On the Cattle Trail

Posted by on 10/08/10 in America, Creativity, Entrepreneurship, History, Risk, Stewardship

In Colorado, a conversation with a stranger can quickly turn into a nostalgic journey, particularly when speaking with someone whose family has been in the area for at least three generations. If so, then there is a good likelihood that you’ll end up discussing cattle—stockyards, cattle trading, ranching, slaughter houses, packing houses and the like. For whether their family came here to escape the politics of colonial Mexico, tuberculosis on the east coast, or pogroms in eastern Europe, whether they were drawn by the opportunity of a vast new state or simply got sidetracked on their way to California, there’s a good likelihood that they ended up participating in or otherwise experiencing the cattle business.

In most cases, that cattle-driven conversation would be a nostalgic one set in places that don’t exist anymore, or certainly not in the same way. It would describe ranches once owned by families that were set on the windswept high plains of eastern Colorado, in the stunning San Luis Valley that is in so many ways closer to New Mexico than to metropolitan Denver, and scattered across the Western Slope around Delta and Montrose. Many of these ranches still exist and some still function as such. But many are now barren, or have been sold to a major agricultural conglomerate, or have even become retirement communities complete with golf courses and shopping centers.

The remembrances would be set in the years prior to the early 1980s, in Commerce City or Greeley or Longmont where smallish family owned businesses raised cattle, traded them, slaughtered them, butchered the sides and packaged them into filets, tenderloins, rib-eye, skirts, and even bacon and sausage, and transported them by truck, rail, and ship across the country and around the world.

Those small family owned businesses are few and far between now. Some were forced to close due to volatility in cattle prices and union demands, others were snatched up by regional corporations, then national and multinational powerhouses. A handful still operate in a modest form but are sustained financially by other professions or businesses with steadier, more significant income. Those that remain in operation most effectively tend to be far from the urban centers of the Front Range

Clues to the former trade abound, but you have to be looking. The drive along I-70 into downtown Denver from our International Airport takes one past the former stockyards, though plenty of people drive that route every day without noticing the history whizzing past the windows or even knowing to look. It would be hard now to envision the area formerly teeming with thousands of heads of cattle coming and going on the many train tracks that connect Denver to Omaha, Kansas City, Oklahoma City, and Chicago.

A few blocks to the east of the stockyards, former slaughter houses and packing houses congregate along Washington Street, quiet now. No bellowing from the cattle being unloaded from trucks, no banter in the parking lots between hard-working men in white coats red with blood. Some buildings have fallen down, others remain empty, still others have become offices, warehouses, and at least one laser tag facility.

While every January thousands of people still travel from across the plains to participate in the National Western Stock Show, one can—and most do—remain ensconced in the urban core and suburban neighborhoods and never be touched by what likely appears to many to be a relic of the past or a quaint tribute to rural life. Even though beef is on nearly every menu in town and in every grocery store, it is hard for many to believe that there are still families—real people living real lives—who get up every morning to raise cattle, breed them, care for them, and bring them to market, albeit a market that is now much farther from where most people live and work.

And while some remain deeply connected to the cattle business, most of the children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren of those who once built and lead this dynamic, rich, and vital part of our culture live largely in a different world. They are consultants and investment advisers, real estate agents and nonprofit leaders. They are in manufacturing and energy and technology. While a fortunate few maintain some connection to this former world, most people know it mostly as a story, one often collecting dust on the shelves because it has not been recently told.

America’s bookshelves are populated with stories such as this. The Western Pennsylvania story of steel mills lining the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio Rivers, drawing immigrants from across Europe and helping build America’s bridges, cars and skyscrapers. The Oregon story of wood lots and timber mills producing the lumber that houses families across America and even a few in Japan. The family dairies of Wisconsin that were financially viable for generations until the world changed and the economics shifted and so many were forced to close and create a new life.

America was born by people seeking to change their lives. It is and always has been a tumultuous country. One generation comes here because it is possible to build a life here, to start an industry, a company and to pass it along to future generations. Yet that same vitality has a destructive quality as well. For the very forces that enable one to start a packing house, a steel mill, a timber mill, a dairy farm, make it challenging for others to sustain it over time. All of the stories referenced above—Colorado, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin—reached their denouements in the early 1980s. These are not journeys into ancient history, nor are they exceptions.

As difficult as many find this time in history—whether one calls it the Great Recession or the Great Deleveraging or simply shrugs and looks worn out—America has been here before many times. It is a time of reinvention, a time where elements of life that we thought were timeless (e.g. housing appreciates at 10-20% per year) have proven not to be.

So long as we believe that new stories can be written and so long as we maintain policies that enable them to be written, then we should be all right. If, however, we no longer believe that we have the power to create new stories, if the personal and social will to create are gone, it does not matter who we elect or what they do in office.

Better that we look forward to creating the stories our grandchildren will tell than lament the passing of those that already have been told.