A Slow Swift Death (Part 1): The Rise and Fall of a Packing Plant

The obituaries for the two Fort Worth siblings were brief and without emotion.

swift armour to close 2

The twins Swift and Armour were born on the North Side in 1903 after a brief but intense courtship between the city of Fort Worth and the two parent meatpacking companies in Chicago. Almost sixty years later the Armour packing plant was the first sibling to die, its closing announced by the company on March 8, 1962. The Swift plant (“too old to operate efficiently”) lingered on into 1971.

The two newspaper briefs marked the deaths of two institutions that had symbolized the “cow” in “Cowtown” for much of the twentieth century.

packing opening In 1902 Fort Worth city leaders, after months of wooing Swift and Armour, had been ecstatic after both meatpackers accepted Fort Worth’s invitation—which included a $50,000 bonus paid to each company—to build packing plants here—on land donated by the ownership of the Stockyards, which also had given Swift and Armour a one-third interest each in the Stockyards. Soon both Swift and Armour plants were being constructed side by side. Construction workers—2,500 of them—must have been tripping over each other as they covered the two compounds’ combined thirty acres with buildings, pens, railroad tracks, tanks, vats, water towers, and passageways. The two packing plants opened on March 6, 1903.

The packing plants were the biggest economic development in Fort Worth since the coming of the railroad a quarter-century earlier. (In 1962 the Star-Telegram reported that Armour alone contributed $50 million [$400 million today] a year to the local economy.) One packing plant official said in 1903, “I look for a population of 75,000 for Fort Worth within the next five years.” Fort Worth’s population in 1903 was 35,482. That packing plant official’s prediction was not far wrong: Fort Worth’s population in the 1910 census would be 73,312: a doubling in just seven years.

The figures listed in this 1903 Fort Worth Telegram ad are for all Swift packing plants.

The packing plants, like the adjacent Stockyards, indeed were major employers: “the office” for thousands of residents of Fort Worth. Swift employed one thousand people when it opened. That workforce would double. If your family has been in Fort Worth a few generations, chances are good that at least one person in your family worked at the Stockyards or packing plants and at the bomber plant.

The Stockyards and packing plants technically were not in Fort Worth in the beginning. They were in the city of North Fort Worth, which had incorporated just four months before the packing plants opened in 1903. Suddenly North Fort Worth needed new housing for all those new workers. In fact, the boom of the Stockyards-packing plants complex meant a boom for North Fort Worth, which came to be called “the Chicago of the Southwest.” In 1907 the Telegram reported that the population of North Fort Worth had exploded from two hundred in 1902 to ten thousand. Fort Worth would annex most of North Fort Worth in 1909 but would exclude the Stockyards-packing plants area in order to attract more industry to an area free of city taxes.

These 1902 Telegram photos show the main building and slaughterhouse of Swift.

This photo shows the plantation house-style Swift office building in the foreground and the main processing building behind it with “Swift & Company” painted on the wall. The staircase in the foreground leads from Swift and Armour down to Exchange Avenue and the Stockyards. For the convenience of Stockyards and packing plant workers, a streetcar line ran beside Packers Avenue almost to that staircase. (Photo from Tarrant County  College Northeast.)

Fort Worth Stockyards ~ Swift & CoFrom the air the Swift and Armour compounds looked like the central business district of a city. This photo shows just Swift. The intersection in the lower right is Packers Avenue and Northeast 23rd Street. (Photo from Pete Charlton’s “1000+ Lost Antique Maps of Texas & the Southwest on DVD-ROM.”)

stockyards smithW. D. Smith photos from 1940.

Swift and Armour provided more than wages to their workers, of course. These clips show that there were picnics, baseball games at Lake Erie via the interurban, even a YMCA program. The packing plants provided workers with medical care, emergency leave, and pension plans and sponsored marching bands, chorale groups, educational programs, and company newsletters.

Swift sponsored a variety show on radio station KGKO.

But after decades of prosperity the meatpacking industry in Fort Worth began to decline in the 1950s as local livestock auctions and feedlots replaced centralized markets. The packing plants were served by railroads; livestock was now being transported by truck. The world was changing. A drought in west Texas hastened the decline. To remain viable, the packing plants laid off workers. Remaining workers accepted pay cuts to help keep the plants open.

And yet even into the 1960s Swift still employed 1,400 people with a payroll of $10 million (about $77 million today) and spent $50 million (about $386 million today) a year buying livestock.

But finally decreased demand for products and obsolescence killed off first Armour and then Swift.

The sprawling Armour and Swift compounds soon stood weedy and windswept, urban ghost towns. And as such they began to suffer the indignities that are visited upon ghost towns.

A Slow Swift Death (Part 2): The Ghosts of Packers Past

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7 Responses to A Slow Swift Death (Part 1): The Rise and Fall of a Packing Plant

  1. Pingback: Lake Worth Landowners Bid Goodbye As Fort Worth Nature Center Steps Up Property Acquisition - DFW News App

  2. nancy brownlee says:

    I have searched online, periodically, for photos(s) of the old stock pens- when they stretched for acres and were full of stock. I know that another Poly boy- artist Ronald Thomason- sketched and then painted them when he found out about the planned destruction of the last acres of the pens. Ronald was my mother’s classmate, and he’s gone now. I do wish I knew what became of those photos and sketches.

    • hometown says:

      I know there are photos out there. Bet the UTA library has some because it has both the S-T archives and the W. D. Smith photos.

    • Ronald was my great grandfather, his art work hangs in Greenwood Funeral Home, TCU Admissions office, and many other places… including my family home. So cool to see that he also did sketches of this historic place. I was able to (break in) see the ruins of what was left in 2015 and used the photographs in my Arlington Heights High School photography class!

  3. Susan says:

    Thank you for this well researched post. I loved the map of the old plant buildings. Fort Worth has such an interesting, unique history. It’s a shame to see its past just crumble.

    • hometown says:

      Thank you, Susan. And a worse shame is that the crumbling will probably be followed by demolishing. I wish just one building could be preserved.

  4. Don Peacock says:

    I do not remember the date, since we had several fires to fight in the ruins of the old buildings, but in one large multiple alarm (4 alarms as I recall) the wind was strong out of the north. It was blowing sparks and then one of the captains said he saw birds flying with wings on fire. Those birds as well as the blowing sparks, triggered a second alarm fire south of the Armour’s fire in some larger houses.

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