Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Transforming Times

I recently told you about our trip to Kansas City, but something happened there that deserves a blog of its own:

JoAnn and I had a full schedule of meetings but, by pure chance, we added another. During our meeting at the historic Livestock Exchange Building, we happened upon the right place at the right time. It was like finding a long sought-after treasure—at least for two writers who relish these types of spontaneous encounters.

During our scheduled meeting on the 7th floor, we were informed about the history of the building and the Western sculptures that were displayed on the top floor. Like two inquisitive children, we made our way through the hallways, admiring the memorabilia. It was a step back in time: our footsteps echoed down the long halls as our shoes made contact with the wooden floors and tiles. I imagined the deafening shouts of men and bellowing cattle that used to fill the hallways, as they (and the stench) entered through the open office windows. The windows, old and sturdy, are framed in oak and still open to the streets below (one of the many distinct differences from the manufactured office buildings of today). The offices used to have screen doors to keep out the flies that would wander in from the stockyards.

Antique typewriters and solid oak roll-top desks, bearing the scars of well-worn use, furnish the offices. Again, my imagination got the best of me. I thought about a receptionist, clad in period clothing at the desk, packing it full of daily records and receipts, noisily typing away. I wonder how she got anything done with all of the competing noises! Nervous livestock, busy workers, people talking in offices and walking in the halls, trains coming and going, screen doors opening and closing. These things are no comparison to modern-day offices void of all noise except for the steady purr of an air conditioning unit and a computer monitor.

As we meandered to the end of the hallway, one particular, nearly life-sized sculpture of a cowboy on his horse caught our attention. We were drawn to it like magnets, unaware of our other surroundings until JoAnn caught a glimpse of someone in her peripheral vision. She apologized for our intrusion, after becoming aware that we were standing in the middle of his office! The elderly gentleman removed his glasses and excused our apologies, inviting us to stay.

He was wearing a blue, button-up Ralph Lauren shirt and Wrangler jeans. His hair was gray, his voice had a slight rasp, and his eyes hid his very essence behind them. “William Haw” was etched into the golden plate that sat on the front edge of his desk. Our paths had crossed with the owner of the building!

He asked what brought us to the building, and when JoAnn explained that we were with a company called, he said that if we weren’t too busy, he would like to sit and talk with us awhile. Not about to decline this golden opportunity, we took our seats by his desk, and my eyes scanned the contents of his office. Three pieces of paper hung from the windowsill, covered with children’s notes and drawings. In large letters, one read, “Papa Haw I love you.” Two sets of binoculars had been placed in the sill of the large windows that opened up wide to what had previously been the sprawling yards of the Kansas City Stockyards. Mounted herdsman sorting stock into pens, have been replaced by bustling highways packed with noisy cars, spewing exhaust. The old train depot still stands behind the building, though it is dilapidated and desolate. Looking out, I was amazed by the transformation that has taken place before the very windows that I stood behind.

Books and stacks of paper fill the room. Maps, photographs and framed newspaper clippings adorn its walls. A set of longhorns, displayed above the desk, support a pair of silver spurs hanging from their leather straps. Worn saddles stacked on top of saddle stands, serve as mere decoration despite the individual stories that lie within their seats.

Mr. Haw told about the history of the building as he pointed to an old photograph of when the yard out back was filled with cattle.

According to the Kansas City Kansan, "In the heyday year of 1923, 2,631,808 cattle were received at the Kansas City yards. Of these, 1,194,527 were purchased for use in Kansas City by the packing houses and local markets; the remainder or about 55 percent was shipped out. Of 2,736,174 hogs received, 879,031 were shipped out; of 377,038 calves, 199,084 were shipped out; of 1,165,606 sheep, 445,539 were shipped and of 42,987 horses and mules, all but 1,664 were shipped out.

On one record-breaking day, Mr. Haw explained to us that over 60,000 head were received and unloaded at the stockyard. The yard had employed 2,000 men and served as the world’s largest livestock exchange building as well as one of the largest buildings in Kansas City at the time. The man that we coincidentally met that day became the owner of this building in 1991.

Mr. Haw shared with us a bit of his background and about his earlier involvement in the pork industry, when he became one of the first to practice commercialized hog production, raising nearly 20,000 hogs. Before the industry took a turn for the worse, he got out. Currently, he runs one of the largest feedlots in the country, and operates thousands of acres of land.

Mr. Haw has lived through seventy years of life, business, experience and wealth and he asked us to sit and talk with him. After all of his experiences, he was interested in what it was we did. When he asked if I came from an ag background, I informed him that unfortunately, I did not. And he said to me, “Let me give you a bit of encouragement: I didn’t either.” He explained that coming into the industry with fresh eyes, you are able to see more objectively and practice accordingly and often times more successfully. He is living proof of that assertion. JoAnn has told me this very thing many times. Though it can be overbearing at times, feeling like the underdog, entering into something with no previous experience; they are right. When it may seem like you’re in last place, the truth is, you may be positioning yourself as the first to finish the race.

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