opened in 1960. The Union Stockyard was closed and razed in 1971.

From train loads of livestock coming through Rochelle bound for Chicago to truckloads of livestock headed to Rochelle, the worm had turned, progress marched on.

Tom McDermott is a Flagg Township Museum Historian and Rochelle City Councilman.