Russel Bonander (1915-2011) was a neighbor to my family and the Charlie Swanson he writes about below is my Great Grandfather. Russel shared this story years ago with me during a church coffee time and was wondering how he could pass it on, I was proud to include it in my book, A West Ender's Scrapbook. I've added a few photos to his words below. Thank you Russel for preserving this bit of local history!
Iowa Cattle Drive
by Russel Bonander, Larchwood, IA, written in approximately 1992
In the early days of Granite, Sioux Township, Lyon County, Iowa, the town had an elevator, a grocery store, a combination grocery store and post office, a bank, a depot and stockyards. Now it has six houses and is the location of the annual Granite Threshing Bee.
Western stories of the dangerous cattle drives from Texas to Dodge City were filled with exciting adventures but we had our share of excitement in the little town of Granite when the large cattle feeders in the community pooled their shipments of fat cattle to Chicago via the Rock Island Railroad. These shipments reached their peak shortly after World War I and continued until the late 1920’s. It was a period when Chicago’s south side was king of the meat packing industry and the railroads carried the nation’s freight.
Cattlefeeders in the Granite area bought cattle for their feedlots from local beef raisers, however, most of their cattle came off the ranches of South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana. They carried range brands like the Lazy J, the Rocking W and the Roaring Gulch.
Range cattle were best handled on horseback because that was about all they saw on the Western ranches which spread out for miles and miles. They were easily frightened and would smash right through a fence if they were spooked by unfamiliar sounds or sights. Our neighbor, Charlie Swanson, who lived down the hill south of us, was one of the largest cattlefeeders in the area. During nighttime thunderstorms his cattle often broke out and he and his hired men would have to track them down and round them up. He said range cattle always headed into the storm so he checked the path of the storm as well as the tracks of the steers.
Left: An early photo of the C.T. Swanson farm
Charlie and the other feeders bought most of their cattle after the fall roundup on the western ranges. Some of them made trips out West and bought cattle direct from the ranchers while others purchased them when they came to the stockyards in Sioux Falls, SD. If there had been plenty of rain on the ranches the cattle came in carrying good weight. A dry season meant skinny cattle.
Keeping about five hundred head of cattle in the feed yard required a lot of help in those days when all the feeding was done by hand. Charlie had two sons and three hired men. They kept feed bunks full of corn and hauled in hay for the mangers and the feed racks. He bought wagonload after wagonload of corn from his neighbors and weighed it over the Fairbanks Morse scale on the west end of the feedlot. During the winter months his men were out in cold and snowy weather feeding the cattle and hogs that Charlie kept on his large land holdings.
When field work began in the spring, the work day began long before the sun peeked over the eastern horizon. Meanwhile, the cattle in the feedyard, enjoying the spring warmth, continued to put on the fat that was necessary for them to bring top price on the Chicago market. By the middle of June when all hands were busy cultivating corn and making hay, the fat cattle were about ready for market.
Left: The Granite Depot
Now the Rock Island Railroad men began preparations for their part in the cattle drive. Snow fences from up and down the line were shipped into Granite and set up by the section men as extra pens for the large shipment of beef. Livestock cars began to be lined up on the siding two or three weeks in advance of the shipping date. Freight agents and commission men converged on the little town two or three days before the farmers brought their cattle in for shipment. Although the railroad spent large sums of money prior to loading the cattle, they received all the money they spent plus a lot more when they collected their freight bill.
The stockmen brought hayracks full of straw to bed down the cars before the cattle were loaded. John Anderson, one of Charlie Swanson’s hired men, lost a gold pocket watch while pitching straw into the livestock cars and spreading it around. He did not discover his loss until they had all the cars bedded down. It was a watch that had been given to him and he was determined not to lose it. So he started back through the cars, shaking the straw and checking the floor. He missed out on dinner that day but he found his watch halfway back through the livestock cars.
Left: An early photo of the Granite Stockyards
Saturday morning a scheduled movement of fat cattle were herded out of fattening pens and on the road toward the Granite Stockyards. They staggered their departure times so they would not arrive all at the same time and get their herds mixed together.
Left: An early photo of the Granite Stockyards
Charlie Swanson had his herd at the stockyards shortly after 7:00 a.m. They were herded into pens and loading the cars began. Twenty to twenty-five head of steers, depending on their size were herded onto the big stockyards scales and weighed. Experienced freight agents knew how many pounds of beef each cattle car would hold. From there they went up the chute and into the cattle car. Quickly another bunch was weighed up and loaded.
Meanwhile, as other feeders brought in their large herds, the village echoed with the sound of bawling beef herds. The few people who lived in the little town came out on their porches to watch the show and hang onto their kids.
All hands pitched in to help as car after car was loaded and moved ahead. Time came for the noon meal and it was eaten in shifts in a railroad diner car that had been pulled in for the occasion. Loading of the cattle continued at a fast pace until the last car was closed and sealed by 3:30 p.m. The shippers yelled last minute instructions to their hired men before they boarded the caboose of the long train. Here they would ride on a free pass from the Rock Island Railroad into Chicago.
Standing back by the caboose, the brakeman signaled the engineers in the double header steam engines and the train, over one hundred cars long, began moving slowly as the engines chugged and snorted. They crept off the Granite siding onto the main track heading east, carrying over two thousand head of cattle into Chicago.
Now the race against time began in earnest. This was Saturday afternoon and the railroad guaranteed the shippers that they would have the cattle into the Chicago stockyards and unloaded on Monday morning in time for the packing house buyers to start putting bids on the fat cattle.
The long train snaked over the tracks slowly at first, then picked up speed as it rolled past the fertile Iowa farm land. At many small towns, people turned out to see the long train go past. They had the right of way over all traffic. Even passenger trains pulled on to the side tracks while the livestock special highballed past.
Darkness came and the men in the caboose nodded off to an uncomfortable sleep but the train kept rolling. Their only stop was at division points where they changed crews, took on coal and water and at a midnight stop, the brakeman brought on hot coffee for his passengers. “We’re right on schedule.” he told them. “It won’t be long before we hit the main line of the Rock Island. Then we’ll really highball it.” Of course, twenty-five to thirty miles was considered top speed.
Anxious shippers worried about the possibility of hot weather. They had lost cattle on previous runs into Chicago when the weather turned excessively hot and humid. This time nature cooperated with them and they ran in and out of thunder showers as they rolled across the western plains of Illinois.
Promptly at 9:00 a.m., buyers from Swift, Armour and Cudahay descended on the yards and began haggling prices with commission firm sellers. In the 1920’s it took a good steer to bring a nickel a pound but the buyers and sellers bargained just as intensely as if they were bringing a dollar a pound. Deals were made, the cattle weighed up and one by one the Iowa cattle feeders picked up their checks at the various commission firms. Most of the cattle were probably slaughtered that day.
The commission men, no doubt thinking of next year’s shipment, glad handed the Iowa farmers and treated them to dinner in the old commission building restaurant. Presumably they ate roast beef.
It had been a hectic three days for the cattle men as they concentrated on moving their fat cattle from the feedlot to market. With checks in their pockets, they were now anxious to return home. They were escorted to the Union Train Station to board a Rock Island passenger train with a free pass back to Granite. On the return trip the riding was much more comfortable than bouncing in the old caboose of the freight train. Most of them fell asleep and perhaps they dreamed about next year’s trip to the Chicago Stockyards.