The beating heart of Oklahoma’s beef industry—and in fact the largest cattle market in the world—can be found just outside of the capital city at the Oklahoma National Stockyards.
ONSY visitors will witness one of the last surviving stockyards of its kind, a 120-acre facility with live cattle, sprawling pens, and modern cowboys situated amidst a town comprised of century-old small businesses primarily catering to the work done within the stockyards. Tours of the stockyards traverse the grounds from the “catwalk” above the bustling maze of pens bursting with cattle.
Twice a week, prospectors fill a small auditorium within the stockyards for a marathon auction in which up to 15,000 cattle are sold each day. Staff members usher herd after herd of lively cattle into a viewing pen centering the room before an auctioneer announces their provenance (cattle are sold here from as far away as Florida, California, and Canada) and begins the bidding. Buyers assess the livestock while the auctioneer carries out his sing-song bidding chatter, upping the offer in response to raised fingers and nods from around the audience. Each herd is presented and sold in under a minute from early morning to well after midnight, with up to $13 million dollars being exchanged daily on little more than a handshake.
Established in 1910, the stockyard quickly rose to prominence given its centralized location, nationally speaking. Packing plants emerged to facilitate the post-sale slaughtering processing. The booming business created hundreds of jobs, which spurred the growth of a pocket of downtown that locals called “Packingtown,” full of steakhouses, saloons, and hotels.
Given the grueling nature of the work therein and the workers it attracted, Packingtown came to be known as one of the wilder parts of the downtown area, with denizens taking to bootlegging, gambling, and sex work. Legend has it that in 1945 Hank Frey, then-owner of Cattlemen’s Steakhouse, bet the restaurant on a craps game against Percy Wade. Wade ran Cattlemen’s with his son for the next 45 years.
Today the area is called Stockyard City. You can still visit many of the historic businesses that opened alongside the booming stockyards, like Cattlemen’s Steakhouse (opened 1910) in addition to Exchange Pharmacy (1910), Langston’s Western Wear (1916), and the National Saddlery (1926). And if you’ve got deep enough pockets and a big enough truck, there’s always a herd of cattle for sale.