South St. Paul is in danger of losing its totem, the last sliver of a once-massive industrial landscape. Sitting in the midst of a light industrial park near the Mississippi River stand two 20-foot high rectangular brick structures that were once gatehouses for the giant Armour packing plant. Today, they’re the only thing remaining of the historic stockyards district.
That’s why they’ve caught the eye of a South St. Paul Middle School classroom, where a teacher and his students are trying to save an odd piece of history: They’ve launched a petition to save the structures and, in the process, learned a lot about how history works in the urban landscape.
Historic preservation is a nebulous concept. Sometimes debates center on buildings with inherent value; places so unique that they’re worthy of history books. In other cases, the argument for preservation is symbolic. A structure can be a synecdoche — a part that stands in for a whole — where preserving it for the future means granting access to history that might be otherwise lost.
In this case, nobody argues that the two brick structures are inherently valuable, but it’s easy to see how their symbolic importance carries weight. That’s exactly what schoolteacher Mark Westphal has been saying for a year, teaching 12-year-olds about their city’s history by examining a pair of otherwise-mundane towers.
The kids are aware of the irony.
“They’re like, ‘wait a minute,’ they’re literally gates to a parking lot,” Westphal said. “(But) it’s the only thing to remind us: What would they mean to the workers getting dropped off? The symbolism in the power of place was the fun part for them.”
It’s funny that Westphal’s class are taking up the mantle of the Armour Gates, as most of the students were born after the last South St. Paul cattle had been sold, almost twenty years ago. Heck, their parents were probably born after the Armour plant closed up shop for good, back in 1979.
That’s what makes these brick buildings, where (presumably) bored security guards once sat through the day and night, into gateways to the fascinating history of one of the Twin Cities’ oldest suburbs.
A once-bustling stockyard by the river
It’s hard to overstate the impact of the old South Saint Paul stockyards district. It was huge. At the center lay the livestock yards themselves, where thousands of cattle and hogs were daily funneled off railcars and into pens, waiting to be sold. This went on for almost a century and a half, small farmers for hundreds of miles shipping their prized animals off to this particular spot along the Mississippi River.
The city’s stockyards quickly attracted packers, an obvious link in the meat product assembly line. The Swift company arrived in the late 19th century, a massive New England company that slowly grew its slaughterhouse operation next to the stockyards. They operated in South Saint Paul for nearly a century.
Following the outbreak of the first World War, Swift’s great rival, Armour, planted its flag. They built a massive operation that was briefly the largest packing plant in the world. Its 22 buildings sprawled over 47 acres, centering on a massive, six-story meat factory. At its peak, Armour employed 2,000 workers in three shifts, and the South St. Paul river flats were teeming with life and death.
The gatehouses are the only thing left.
‘History in the present’
It was their out-of-place quality that attracted Westphal’s class when they visited the site. Anyone can walk up to the gates and touch the bricks, and imagine the world that once existed. It’s almost magical to take in the gatehouses and ponder how all-encompassing (and odorous) the landscape once was.
“It does boggle my mind, the size of that entire industrial park that was actually there,” Westphal said. “I can’t fathom how active this area really was.”
The seventh graders represent a turn from how previous South St. Paul students learned about the stockyards. Generations ago, class tours of the Armour plant were a rite of passage for city sixth graders, something I’m sure was talked about ad infinitum in middle school hallways. Most kids went on field trips to the zoo or the roller rink; in the scrappy suburb of South St. Paul, kids went to the abattoir.
“Every sixth grade class in South St. Paul was forced to tour the slaughterhouse,” one local historian told the Pioneer Press. “The little girls would be throwing up, screaming.”
These days, the kids usually read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, surely a relief to parents. In the case of Westphal’s seventh grade class, they’re putting the twinned brick gate houses at the center of their curriculum.
“The unit on the Progressive Era, we talked a lot about the meatpacking industry in general,” said Westphal. “(But) most of them had never seen any of the historic pictures of the stockyards. The kids were like, ‘that’s what made us.’”
The class spent months last year discussing and researching what the Armour Gates could tell them. It led them on a journey through the local history, public process, preservation, economic development, and — worst of all — government bureaucracy.
“They’re learning all these different aspects about the power of place in geography,” Westphal said. “They’re starting to figure out how city politics works had to talk about processes of city government.”
The final project involved brainstorming a proposed layout and vision about a future city park centered on the historic gatehouses. The combined South St. Paul Middle School plan includes a hockey rink, mural and artwork depicting a cattle car.
So far, the mayor is on board with preserving the Armour Gates, though that doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the story. The gates might be in jeopardy, if a workable industrial project arrives that might reuse the land. According to one analysis, the South St. Paul gatehouses prevent development of a valuable industrial parcel, and moving them would be an expensive option.
“They’re learning all these different aspects: about the power of place in geography, about how city politics works,” Westphal explained, thinking about whether it was possible to save them, or lose them. “In 15 or 20 years, most people probably won’t even realize those even existed. The concept of history through time versus history in the present; it was so cool to do with the kids.”
In other words, the classroom has found a new way to learn how the political sausage is made. That might be reason enough to keep the historic gates around for another generation.