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If you’re looking for a unique and exciting way to experience the Wild West, then you need to visit the historic Fort Worth Stockyards! This well-preserved area of cowboys and cattle has been operating since 1866, making it one of the oldest attractions in Texas. I was on the phone with Doug, my husband, as I drove into the stockyards, and I genuinely squealed with excitement! Finally, I was in the Texas I had always imagined. Old saloons, cowboys riding their steeds up the road, longhorn cattle snoozing in their pens; I had arrived in my Western paradise! Although somewhat Disneyfied, the stockyards do have a vibrant culture that will help transport you back to another time! From catching rodeos with live music to some of the best barbeque around, there’s no shortage of things to do at the Fort Worth Stockyards. So keep reading for some western fun!
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How the city of Fort Worth came to be known as Cowtown – the history of Forth Worth Stockyards
Although the stockyards of Fort Worth were founded in 1893, the cattle history of Fort Worth far precedes it. After the civil war, America was desperate for cattle, something Texas had plenty of! In fact, due to the lack of trade during the war, Texas was home to over 5 million heads of cattle, and so in 1867, huge numbers of cattle were driven north from South Texas. One such drive was the Chisholm drive, which would pass through Fort Worth on their way to Ellsworth and Abilene, Kansas. These cattle drives are hailed as one of the biggest drivers in economic recovery for Texas since they generated a steady income along the way.
Although the Chisholm Trail was only used between 1867 and 1884, Fort Worth still saw 4 million cattle pass through the city in that time, which is how it became known as Cowtown. However, the arrival of the railway line in 1876 transformed the cattle market, allowing a large number of cattle to be transported across the country at greater speed and convenience. As such, the need to continue driving cattle north diminished, allowing Fort Worth to become a major shipping point for livestock.
The original investor in the Stockyards was Simpson; however, he soon invited his friend Niles to join him. Niles was in the meatpacking industry and soon realised there was additional value in packing the meat locally rather than sending it away to be processed in other markets. So it was in 1900 that Armour & Co and Swift & Co built meat packing plants right next to the stockyards.
The Wall Street of the West
With the construction of the meatpacking plants came more infrastructure, including the Livestock Exchange Building, additional railway lines, telegraph offices, and a plethora of other support businesses. As a result, Fort Worth started to boom, quickly becoming a melting pot of cultures as people from far and wide travelled here with their cattle or looking for jobs, of which there was no shortage!
The stockyards continued to prosper during WWII, with up to 5,000 heads of cattle sold each day! In fact, 1944 was the stockyard’s best year. They processed over 5.2m cattle! It was good for employment too, with three shifts of 2,000 people a day. That is 6,000 jobs just in the stockyard without even taking into account all the supplementary businesses that supported the operation.
After the war though, the rail industry was replaced by the trucking industry, which offered lower costs and greater flexibility, and so with this started the demise of the Fort Worth Stockyards. By 1962 Armour had already closed its doors, with Swift following behind in 1971. However, the stockyard sales continued until 1986, when the number of cattle sold was so low that the stockyards were closed.
Turning it into a Historic District
Luckily, Charlie and Sue McCafferty had the foresight to try and preserve the stockyards. They founded the North Forth Worth Historic Society and, through funding, have managed to keep the history of the Forth Worth Stockyard alive. In fact, it is now the only remaining historic stockyard left in the US. It attracts over 3 million tourists every year who flock to the area to learn about its importance in the economic recovery of Texas, and the nation, after the civil war. As well as experience the daily cattle drive, Western gun fights, live country music and weekly rodeos of course!
So now that we know why the Forth Worth Stockyards are so important, let’s delve into the best things to do while there.
Best things to do at Fort Worth Stockyards
For such a tiny area, the stockyards certainly pack a punch when it comes to things to do. So whether you visit alone, with kids, or with friends, you will undoubtedly find plenty of entertainment. Here were my favourite activities.
Have lunch or dinner at Joe T Garcia’s
I would typically have a section specifically dedicated to the best places to eat in any given location, but this one was so good that I don’t want to recommend any other because I want you to experience this gem!
It is very popular and not necessarily off the beaten path. I know, shock horror! That is usually the opposite of what I go for. In fact, when I arrived, there were long queues, both for indoor and outdoor seating. The good news is that it is as popular with locals as it is with tourists! And I can see why! The food was delicious! Probably the best Tex-Mex I have had! And believe me; I’ve been getting around quite a few of the venues in Dallas!
It is a very big establishment with the most beautiful outdoor courtyard, perfect for the endless Texas sun. However, that wasn’t always the case. They started off with only the capacity to seat 16 people. Now they can sit 1000! However, even back in the early days, nobody could resist Mamasuez’s mouth-watering recipes, so there has always been a queue of hungry customers outside their doors.
If the weather is nice, definitely try and sit outside (there is a separate queue for outside). The hacienda-style courtyard really is special, and you will feel like you have suddenly stepped through magic doors and been transported straight to Mexico!
Address: 2201 N Commerce St, Fort Worth, TX 76164
Join the historic stockyard tour
Join Joel on a tour of the stockyards and learn about the history of the place. No matter how much you read up on the stockyards beforehand, there is nothing like learning from someone knowledgeable that can point out what you are looking at. Joel was very passionate about the history and helped bring alive what the stockyards would have been like back in their heyday. We toured the old livestock building, learned about the tobacco-munching goats, visited the livestock exchange building, found out where Henry Ford got his mass production ideas from, and enjoyed a good laugh when a slightly inebriated lady went to hug the wrong man! She confused one of the other guests for her husband!
I love learning about the places I visit, so I recommend it to anyone visiting the Fort Worth Stockyards. Unfortunately, the rest of the experiences there are very touristy. Think fake gun fights, cattle drive re-enactments, mazes, mechanical bulls, and pony rides. You name it; if it is Western-themed, you can do it in the stockyards. So learning about the significance of the last remaining stockyards in the US is pretty special. For this reason, joining the historical stockyards walking tour is one of the best things you can do in Fort Worth.
Tour Price: $15 for adults
Operating Times: Mon-Fri: 10 am, 12 pm and 4 pm; Sat 10 am, 12:30 am, 2 pm and 4 pm; Sun 12:30 am, 2 pm and 4 pm
Address: 145 East Exchange Avenue, Fort Worth, TX 76164
Get the real Texan experience at Billy Bobs
If there is one thing about Texas you need to know, it is that everything in Texas is bigger, and Billy Bobs is no different! In fact, it is the largest honky-tonk in the world! If like me, you are wondering what a honky-tonk is, then the dictionary definition is “a cheap or disreputable bar, club or dance hall, typically where county music is played”. And if you are wondering how big the largest in the world is, we are talking 3 acres! They aren’t bragging!
The building now known as Billy Bobs, started off in 1910 as an open-air barn used to house the cattle for the Forth Worth Stock Show. In 1936 the building was enclosed, and livestock stalls and an auction ring were added. That auction ring now serves as Billy Bobs Bull Ring arena, and yes, you read that right! This “nightclub” has an actual bullring where actual rodeos take place! In fact, some of the best rodeo riders come to Billy Bobs to ride!
Billy Bobs also has 30 bars, a Texas-sized dance floor, and a stage that has hosted the hottest country music stars. It is definitely where the action takes place once the sun sets! It is not surprising therefore, that it has won the much acclaimed “Country Music Club of the Year” 10 times now!
Stores are boring today in comparison!
But its “coolness” didn’t just start when Billy Bobs opened its doors in 1981. The building has led quite a varied life since its humble beginnings as a cattle shed! During WWII, it was used as an airplane factory, and in the 1950s, it became a department store. But, of course, this was a department store with a twist. Because of its sheer size, the stock boys used rollerblades to get about!
Do check out their website for a schedule of events.
Watch a rodeo in the Cowtown Coliseum
Home to the first-ever indoor rodeo in 1918, the Cowtown Coliseum is an important historical feature within the Fort Worth Stockyards. Built in just 88 days, ready for the Feeders and Breeders Show’s inauguration in 1908, the Cowtown Coliseum has contributed significantly to the economy of Fort Worth. It still does, as it continues to host the only all-year-round rodeo in the world!
If you are in town and want to catch a rodeo, they host an event every Friday and Saturday. They might also have other events on as well. For example, between 19th January and 30th March 2023, there is a weekly PBR Stockyards showcase rodeo. The best bet is to check their schedule to find which event is best for you.
The rodeo is undoubtedly one of the most exciting things to do at the Fort Worth Stockyards.
Free things to do at Fort Worth Stockyards
Touristy destinations aren’t known for their free things. After all, the essence of tourism is to bring money into the economy. However, there are some great free activities that you can do while visiting the Fort Worth Stockyards.
Enjoy the daily cattle drive
I won’t lie. I was expecting more from the cattle drive than what we saw. The poster made it look like there would be some form of stampede charging down the street. As it happens, there were just 16 longhorn cows gently making their way down. The crowd seemed to love it, and with horns as long as theirs, it would be a health and safety nightmare if they did indeed charge down. But think how much more exciting it would be!
Regardless, don’t miss out on the cattle drive if you are in the stockyards. It happens daily at 11:30 am and 4 pm unless there is adverse weather. The best place to see it is where the train tracks enter the station. You will be able to get a great shot of the cattle coming under the Stockyard Station sign, and you will be perfectly positioned to make it to the gunfight, which was by far the best thing to do at the Fort Worth stockyards!
Get ready to laugh at the comedy gunfight
As soon as the cattle drive is over, follow the railway into the station, and as you come to the end of it, you will find yourself in the scene of a comedy gunfight. You will need to wait 10 minutes or so until everyone else arrives, but you will be guaranteed a good spot from where to watch the action. I recommend settling about halfway down on the left-hand side for the best view and most crowd interaction. And be warned, don’t make eye contact with the main character, or you could end up in the same predicament as me… part of the show!
Yes, it was cheesy, but it was a lot of fun! Whether you are there with kids or alone, you are sure to love it!
Fun things to do in Forth Worth Stockyard with children
I should start this section with a disclaimer. I do not have kids and did not travel with kids. However, I chatted with a lady on the history tour who was travelling with her two young sons, so these are really her recommendations!
Find your way out of the Cowtown Cattle Pen Maze!
Spanning only 5,400 square feet, this wooden maze designed to look like the old cattle pens is certainly one to get the brain cogs working! As well as needing to find your way out, you also need to find the letters M A Z E. At each letter you can stamp your card to record your time. I saw quite a few families getting involved in the maze, and they were all having a lot of fun!
Entry fee: $6
Opening Hours: Daily 10 am to 6 pm
Website: Click here
Address: 145 E Exchange Ave, Fort Worth, TX 76164
Best time to visit Fort Worth Stockyard
There really isn’t a bad time to visit the stockyards. However, it can get pretty hot over the summer months. If you don’t like crowds, I’d also avoid the school holidays! Spring and autumn tend to be the best months to visit as the temperatures are generally cooler, the crowds haven’t arrived just yet (although still expect it to be busy at weekends), and there is plenty going on. I was there at the beginning of January though, and I can’t fault it. There was more to do than I could fit in, and the weather was perfect! I’d hate to think what the queue at Joe T Garcia’s would be like at the height of the season!
Will you be visiting the stockyards next time you are in Texas?
The Fort Worth Stockyards are definitely worth a visit the next time you find yourself in Texas. With its diverse range of activities, there is something for everyone! From experiencing history and meeting cowboys first-hand to eating delicious Tex-Mex cuisine and enjoying live entertainment, it’s no surprise that people keep coming back year after year. The highlight for me was being transported back in time and allowing me to revel in the Lone Star State’s cowboy culture and history. Whether you are looking for excitement or just want a change of pace, one thing is certain: a trip to the Fort Worth Stockyards will not disappoint!
If you have been to the stockyards or it is on your list of places to visit, then I’d love to hear from you. Please leave a comment. Nothing makes me happier than chatting about travel!
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