Throughout his academic career, Dominic Pacyga’s personal past has deeply informed his historical research. Descended from a family of Polish immigrants and a lifelong resident of Chicago, Pacyga has written a book about Polish workers on the South Side, as well as Chicago: A Biography, and is currently working on a more general history of Polish neighborhoods in Chicago.

Slaughterhouse: Chicago’s Union Stock Yard and the World It Made, Pacyga’s latest book, was inspired by the summers he spent working at the stockyards as a cattle and hog driver and security guard in the late sixties. This was just after the last of the big meatpacking companies had left and just before, in 1971, the stockyards finally closed for good. Here, Pacyga, who is now a history professor at Columbia College, first heard the stories of the laborers who had worked for decades in the yards, stories that provided the impetus for this work.

But the book opens long before Pacyga’s own time at the then-diminished stockyards, with a description of the wildly popular tourist industry that emerged around the grisly spectacle of the slaughterhouses. At its peak, 500,000 people toured the stockyards every year, walking through galleries constructed above the halls of killing floors and boiling vats. There, visitors could see a hog or steer stunned, stuck, gutted, and boiled in rapid succession. Prior to industrialization, it would have taken a butcher eight hours to kill and dress a hog, all while hanging it from a tree; at its most efficient, the bloody sea of workers at these packinghouses took a little over half an hour to process each of the 7,000 hogs that passed through their factories every day.

“That was the startling thing about the modern. Everything was mechanized, everything was organized,” Pacyga tells the Weekly. “So there’s spectacle, and innovation, and this kind of repulsion too. You can’t do one without the other. Sort of like how people can’t stop looking at a train wreck.”

If the stockyards provided the perfect physical destination for Americans looking to exercise their anxieties surrounding modernity, it also revealed the political problems that plagued industrial capitalism for much of its later existence. Since their foundation in 1865, the stockyards were a prominent target of labor strikes demanding better working conditions (shortening the work day to eight hours was a particularly sore point of contention) and higher pay. Eventually, unions began to form, many of them intimately tied to leftist radicalism. In response to a series of unsuccessful protests and labor uprisings—including the infamous Haymarket bombing—packing companies implemented a watered-down form of the welfare capitalism found in Pullman or Henry Ford’s factories, in which the firm instituted shorter work hours, more regular schedules, and other benefits, all without the need for widespread union representation.

“Corporate welfarism is a reaction to these labor unions,” Pacyga says. “It’s a way to defang the labor movement. So the unions are very, very important, as they push for these better working conditions.”
“But they often lose their strikes,” he continues, “and that’s because in any strike situation there’s three players: the workers, management, and government. And often what happened until the 1930s was the federal government—or the local or state government—came in on the side of management.”

When the Great Depression came, it scuppered much of the progress made on behalf of workers in the early 1920s, and, after the brief interlude that was World War II, unions once again became a force for social change, when their reemergence coincided with the nascent civil rights movement. At this point, too, an increasing number of stockyard workers were either African-American or Latino, and the new intersection of labor rights and racial justice alienated many white workers, who began to leave for better jobs. Pacyga also describes the disappearance of the white laborer from the stockyard work force as indicative of a desire for upward mobility, a wish to move away from the blood and guts of the slaughterhouses toward cleaner-seeming jobs.

“Frankly, do you want your kid cutting the throats of hogs and wading in blood? You want them to go to high school, and learn how to be a punch-press operator, and then that punch-press operator wants their kid to go to college and become a high school teacher, or policeman, or firefighter,” he explains. “It’s the thing that drives Americans up and out—the dream.”

This time, the packing companies approached the demands of the union differently. In the time since welfare capitalism had sputtered to a halt, the development of a more local transportation infrastructure in rural areas gave many companies the option to decentralize, avoiding union demands altogether. Pacyga traces this back to the emergence of the truck, aided by the interstate highway system; if a farmer had a truck, it was easier for them to transport their livestock without resorting to rail, which gave them the ability to bring it to local markets instead of Chicago’s big central stockyard. As the packing companies realized this fading need for one large, shared market, they simply moved out of the city, disproportionately affecting the minority groups that now made up a majority of the work force at the stockyards.

The stockyards left more than an economic mess behind: they also had a severely deleterious effect on the surrounding ecosystem. Bubbly Creek is perhaps the most notorious example. As Pacyga writes, Bubbly Creek “became so encrusted [with offal] that small animals would make their way across it walking on the solidified mass floating on its surface.” Residents reported the water would change color as blood was dumped into the river, running red at certain times of the day.

In his interview with the Weekly, Pacyga described another lasting environmental impact of the slaughterhouses. As a young grad student, he would sometimes give bus tours through the shuttered stockyards during the summer. One day, he saw a number of fires spontaneously igniting out of the ground around him. When he asked some local firemen for the cause, they explained that, when the stockyards closed, the buildings were simply collapsed into the ground, leaving the basement grease reserves completely intact. When it got warm enough in the summer, grease fires would start. Pacyga, on his bus tours, saw the aboveground remnants.

It’s a shame that this particular story didn’t make it into the book, and, indeed, one sometimes wishes that Pacyga had been more lurid in recounting the history of such an obviously gross, gory place. It doesn’t help that his prose can be clumsily wrought and sometimes repetitive—Pacyga loves to remind the reader of the old adage that butchers used “every part of the hog except the squeal.”

The book’s other shortfall comes at the very end, when Pacyga enters a plea for recentralization, calling for the creation of a new, locally sourced market in Chicago aimed at people living in the city and its surrounding environs. Similar to the old stockyards, it would function as a place to buy and sell livestock, poultry, and vegetables, all while doubling as a tourist attraction. The Plant, an old Bridgeport meatpacking facility converted into an urban farming and renewal space, is one of Pacyga’s models, as its various components—tilapia farming and mushroom growing, among others—come together to create a cohesive, self-sustaining system, one that requires the use of little more than fish food and micronutrients, according to the business’s website.

Pacyga’s account of what such a market would look like is sketchy, though, and one sometimes suspects that his nostalgia is getting the better of his reason. Still, the force of his enthusiasm is compelling, and he is right to point to the growing population of “locavores” as a group whose demands could provide a niche for locally butchered meat.

Ultimately, the meatiness of Slaughterhouse’s actual content more than makes up for any stylistic weaknesses. Pacyga’s descriptions are thorough without being tedious, and his arguments about the key role of the stockyards in influencing Chicago’s past and present are deeply convincing. And if his final proposal is speculative, it largely does not detract from the book overall, which is a skillful account of how Chicago’s stockyards drove the city into the modern age, pushing it forward, with equal parts fear and fascination, into the twentieth century.

Dominic A. Pacyga, Slaughterhouse: Chicago’s Union Stock Yard and the World It Made. University of Chicago Press. 256 pages. $26.00

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