We’ve seen it in connection with the Devon tower; a flourishing downtown, midtown and uptown; arrival of the Thunder; the Core to Shore plan and boathouses that train Olympian rowers.
But just southwest of those emblems of modernity lies the Oklahoma National Stockyards — a section of the city that bespeaks history, despite having undergone its own rebirth years ago.
In some ways, Stockyards City is a shining example of what business and entertainment districts can and should aspire to. While maintaining its link to the past, the area looks forward and continues to grow
It’s a reminder that the city thrives on both sides of the river.
In 1910, only three years after statehood, Stockyards City established itself as the livestock market and first significant industry in Oklahoma City. With its conception came three major meatpacking enterprises.
The market quickly employed more than 4,000 people, a tremendous number at that time. But Stockyards City’s place in Oklahoma City is hardly relegated to the past. Although its businesses have changed over the years and the meatpackers are no longer there, the district itself is alive and well, as are its myriad events and places to visit.
Kirk Webster, executive director of Stockyards City Main Street since January, has been visiting the area on and off for more than 45 years.
“In the ’60s and ’70s, the Wilson and Armour meat packers employed a lot of people. They were the business anchors,” he said.
But Webster doesn’t mean to imply Stockyards is currently with- out an anchor.
“We’re thriving, but this is still a work in progress,” he said. “Things can always get better.”
The Oklahoma National Stockyards is perhaps the most obvious anchor, moving 10,000 head of cattle through its gates each Monday and Tuesday at auction — the largest market of its kind in the world. And while its business is mainly commercial, tourists often show up, too. The cattle auction at the stockyards is unlike any other scene in the city, punctuated with the lowing of cows and “yah yah”s of cowboys.
Visitors to the auction house ascend outdoor stairs that lead to a footbridge and past hundreds of wooden cattle stalls. Cowboys on horseback herd groups of 10 to 20 cattle through red-dirt alleyways toward the auction house. Inside the place, peanut shells litter the floors beneath the chairs.
If for no other reason, it’s worth the visit just to hear the auctioneer rattle off an incomprehensible slew of numbers and shorthand to sell cattle.
Two other celebrated Stockyards City staples are Langston’s Western Wear and Cattlemen’s Steakhouse. The former offers clothing and gear catering to both the working and fashionable cowboy — or anyone who wants a pair of boots, a hat or a Pendleton iPad case — while Cattlemen’s, across the street, feeds them.
The longtime eatery seems to exist, much like the district, a bit outside of time. Its walls are adorned with hand-drawn portraits of cowboys and cowgirls and murals of longhorns. The red leather booths and bar, dark wood paneling and tables are vintage décor.
Mansoor Kazemi, Cattlemen’s general manager, remembers a time when Stockyards City was not well-trafficked.
“I’ve been here since 1995,” he said, “In the early years, there were lots of empty buildings, but now they’re full. Business has at least doubled since the mid-’90s.”
Cattlemen’s serves upwards of 10,000 a week, a third of whom Kazemi said are from out of state.
Other galleries and shops in the district offer an authentic Western experience, whether that’s in art, fashion or practical items. The walls of Little Joe’s Boots are lined with colorful, custom-made boots, while Oklahoma Native Art & Jewelry offers handmade sterling jewelry pieces. The Crossbar Gallery National Saddlery sells everything from handmade leather furniture and woven coasters to saddles, tack and rodeo rope.
Barbie Dooley, who has managed the Crossbar Gallery and National Saddlery for 12 years, said she sees a wide range of visitors.
“We get a lot of rodeo people in here, people who rope. And then we get people from all over for different reasons. For example, we get a lot of Italians, and Italians love cowboy boots. And they’ll come in wanting spurs. Or they ask for lassos instead of ropes.”
Visitors to Stockyards City come for a variety of reasons: hankering for a great steak, in need of tack for their saddle or in hopes of glimpsing a real cowboy.
“I like meeting different kinds of people,” said Dooley.
“We are still so historic, and we try to keep to it. We wouldn’t want a change of appearance in that way. But, of course, we would welcome new businesses. Not everyone who comes here is a cowboy, and new businesses would attract more people.”
Stockyards City began its revamp in 1992 as part of the nationwide Main Street movement, an offshoot of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
“This area got really run down,” said Webster. “The Main Street Association cleaned up the place. We motivated and mobilized people, installed better lighting and security, started holding events. And that instilled pride back into the area.”
Stockyards Main Street is doing more of the same today, still playing an active role in the upkeep of the area, as well as hosting events year-round.
One such example, Wines of the West, features 11 Oklahoma wineries, local merchants selling their wares and plenty of Made In Oklahoma products. Originally slated for earlier this month, damage from the May 31 tornadoes forced its rescheduling — likely for July.
Another popular annual event is Cowboy Christmas. Each December, the Christmas parade down Exchange Avenue includes horses and riders, American Indian dancers, antique cars and tractors, longhorn cattle and, of course, Cowboy Santa.
“To make more Oklahomans aware of the historic stockyards area, Wines of the West and other annual events bring new life to the district and offer chances to sample and shop for Oklahomamade products,” Webster said.
“Whether city slicker or cowboy, our advice is head southwest to the Stockyards.”