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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.