Gardens to Gables

Icons of Industry: Tanneries & Stockyards in Louisville, Kentucky

Growing up on a farm influenced me and my interests in many ways, most of which are difficult to explain to anyone who grew up “in town.” The cycle of life and death never recedes into the background on a farm, and while that doesn’t make personal loss any easier, it does shape the way in which you view the world. For me, that includes my perspective on  livestock, the infrastructure of food delivery and consumption, and the architecture of production and process. Louisville, Kentucky, still has many vestiges of the days when Kentucky livestock stayed in the state, rather than being shipped out west to feedlots. Some of the structures associated with post-farm livestock journey are masterpieces of architecture and engineering.

Kentucky is the largest beef producer east of the Mississippi River.

Kentucky is the largest beef producer east of the Mississippi River.

The unique combination of soil and location in antebellum Kentucky resulted in farms that produced large herds of livestock as well as crops. From the Euro-American settlement period on, Kentucky was a major supplier of livestock to the south and the east. Travelers making their way through the Cumberland Gap were often interrupted by “immense droves of hogs, which were bred in Kentucky and were proceeding thence to Baltimore and places in Virginia. These droves often contained very often from seven to eight hundred hogs.” [2] Yearly, the number of hogs travelling east from Kentucky to markets like Philadelphia or Baltimore numbered in the thousands – until the war of 1812 and the expansion of the national livestock market. [3]

Early 20th-century photo of cattle stuck by lightning on a farm in Montgomery County, Kentucky.

Early 20th-century photo of cattle stuck by lightning on a farm in Montgomery County, Kentucky.

 By 1830, Kentucky was the top cattle producer in the country, with pork production close behind. At that time, the nascent national meat industry was centered around ports on the Ohio River and the Mississippi River. The establishment of the Bourbon House in Butchertown in 1834 capitalized on this burgeoning industry. From 1834 until the late 1990s, the Bourbon House and later, the Bourbon Stockyards served the butchering and livestock needs of Louisville and the eastern United States.

The Bourbon Stockyards Exchange Building dates to 1914.

The Bourbon Stockyards Exchange Building dates to 1914.

A droving inn, established as the Bourbon House in 1834 in Butchertown, laid the foundation for the stockyards. Inns that housed drovers, famers and buyers, and provided pens for their livestock, were common in the first half of the nineteenth century. By 1854, the Bourbon House was known as the Bourbon House and Stock Yard and its owner, slaughterhouse owner Herman Vissman, constructed a new facility and began expanding what would become the largest stockyards in the south.

The front entrance gates to the original stockyards, also of brick construction, and terracotta and stone finishes, are located on the east side of the Exchange Building. Two gated bays flank a central enclosed bay, illuminated by one double-hung sash window, which would have been manned by a stockyard employee overseeing the flow of traffic, both human and livestock, in and out of the yards.

The front entrance gates to the original stockyards, also of brick construction, and terracotta and stone finishes, are located on the east side of the Exchange Building. Two gated bays flank a central enclosed bay, illuminated by one double-hung sash window, which would have been manned by a stockyard employee overseeing the flow of traffic, both human and livestock, in and out of the yards.

The stockyards closed in 1999, after 165 years of service, and in 2001, most of the structures, with the exception of an administration building, were demolished by the new owner, the Home of the Innocents. The remaining piece of the stockyards is the 1914 Beaux Arts Stockyard Exchange Building, designed by local architect D.X. Murphy. Located at 1048 East Main Street, the two-story brick structure, featuring elaborate terracotta ornamentation, now houses the Stockyards Bank and Trust Company.

The National Oak Leather Company, built in 1884. This structure is a good example of large scale Victorian commercial architecture.

The stockyards, of course, weren’t the last stop. Louisville’s Butchertown neighborhood was also home to numerous tanneries. Similar to  commercial stockyards, tanneries tended to occupy a large footprint, with specialized structures housing the different functions of the tannery. Structures tended to be of frame or brick construction (concrete after the turn of the twentieth century), with clerestories or skylights providing light to the workers below. There would have been pens for the livestock, a space for slaughtering the animals, cold storage structures, ice houses and rendering rooms.

A detail of the corbelling on the National Oak Leather Company building.

A detail of the corbelling on the National Oak Leather Company building.

The National Oak Leather Tannery building was once home to the Louisville Butchers Hide and Tallow Company, an organization created in 1873 to maximize profits among the prominent butchers in the neighborhood. Two years before this consortium of “boss butchers” got its start, there were 17 porkhouses and six packing houses in Butchertown. The industry would flourish until the mid-twentieth century. The National Oak Leather Tannery occupied the building until selling it to Magic-Keller Soap Works in 1917. During the twentieth century, it was also home to the Caudill Seed Company, which was founded in 1947.

A section of the 1905 Sanborn (sheet 417) showing the site of current JBS Swift plant at 1200 Story Avenue in Butchertown.

A section of the 1905 Sanborn (sheet 417) showing the site of current JBS Swift plant at 1200 Story Avenue in Butchertown.

It is hard to realize, I think, for those of us who are used to sharply defined cities – residential here, industry over there, and commercial in another area – how mixed-use neighborhoods worked. I know Butchertown still has its share of  issues with slaughterhouses and packing plants, and I’m not advocating for a return to any golden era (I don’t think there ever was such a thing…). But it is worth considering the landscape of process and production – these distinctive and historic buildings tell us a story not always pretty, but one that worked for the economic engine at the time. And at a time when more and more people are aware of where their food comes from, and how it gets to them, supporting initiatives to grow and process our products in the Bluegrass, I believe, is a win-win situation.

 

[1] Paul C. Henlein, “Cattle Driving from the Ohio Country, 1840-1850” Agricultural History 2 (April 1945), 83-95.

[2] J. Winston Coleman, Jr., Slavery Times in Kentucky (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1940), 20.

[3] Pate, 17-18.

 

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2 Thoughts on “Icons of Industry: Tanneries & Stockyards in Louisville, Kentucky

  1. Karl Raitz on December 14, 2015 at 12:20 pm said:

    Hi Janie-Rice: Nice work on the tannery and adjacent grounds.

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