Metro-East News

National Stockyards sees life in industry that put it out of work

The National Stockyards earned its name in the meat industry.

The more than 656-acre industrial zone, one of America’s largest, processed millions of animals each year, set daily market prices for meat and shipped it to consumers across the country.

Companies at the Stockyards were among St. Clair County’s biggest employers in the previous century, but it seemed like their glory days were always behind them. Yearly production declined for decades, and the yards eventually succumbed to economic changes.

Perhaps the biggest blow to the stockyards was the rise of trucks, the first of which rolled into the yards in 1924, according to a previous News-Democrat article from 1983. Trucks meant livestock farmers “could bring their livestock to market and pick up farm supplies for the return trip,” BND reporters Marty Heires and Earl Rinehart wrote. Trucking helped decentralize animal processing, bringing fewer animals to the yards and people to metro-east hotels and restaurants.

“We all thought the interstate highway was a boon to us,” said Jack Scoville, the last proprietor of Scoville’s Café, which was located near the entrance to the Stockyards on First Street just north of Interstate 70.

Scoville remembered how, already in 1960, a friend of his left a good job in commissions to get into the insurance industry.

“It’s over,” he told him.

Scoville grew up in the yards and had an adult’s routine as a youngster. When he was 4 and 5 years old, he started his day at the barber’s for a shave like everyone else — with the back of the razor, though he didn’t know it at the time.

Scoville’s grandfather opened the café in 1927, and Scoville worked there from 1954 until retiring in 1990. There were about 20 restaurants in the stockyards, he said. He outlasted them all.

“You couldn’t do much more business than we did,” he said recently.

If it were up to him, he’d still be working down there. The year after he left, however, the building, just past the entrance to the yards on First Street, was demolished. Today, Scoville drives down to the area about once a week.

Scoville is hopeful about what the National Stockyards land could be. He always thought it’d be a perfect place for an oil refinery, or farmland, and he praised some of the established businesses already making things work. Gateway Motorsports, for example, is getting more attention with national races. And Tank Trailer Cleaning has expanded its services over the past 15 years.

Indeed, the trucking industry means something completely new to the former land where the Stockyards used to be. Today, the Oklahoma National Stockyards Company, which owns the St. Louis National Stockyards Company, is clearing off some of the last structures in the hopes of attracting a major distributor. The industry that put so many people out of work could start bringing them back.

Selling off the land

Rob Fisher is a cattleman at heart, but these days his job is more like that of a reluctant landlord.

Fisher, the CEO of the Oklahoma National Stockyards company, visits St. Louis often to sell bits and pieces of the metro-east Stockyards.

“(I’ve) spent 20 years tearing things down,” he said in an interview with the BND during one of his recent visits.

Some of the last buildings to go were part of the old Armour Meat Packing Company plant, just before the Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge. Fires broke out there in 1985 and 1991, long after the plant had been shut down in 1958, and since then, the exposed, half-burned husks had been a symbol of the stockyards’ decay.

Fisher imploded one of the buildings in March, and he tore another one down over the summer. He plans to have the rubble cleared by New Year’s to make it more attractive for buyers.

Over the years, everyone from legislators to developers have put forward ideas to reverse the decline of the yards, including converting parts of the land for office buildings, industrial parks, farmland and a 10,000-square-foot adult entertainment complex that was voted down in 1994.

Fisher hopes a large distributor snaps up the roughly 100 acres, but so far, none have shown lasting interest. After the land is clear, he plans to build a road around the facility to be able to show some of its amenities, like the working railroad line.

Terry Beach, St. Clair County’s economic development director, said he showed one trucking logistics company the site, but he couldn’t name which one. Still, he said he feels “very confident” the land will sell.

Some large companies have gone to Madison County, including Amazon, which recently opened two warehouses there, but both Fisher and Beach said the new Stan Musial Bridge have raised the profile of the old Stockyards’ land considerably.

In addition, Beach said, the Stockyards is a good place for businesses because of its industrial history. It’s never been a residential area, so no one wants to move there, and no one will mind the industries that do.

“These are not minimum-wage jobs,” Beach said about possible future companies.

Tearing down Armour

“Some skeptics thought it was a fad,” said Ed Smith, a former publicist for the Stockyards, about the rise of trucks. But, he noted in 1983, between 1950 and 1969, 14 packing companies went out of business as a result.

Today, St. Clair County assessor’s records show that the National Stockyards Company still owns 178.8 acres in St. Clair County. It’s a far cry from the more than 600 acres it once was, but it reflects the area’s slow transformation.

Since 2002, the Stockyards have sold 16 parcels totaling 112.21 acres, according to Fisher’s real estate agent, Pat Schaefer. The largest one was 15 acres.

Much of the land has gone to light industries, including Kienstra Precast, a concrete business; Mid America, an advertising company (not to be confused with the airport); and Darling International, a food products supplier.

The most recent purchase was by Five Hole, LLC, an extension of Midwest Systems, a St. Louis-based transportation company. Five Hole, named after a hockey reference in which a player scores by shooting a puck between the goalie’s legs, bought almost 10 acres at the corner of Interstate 70 and Packers Ave., just before the last turnoff from I-70 before Missouri.

Fairmont City confirmed that Midwest Systems hasn’t filed any forms to develop the land, but, Steve Williamson of Five Hold said, it is “conveniently located.”

“At this point, it’s just an extension of what we have in St. Louis,” Williamson said. “We also have a facility across the street that we lease from.”

The land became even more strategic after Packers Ave. was extended by the Route 3 spur connecting the highway to the Casino Queen. The road will now see more industrial traffic, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation.

Five Hole paid $880,000 for the leveled area. Land farther away from I-70 and other types of transportation is less expensive. For example, 10.66 acres bought in 2008 by Greg Fallin, who owns a feed company, cost $222,400.

Looking ahead

Fisher, the Oklahoma National Stockyards CEO, said he would have demolished the Armour building earlier, but his budget was limited to his business proceeds, and business isn’t what it used to be.

In its heyday, the Oklahoma yards processed about a million animals a year, but that figure has dropped to about 400,000.

Fortunately for Fisher, the trucking industry hasn’t hurt the Stockyards in Oklahoma City the same way it did in the metro-east. That’s because the yards in Oklahoma City were set up to deal with some of the demands of the industry. Its one-of-a-kind deal with the city long ago to process its water through the sewage treatment facility has allowed the yards to navigate requirements from the Environmental Protection Agency to remain competitive.

“It has a great future here in Oklahoma City,” he said of the traditional bidding process at the yards there. It’s now the nation’s last terminal Stockyards, offering the only remaining place where producers and bidders meet to negotiate prices.

Fisher believes the terminal Stockyards model is still the best way farmers can get the most money for their livestock, and he is looking forward to the day when the rest of the land from the St. Louis yards is sold off so he can concentrate on livestock market in Oklahoma City.

Even though Fisher came up through a different Stockyards, he, too, is fond of the St. Louis region. He likes coming to St. Louis where he stays downtown, and in the summer, he sometimes goes to Cardinals games with Pat McGinnis, the former CEO of Nestle-Purina.

Fisher may have been tearing things down here for 20 years, but he looks forward to visiting. The next time will be after the holidays, to finish clearing up the old Armour plant. Depending on who’s interested in the Stockyards real estate, there may not be many more times left.

Casey Bischel: 618-239-2655, @CaseyBischel