Gardens to Gables

Remembering Blue Grass Stockyards, Lexington, Kentucky

When I took a break from writing the afternoon of January 30, 2016, I was immediately transfixed by the malevolent black clouds visible through the windows. And when I ventured onto the Internet, to all of the reports of explosions and fire ravaging the Blue Grass Stockyards, I felt sick.

The William McConnell House, built in the last quarter of the 18th century, served as offices for the stockyards and escaped the worst of the fire.

The William McConnell House, built in the last quarter of the 18th century, served as offices for the stockyards and escaped the worst of the fire.

Since starting this blog, I’ve carried a spiral, hardbound notebook with me constantly, to keep track of possible topics I wanted to explore. Stories appeared everywhere, and the stockyards appealed to me greatly, given its obvious agricultural connections and the fact that most people wouldn’t really see the labyrinth-like beauty of the livestock pens. They might notice the early stone house near the road, but the rambling guts of the business might not seem so historic or interesting. But I was so busy (with my real job) that the stockyards became another notation on a long list.

One the many views making the rounds of the web of the black plume of smoke from the fire.

One the many views making the rounds of the web of the black plume of smoke from the fire.

Three days after the stockyards burned, I went home, and talked to my father about Blue Grass Stockyards. In the 1940s and 1950s, our family farm most often sold livestock at the stockyards in Winchester. Once Interstate 64 was completed, however, access in and out of Lexington made the trip – and the larger pool of buyers – an attractive option.

A view of the stockyards from Bing Maps, before the fire.

A view of the stockyards from Bing Maps, before the fire.

During the 1980s, my father related, he would wait until folks were housing tobacco, and then hook up the trailer with a load of finished cattle, and head to Lexington. Sales at the stockyards were slow at that time of year. My father’s gooseneck was, according to him, easier to maneuver than the big trucks full of bawling cattle. His load was already sorted – 10 to 12 steers of similar weight and identical in color – so it saved the employees of the stockyards time. They would unload the steers, and send them on to the ring. Sometimes, before my father had finished parking the trailer, they would be sold, and his check ready for him.

An undated photograph of the Blue Grass stockyards sale ring, probably mid-20th century. Kentucky Digital Library.

An undated photograph of the Blue Grass stockyards sale ring, probably mid-20th century. Kentucky Digital Library.

And for me? The stockyards were a magical world. The pens at the stockyards seemed to go on for miles (and at seven acres, it was large). Catwalks suspended throughout the building allowed a birds eye view of cattle and sheep, almost like I was climbing through the rafters of a barn at home.

And sitting watching the eventual sale was nail-bitingly exciting – the ringmen jostling steers along, the calls of the auctioneer, the low rumble of conversation from men dressed in coveralls and boots a strangely calming litany. I felt  a very consequential person to be included in this strange cacophonous ritual, and I could have lingered on the catwalks all day.

The charred remains of the stockyard pens.

The charred remains of the stockyard pens.

The police cruisers maintain their vigil at Blue Grass Stockyards, and the air remains acrid. Lacking any sort of official identification, and not wanting to be chastised (or chased) by authorities, I linger around the periphery of the site. I make do with photographs from the road, and I mourn the loss of the rest of the site – the soul of the stockyards. What has been called one of the largest fires in the history of Lexington, Kentucky, destroyed an institution of Kentucky agriculture (70 years at that site), and reminded me again of the importance of not delaying to document a site or a building. You never know when it might vanish altogether.

 

 

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14 Thoughts on “Remembering Blue Grass Stockyards, Lexington, Kentucky

  1. Pattie Hood on February 8, 2016 at 8:21 pm said:

    My grandfather Edgar H. Boone was the livestock auctioneer at the Bluegrass Stockyards for many, many years. He may have been their first auctioneer, not certain about that.

    • Janie-Rice Brother on February 9, 2016 at 9:23 am said:

      Pattie – thanks for reading! Do you know the years that your grandfather worked there? I am going to be doing a little bit more research on the stockyards in the coming weeks, and that would be wonderful information to include.

  2. Paige Walker on February 9, 2016 at 7:47 am said:

    I love this!

  3. Janie: Do you have any sense where the earliest Lexington yards were? Were they in roughly the same place as Bluegrass? Stockyards seem to be a product of the spread of railroads and the rails beside Bluegrass were quite early. For example the yards appear in the 1850s in Paris, beside the rails, after the arrival of the rails from Lexington and Cincinnati. I would expect that the yards in Winchester and Mt. Sterling also “appear” when the rails arrive in the post Civil War period.
    Bluegrass will indeed be missed, lets hope that they are allowed to rebuild in Lexington. Folks seem to have forgotten the importance of livestock in central Kentucky in light of “horse mania.”

    • Janie-Rice Brother on February 9, 2016 at 12:06 pm said:

      Berle,
      I am hoping to get some free time soon to start digging around. In the early 20th century, there were at least two stockyards in Lexington – Gentry-Thompson and then later, Clay-Gentry, was over on Angliana, and the predecessor to Blue Grass (I think) was the Lexington Livestock Commission. I’ve got to spend some time with the micro-fiche machines at the library. But yes, there is a definite link to the rail lines. And I agree – people tend to overlook the larger picture of Kentucky agriculture, both historically and in the present.

  4. Sandra Oppegard on February 9, 2016 at 11:25 am said:

    I did a lot of photographing the interior of the Stockyards from 2007 -2009 mostly from the catwalks into the pens and shots of the wranglers moving cattle. What a magical place for an artist. The lighting is fabulous and difficult at the same time.
    I used the photos for a series of watercolors , most of which are sold.

    Certain collectors are attracted to the subject. I found it particularly exciting because it is an opportunity to depict livestock in an interior. Unusual.

    • Janie-Rice Brother on February 9, 2016 at 12:07 pm said:

      Sandra, I would love to see your photographs. To the best of my knowledge, the pens were never documented by anyone in my profession, which is a huge loss.

      • Sandra Oppegard on February 10, 2016 at 10:33 am said:

        Janie,

        It would be a pleasure to meet with you and share my photos. I love the work you are doing.

        You are welcome to come to my house/studio. Just e-mail me. I am mostly painting this time of year.

  5. Matt Hovekamp on February 9, 2016 at 2:40 pm said:

    Great read Janie, I really enjoy your blog!

  6. Beautiful piece that captures the thoughts and emotions of so many!! #wearebluegrass

  7. There is a rich history to be documented, I’d enjoy the opportunity to share some of it with you

  8. Tom Harrison on February 24, 2016 at 6:43 pm said:

    It is truly sad the city officials will not let the yards rebuild in that location.

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