used to be a coastal cow town, a place where hooves and horns drove the local
economy, not fishing and tourism.
After the Civil War, Texas had far more
cattle than people. Longhorns
ranged wild almost anywhere south of San
Antonio, unbranded and free to anyone tough enough to round them up. Soon,
in a state with a war-ravaged economy, those cattle began to look like money on
“During the late war there was little demand for the immense
numbers of cattle grazing on our prairies,” the Corpus Christi Gazette
observed in the winter of 1873, “and consequently the supply of marketable beef
grew prodigious in quantity.”
The nearest market for beef lay in New Orleans,
and the most practical way to get it there was by steamship. However, since the
development of mechanical refrigeration had just begun, the only way to keep the
meat relatively safe to eat was by salting or pickling it. That need stimulated
the initial development of packing plants along the coast.
Even so, with
supply still exceeding demand, the price of beef dropped to the point of hardly
any profitability. Also, consumers did not have a particularly robust appetite
for salted beef. Fortunately for Texas cattlemen of the era, bovines had more
to offer than so much steak.
Cowhides could be cured into leather with
all its many uses. Fat obtained by boiling cattle carcasses made candles and other
products. Bones could be ground into meal and horns could be polished and used
to make everything from knife handles to furniture.
Packeries – also known
as hide and tallow plants -- operated from Brownsville
but Rockport soon became
the Fort Worth of the industry.
In fact, packing plants did not become a major factor in Fort
Worth until the early 20th century, and by then the emphasis had returned
to edible beef, not byproduct.
Possibly the state’s first post-Civil War
packery opened just north of Rockport
in 1865, only months after the conflict ended. Owned by William S. Hall, the plant
slaughtered some 400,000 head of cattle during its eight years of operation.
the Texas Beef Packery, ran this ad in the winter of 1868: “Parties having cattle
for sale will do well to call and enter into correspondence with us in regard
to cattle as we are prepared to buy largely.”
the early 1870s, the Rockport
area had a dozen packeries. The biggest was the Coleman-Fulton Pasture Co., formed
in 1871 by Tom M. Coleman, T.H. Mathis, J.M. Mathis and George W. Fulton. Eventually
owning more than 200,000 acres, the firm ran not only the busiest packing plant,
it was the state’s largest cattle business in general.
Part of a decidedly inglorious business, the packeries in Aransas County slaughtered
cattle by the hundreds of thousands. Since a cow’s hide and tallow was worth more
than its meat, mountains of decaying beef stood near each plant. A boon for coyotes
and other scavengers, the packery leftovers sent a terrible odor whichever way
the wind blew.
markets can change as quickly as the wind. The expansion of railroads made it
easier to transport live cattle to distant points, circumventing the need for
salted or pickled beef. As more and more Texas cattlemen began trailing their
herds to the railhead in Kansas, the packeries in Rockport
saw fewer and fewer cattle. A severe drought in 1878-79 caused a major cattle
die-off in South Texas, where most of the livestock destined for the packeries
came from. With supply down and demand up, cattle raisers began to realize that
their product once again had more value as food than for hide and tallow.
the mid-1880s, the Texas packery industry had simmered down to virtually nothing.
The giant iron vats used to boil off the tallow were sold, some to ranchers who
converted them to water tanks. Any wooden structures in Rockport
connected to the packeries that might have made it to the 20th century did not
survive a 1919 hurricane that leveled most of the town.
Closure of the
plants brought an economic slump to Rockport
that lasted until mechanical refrigeration and a rail connection stimulated the
fish, shrimp and oyster business. Now even the seafood industry has been overshadowed
by recreational fishing and tourism.
During their brief heyday, Rockport’s
packeries made good money for cattlemen and plant owners, and a modest living
for those who did the dirty work, but they did not produce any colorful folklore
and certainly no folk heroes. Like cowboys, men employed by the packeries earned
their wages by wrangling cattle, but unlike cowboys, no glamour attached to the
bloody, smelly job.
Other than a metal state historical marker, the only
remaining reminder of the impact of the hide and tallow industry on Rockport
is the mansion packery co-owner Fulton completed in 1877 in the town that bears
his name. A survivor of numerous hurricanes, today the architecturally distinctive
old house is operated as a historic site by the Texas Historical Commission. (See
Mansion State Historic Site)
Cox - May 1, 2013 column
| Fulton | Cattle
Related Topics: Columns | People
| Texas Town List | Texas