They came by the hundreds Friday to witness the final hours of South St. Paul's 122-year stockyard history.

"You can see there ain't enough room to set," said Bob Young, Central Livestock's division manager, as he surveyed an auction barn packed to the roof with people who came to see the final sale.

An estimated 2,500 head of cattle, brought to South St. Paul by sellers who came to remember, waited outside in pens in a misting rain for their turn in the auction ring.

"I don't suspect it's the price they're going to get, it's to participate in the last day," said Young, himself a longtime worker in the yards.

South St. Paul once was among the world's leading livestock centers, where millions of cattle, hogs, sheep and goats were sold in the stockyards and two major meatpackers -- Armour and Swift -- employed thousands of workers.

Central Livestock, the last dealer, kept operating until metro sprawl boxed in the remaining stockyards and Internet transactions slowed business at the auction barn.

"It's kind of an emotional day for a lot of people," Young said.

Standing near the door greeting old friends was Tom Kaliszewski, 79, who logged a half-century of work in the Central Livestock yards before he retired in 1994.

"More guys have walked up and said, 'Hi, Tom, how are you?' I haven't seen them in years and can't remember their names," said Kaliszewski, who sold cows straight out of the pens in negotiations called "private treaty" for years on end.

"I sold 3 million cows, one at a time," said Kaliszewski, who's lived in South St. Paul all of his life.

Outside the barn, in a white tent flapping under the driving wind, Shannon Rode sold inscribed bricks from Central Livestock for $20 apiece.

The original stack of 400 was fast diminishing, she said, as people crowded the table to buy souvenirs for their families.

City employee and event organizer Deb Griffith, whose family has a long history in the stockyards, said a collage of photographs sold for $2,000 in the morning auction of memorabilia.

The final auction stretched far into the afternoon, and after that the stockyards closed.

Buildings and furnishings will be sold next week and soon after that, Central Livestock's 27 acres will be bulldozed for a new office development.

"It's over," said Griffith, who said some people told her that watching the stockyards close was like attending a funeral.

Central Livestock will keep its Minnesota stockyard in Zumbrota and its corporate offices in South St. Paul. The company might open a new sales barn near Pine City, Young said.

"That's the way history is," said Robert Riebel, standing behind a counter of farm memorabilia he brought from Le Sueur, Minn. "It don't stand still for anybody."

Kevin Giles • 651-298-1554