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So there was John Barber, calling bids from the auctioneering box some years ago, when a scared heifer hurdled the counter right into Barber's chair -- seconds after he cleared out of it. ¶ "She just jumped right over the front end," said Barber, who watched the 1,200-pound heifer smash his wooden chair to splinters before she stomped through the box and out the back door. "Had I been there, it wouldn't have been real good."
Such stories abound these days at Central Livestock, where the sun is setting on South St. Paul's storied 122-year stockyards history. After Barber calls the last auction April 11, bulldozers will flatten all of Central Livestock's 27 acres, erasing the city's final evidence of what once was one of the busiest livestock markets in the world. Longtimers like Barber, who has barked prices in the auction ring for 38 years, and Donny Glassing, who has spent 55 years sorting and selling livestock, will stay to the end.
"It kind of gets in your blood, you know," said Glassing, who remembers when he'd come to work to find as many as 20,000 hogs trucked in overnight. "It's sad to see it close down."
South St. Paul was once a city that thrived as a meat-packing center with major names like Swift and Armour.
The stockyards full of bellowing animals stretched as far as the eye could see. The city was synonymous with meatpacking -- its high school team nickname is still the Packers.
But now, South St. Paul has reinvented itself with new businesses.
"The big deal here is the absolute transformation from a one-industry, one-horse town to a diversified economy," said City Administrator Steve King, who compared South St. Paul's turnaround to other suburbs that have remade themselves, like St. Louis Park, New Brighton, Richfield and Columbia Heights.
"This place rocked in its heyday," said Branna Lindell, South St. Paul's housing and redevelopment director. Then came the 1970s. "The plants did close, a lot of people were out of work and the economy was very depressed here," she said.
Down at the BS Cafe beneath the bleachers of Central Livestock's auction barn, cook Barb Lundberg shovels big helpings of scrambled eggs from a grill in the kitchen. Livestock truckers and cattle buyers chow down at the tables, unfazed by the intruding aroma of cattle urine, while Lundberg watches them with sad eyes.
"It's such an important part of a big industry," she lamented. "This is what they do for a living."
She pauses. "One fella upstairs there said he was going to cry like a baby," said Lundberg, who will close the cafe for good.
Outside, yard men in tall boots show their true grit, sorting anxious cattle for buyers who will take them to slaughter. Wielding paddles, they shoo the cattle through corridors of clapboard pens now gray from weather and age. The ground is wet and pungent, reeking of an odor familiar to South St. Paul residents since 1888.
"To some of us it's the smell of money," said city employee Deb Griffith, a longtime resident whose father and grandfather worked in the stockyards. "To the rest of us, it just smells."
Few people minded. The city became a melting pot of Germans, Croatians, Scandinavians, Poles, Greeks, Serbians, Romanians, Italians, Austrians, Hungarians, Russians and Irish. The stockyards invited a roaring economy of butcher shops, distilleries, tanneries and even a barrel factory. Fancy hotels thrived, saloons served day and night, and streetcars coursed up and down the city's main streets.
Down in the yards, it was cold, dirty, dangerous work. The worst job, the oldtimers said, was the killing floor, where men swinging sledge hammers bashed cattle in the head and rivers of blood covered the floors. In the offal room, women cleaned out pig intestines to make sausage wrappings.
But the animals kept coming -- by rail, river and road from seven states. The record yearly shipments tell the story: 1.5 million cattle in 1934; 3.8 million hogs in 1924; 1.8 million sheep in 1943.
Swift and Armour once employed 8,000 workers in their meatpacking plants in South St. Paul. Barber remembers auctioneering for as long as 15 hours with cattle streaming through two rings. Glassing recalls when Central Livestock employed 32 workers in "Hog Alley" alone, more than the company's remaining work force in South St. Paul. Bob Young, Central Livestock's division manager, tells about pulling hog carcasses apart with his hands until his fingernails broke and bled.
But "urban sprawl and high operational costs" led to the closing, said Central Livestock spokeswoman Jena Swanson. "The cattle are getting farther and farther away every year."
When the pens and brown metal buildings are gone, Interstate Partners LLC, will build a 320,000-square-foot office park on those 27 acres. Central Livestock will keep its corporate offices in South St. Paul and continue operating its Minnesota stockyards in Zumbrota and Albany, Minn. It also has offices in West Fargo, N.D., and Sioux Falls, S.D.
A burst of new business
As one era ends, another has arrived in full gallop.
"We've seen a huge revitalization," said Jennifer Gale, executive director of a group called Progress Plus, which was created to bring new vitality to the old stockyards land. Now, more than 4,000 people earn an average of $23 an hour in an office and light industry district known as BridgePoint. The leading employer is Sportsman's Guide, an electronic shopping and mail-order house with about 800 workers on the payroll. Waterous Co., an industrial machinery manufacturer, employs about 400.
The city has lost a fifth of its population, down to 20,000, but it's aggressively marketing the open land and banking on its proximity to Interstate 494, Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and the Mississippi River. "I think we're making good progress but we've got a long haul to go," the city administrator said.
The city plans a celebration after the final auction, as much to observe its future as its past. Said Griffith, with a hint of sadness:
"We're not going to be the land of the stockyards anymore."
Kevin Giles • 651-298-1554