A few minutes before 4 p.m., I join the crowd lining both sides of Fort Worth’s Exchange Avenue. We’re all ages—parents with children, middle-aged couples, grandparents—and some have come from as far as Mexico, Munich and Memphis.
A woman wearing a red cowgirl hat and holding a megaphone gives notice: “The cattle drive is about to start!” We gaze toward the end of the avenue and see them emerge, lumbering beasts with massive horns, right on schedule.
Welcome to the world’s only twice-a-day cattle drive.
A dozen longhorns—some weighing 1,600 pounds and with horns spanning 5 feet or more—clip clop past us, make a right turn and disappear behind the rodeo coliseum. If you were expecting a wild stampede or a Fort Worth version of the annual Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain, you’d be disappointed.
No need to risk saddle sores to experience the Fort Worth Herd—just show up any day at 11:30 a.m. or 4 p.m.—and there’s no charge. The docile steers (they’re castrated bulls, if you didn’t know) seem to have the two-block-long route memorized, though they are led by five men and a woman on horseback, and one horseman cracks a bullwhip for show and barks “Hut! Hut!” as if a quarterback calling signals.
After the cattle are penned, I approach several of the cowboys, sitting tall in saddles and adorned in authentic western wear, and I’m gently corrected. They’re “drovers,” the original term for those who led cattle drives in the 1870s, when millions of cattle were driven through the heart of Fort Worth en route to the railheads in Kansas.
Sure, there are plenty of other attractions that any full-blooded Texan shouldn’t miss, including Fort Worth’s world-renowned cultural amenities—art museums such as the Kimbell, the Modern and the Amon Carter, and its bustling downtown arts and entertainment district, Sundance Square.
But the Fort Worth Stockyards deserves its own special place on the list of Lone Star musts. In 1999, “Cowtown” promoters launched the daily cattle drives to lure tourists to this once-neglected part of the city known as Where the West Begins.
Tagging along with a guide leading a walking tour, I learn that after the decline of the cattle drives, the stockyards prospered with the arrival of the railroad in 1876 and the building of meatpacking plants. We wander across a wooden cat walk overlooking acres of mostly empty pens (surprisingly all lined with brick) and mosey through the adobe Fort Worth Livestock Exchange Building, once the “Wall Street of the West” for its bustling cattle-trading operations. The stockyards and the surrounding area fell into disrepair in the 1960s and 1970s, and the meatpacking plants closed. In more recent years, however, preservation efforts have sparked a revival, making the stockyards Texas’ 12th most-visited destination.
There’s plenty to do in the 15-block national historic district, including eat (lots of steak, but good Mexican restaurants, too), shop or gawk at the likes of $5,000 alligator-skin boots at third-generation bootmaker M.L. Leddy’s (see our August 2007 feature story) and people-watch. I meet Gregory Pike, a wandering showman who attracts a crowd to witness his trained pets: a rat perched on a cat perched on a dog.
I catch a rodeo (held every Friday and Saturday night in Cowtown Coliseum, the world’s first indoor rodeo arena) and drop in at Billy Bob’s Texas (the world’s largest honky tonk with its own indoor rodeo arena). Next time, I’ll allow time to hop aboard the vintage steam train (1 1/2-hour trips between the Stockyards and Grapevine) and go on a trail ride along historic Marine Creek and the Trinity River. (The Fort Worth Stockyards Livery rents—and boards—horses.)
I get some shut-eye in the 103-year-old Stockyards Hotel, in a cowboy-themed room shouting distance from one where Bonnie and Clyde once stayed. Despite having windows overlooking the White Elephant Saloon, where every February 8 they re-enact Fort Worth’s famous last gunfight, I sleep like a lamb.
Charles Boisseau is Texas Co-op Power’s associate editor.