How to Change a Working District Into a Tourist Attraction

While growing up in Fort Worth, Texas, in the 1950s and 1960s, I would pinch my nose shut and hold my breath for as long as possible as we drove by the Stockyards in an effort to block the stench. Half a century later, the area is known as the Fort Worth Stockyards National Historic District and one of the top tourist draws in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. What had to be overcome in this conversion is not lost on tourism websites such as "One can only imagine how the stockyards smelled in its heyday. These days you are more likely to smell BBQ than manure as you stroll through this part of town. The holding pens and slaughter houses have morphed into western themed shops, art galleries, and even a winery." Some of what made the Stockyards reclamation possible is unique to Fort Worth. But other cities that want to revive an older district might learn some lessons from Fort Worth. Here are some of the steps Fort Worth took to develop the stockyards, as seen through the distant eyes of a loyal native son.


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    Stay true to what you are. That means stay true to your history. The stockyards and Fort Worth were almost interchangeable terms in the Old West. Fort Worth, which was established as an Army outpost in 1849, was the last stop for "civilization" on the Chisholm Trail for cattle drives before crossing into Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) on their way to market in Abilene, Kansas. Soon the town became known as "Cowtown," one the city embraced. The cattle drives camped in the area that later became the stockyards.
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    Maintain your history. In other words, make your past your present. With the arrival of the railroad Fort Worth became a cattle market. The stockyards were built to accommodate that market. Some of the maze of pens and walkways used to herd the livestock remains in place today. Some of these pens feature specialty shops such as artist galleries, Texas souvenirs and memorabilia, restaurants, and even a winery; another section is the Cowtown Cattlepen Maze. The steam-engine-driven Tarantula Railroad runs more than 20 miles (32 km) between the stockyards and the town of Grapevine, giving riders a taste of travel when the stockyards – and the Old West – were booming. And, feeding on America’s continued romance with the Old West, the Stockyards today offer daily cattle drives of Longhorn cattle known as the “Fort Worth Herd” and gunfight reenactments.
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    Give old buildings new life. The question for many cities becomes what to do with the old buildings that otherwise might fall into urban blight. As the stockyard fell into disuse in the years after Armour and Co. and Swift and Co. meat packers, wooed to the city around the turn of the 20th Century, closed their meat-packing operations by 1971, the Fort Worth Stockyards National Historic District was established. North Side Coliseum, built in the early 1900s to house a rodeo and other events in the Stockyards area, became the Cowtown Coliseum where cowboys still ride bucking horses, rope cattle, ride bulls and participate in other rodeo events. A massive open-air cattle barn for livestock built in 1910 was used for the Southwestern Exposition and Fat Stock Show, which began in the stockyards and continues today as the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo at the Will Rogers Memorial Coliseum complex across town. The cattle barn, which was enclosed with a tower added in 1936 as a Texas Centennial project, became a major player in the Stockyards’ transformation into a tourist draw when Billy Bob’s Texas, which bills itself as the “World’s Largest Honky-Tonk,” opened in 1979. The massive bar with Texas-sized dance floor can accommodate about 6,000 guests at one time and hosts Country-Western concerts. It also features a bull-riding arena in what originally was a 1,200-seat livestock auction arena.
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    Don't forget the long time businesses. Billy Bob’s may have been a good shot in the arm, but a number of businesses in the Fort Worth Stockyards National Historic District remain mainstays, some more than a century after they started. The Stockyards Hotel, which bills itself as “The Old West at its Best,” was built in 1907, when the Stockyards were among the nation’s busiest livestock centers. As the hotel’s website says, “Cowboys and cattle barons, kings and queens of country music, even an outlaw or two have found refuge and romance at the Stockyards Hotel.” Those with a hankering for a pair of homemade western boots can visit M.L. Leddy’s, a family-owned business that offers handmade western boots, which began in West Texas in 1922 and moved to the Stockyards area in 1941. The Cattlemen’s Steak House opened in 1947 and quickly became a Fort Worth favorite.
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    Remember historic businesses with new venues: One of Old West Fort Worth’s legendary bars was the White Elephant Saloon, opened in 1884 closer to downtown than to the Stockyards proper. That bar, which also featured gambling, housed one of the city’s more infamous shootouts, between Luke Short, who had worked with Wyatt Earp, and former city marshal Timothy Courtright, known locally as “Long-haired Jim,” on Feb. 8, 1887, that left Courtright dead. The business faltered in the early 1900s. In 1976 the name was resurrected on a new bar inside the Stockyards district and about two miles north of the original. (Gambling and gunplay are frowned upon today, unless the gunplay is during a reenactment of the Short-Courtright battle held every Feb. 8.)
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    Find ways to relive and honor the past. Besides watching a cattle drive or gunfight reenactment and riding a steam-engine-powered trains, visitors to the Stockyards today can also ride a horse-drawn carriage or stagecoach; go horseback riding; or stroll along the Texas Trail of Fame, taking in the 98-acre district's many shops, restaurants, bars and shops where they can have a Texas-sized margarita or eat a Texas-sized steak. They may tour the Livestock Exchange Building - once known as the "Wall Street of the West" - that houses the North Fort Worth Historical Society Museum, the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame,Texas Rodeo Cowboy Hall of Fame, and the Stockyards Museum.
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    Remember who you are. The stockyards are not high-tech. But they are, as one user-contributor to Yahoo Travel put it, "A true Texas experience!" That contributor wrote: "If you want a Texas experience but has [SIC] only time to go to one place in Texas, this is it! This place has it all – cowboys, railroads, western music, cattle drives, Old West architecture, and all the Texas souvenirs you may be looking for.” But when you take part in the experience, be sure to watch where you step – especially after one of the cattle drives. Otherwise you might carry a whiff of that scent we used to cover our noses from half a century earlier.

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Categories: Environmental Awareness