On its 125th birthday, South St. Paul is celebrating both its history as a "cow town" shaped by stockyards and meatpacking plants and its riverfront renewal, where the sweet smell of freshly baked bagels has replaced the not-so-pleasant aromas of yesteryear.

The city has scheduled 12 months of anniversary activities, starting with a public reception from 4-8 p.m. Monday at City Hall, with cake, punch and a visit from Gov. Mark Dayton between 7 and 7:30 p.m.

All of the events will be run by volunteers and paid for with donations at no cost to taxpayers, said Mayor Beth Baumann, whose father, Bruce Baumann, was mayor 25 years ago when the city celebrated its 100th birthday.

"The celebration is just about being part of South St. Paul and being a good neighbor and being a hard worker," Baumann said. "We are going to have an event at least once a month until February of 2013." The complete list of events can be seen at www.southstpaul.org/ by clicking on "Happy 125th Birthday South St. Paul."

The city's history started with the Mdewakanton Dakota tribe, whose members lived in a village known as Kaposia on the banks of the Mississippi River.

Between 1851 and 1854, Indians were moved from the area by the federal government to open the land to white settlement.

Around 1885, Alpheus Beede Stickney bought land along the Mississippi River to establish the South St. Paul stockyards. About the same time, up on the bluffs overlooking the river, real estate entrepreneur Charles Clark was attracting industries and people to the new town south of St. Paul.

"That is why there is a city here," said Lois Glewwe, a former City Council member who wrote South St. Paul's history for the centennial celebration in 1987.

Stickney built the stockyards as a stopping place for western cattle ranchers to unload and fatten up their animals before taking them on to meatpacking plants in Chicago, Glewwe said.

Freight railroad tracks were extended to the stockyards, allowing direct shipments to and from the site.

Seeing business potential in the location, two Chicago meatpacking companies -- Swift in 1897 and Armour in 1919 -- opened plants in South St. Paul, turning the city into a magnet for European immigrants seeking jobs in America.

Men and women from Romania, Germany, Poland and other countries were recruited in Europe to cross the ocean for a job in the South St. Paul packing plants. They established their own ethnic halls and lived in big boarding houses on Concord Street, Glewwe said.

Not only was the city established early, it was "completely built up from border to border by the 1950s," Glewwe said. "As soon as World War II ended, hundreds of bungalows were built.

"We were working three shifts around the clock. People were employed, and we had tons of money in this town," she said. "It was a pretty raucous place -- called 'cow town.'" The city had more than 80 liquor licenses before 1920. "South St. Paul never believed in prohibition. Our bars never closed," Glewwe said.

The city was known for its odor. "We smelled like manure for 100 years," Glewwe said. "It was overwhelming. The smell of manure and the tannery -- it was pretty tremendous on a hot August afternoon."

In 1960, the city moved to renovate Concord Street. It started by tearing down more than 120 buildings on Concord, including "all the old boarding houses and the bars," Glewwe said.

The effort died when suddenly in 1969 Swift closed its doors, leaving 4,000 people without full-time employment. Armour closed about 10 years later. All together, about 12,000 jobs were lost.

With terrible unemployment, the city was declared a federal disaster area.

When recording the city's history in 1987, Glewwe said, "We created chances for people to come together, share their memories and really mourn the loss of this identity.

"I spent a year interviewing people, and they would come into my office and talk about what life was like on the slaughterhouse floor and how much they missed the camaraderie of that industry."

The story of the 125th anniversary celebration is the city's remarkable turnaround, Glewwe said. "We survived the loss of our major industry."

In 1988, the city bought and tore down the Armour meatpacking plant, razing 23 buildings and clearing 47 acres for redevelopment. The stockyards closed in 2008.

Once privately owned by the railroad and stockyards with no public access to the water, the area now has green space, a public boat launch and a trail, Glewwe said. "It's a completely different place than it was 25 years ago."

New clean industry has moved in. The area is home to 60 to 70 businesses that employ 4,000 people, including Twin City Bagels Inc., which opened its building in 2000 and doubled its capacity in 2004.

Now, instead of the odor of manure from the stockyards, the smell of fresh baked bagels wafts over the city's historic riverfront.

Laurie Blake • 952-746-3287