Chicago was once known as the “Bread Basket of the Midwest” – and for good reason, as much of the country’s meat and produce passed through its markets. As America was growing and expanding, the bounty of food needed to feed the masses demanded an aggressive system of collection and well-organized channels of distribution. This was accomplished by forming wholesale food marketing districts in the city. The Fulton-Randolph Market was the predecessor to the South Water Street Market, the old Union Stock Yards, and the Maxwell Street Market. These districts were an important part of the city’s history and growth.
A few months ago, I got to deliver to the then still-functioning Fulton Meat Market. This was the first time I’d ever been there, and when I started talking to the receiver, Mario, I found out it would also be the last. He told me that there were only four businesses left and that they would be relocated within the next month or two, at most. The building fronts were going to be refurbished, and the insides of the buildings were scheduled to be demolished and then rebuilt, converted into cafés, bars and shops, keeping some of the history, but modernizing it, too.
In my early days on the road, we used to deliver produce to the Chicago Water Market. I didn’t learn much about its history until I started doing research for this story. There are so many interesting facts to share. I’ll never forget the first time we delivered to the Market. It was a Sunday, and things were pretty quiet, with only a few other trucks there. Deliveries usually started at midnight. I remember the man on the dock asking me if I liked my truck. Of course I said, “Yes!” He then said, “Then you better get back in it and lock the doors.” I grew up in a small town in Iowa and had never seen anything like this place before.
The original Water Market sat along the south side of the main branch of the Chicago River – the buildings sat on South Water Street, backing right up to the edge of the water (hence the name). Many of the buildings housed the bustling wholesale produce markets and grocery distribution warehouses, taking in freight from the riverboats on the back side, while the front was a colorful and crowded scene of horses and wagons, barrels and carts (later trucks), picking up loads of fruits and vegetables.
The Loop (the city’s central business district) was beginning to modernize, and city planners prioritized removal of the Market to a less central area. They moved it to a place where the odors of horses and rotting produce, mingling with the noise and congestion of a busy produce market, would not conflict with the seemingly more “civilized” activities of the financial and retail districts just steps away.
As part of his Plan of Chicago, Daniel Burnham designed an ambitious multi-level road and freight management system to help relieve the congestion on the riverfront. The plan was to divide the traffic functions into different levels: commercial traffic below and passengers above. His inspiration for the design was similar to the infrastructure in Paris. The city’s first Plan Commission was led by Charles H. Wacker. To realize Burnham’s design, Wacker set about clearing all the buildings from the area and drastically reshaping the landscape. Construction was fully underway by 1925, beginning a multi-year effort. When it was complete, the grand new waterfront boulevard was named after Wacker.
A grand central terminal with rail and river access was envisioned, but in 1925, wide open spaces were not easy to come by. According to Frederick Rex, it was decided to move the market to “…the Valley District, then notorious as a center of criminal life and activity. Here were tumble-down houses which could be bought for a song, and the Loop was far enough away that the land was much cheaper… and every railroad terminus in the city was within a mile and a half.” After being compelled by the courts to vacate the riverfront, the merchants banded together and built the new South Water Market. Just blocks away from the Maxwell Street Market, the new warehouse complex was built around 14th Street (now officially renamed South Water Market), between Racine and Morgan, on the west side.
The wider-than-usual streets and alleys were designed to host the produce market for years to come. This was in 1925, but as early as 1940, the market had already become overcrowded with traffic congestion and parking issues. The loading docks were built for horses, wagons and small vehicles, and the warehouse interiors required significant manual labor to unload and store goods. It was noted in a 1962 Chicago’s Wholesale Food Markets report that the South Water Market was maxxed out and, even back then, they suggested that it be moved to another location. But, it would be decades before relocating would happen again. In the 1920s, this market site had been a less-than-desirable location. By the 1990s, it was only blocks away from the University of Illinois at Chicago and nearby neighborhood revitalization.
I can remember delivering to those sidewalks built for horses, wagons and small trucks. Some drivers delivered there regularly, and there has never been a driver that I’ve ever talked to about the Market that does not remember the cop that would direct you into the “dock” – he meant it when he said to watch him and not your mirrors! Not looking in your mirror goes against everything when you are backing up, but there you had to, and he was good. If you watched him, he would back you in every time. I have heard many stories that if you didn’t watch him, he would break your mirror or you would have to pull out and then wait for hours to unload.
A friend of mine, Brad Reichert, shared an old picture and a story about a trip to the Market back in 1994. He went in with a load of bananas out of Florida, getting in there in the pre-dawn hours. He had to wait until lunchtime when, finally, a guy told him to pull to the back side of the building. The company had a dock in the back, on the far south end of the market, along the train tracks. There were 10-15 tracks behind the building, so backing in was not easy. Pulling around to the dock, he left the trailer doors closed, and then walked about 200 feet before he found a door to get inside. The owner said that the guys would be back from lunch soon, and he apologized for the long wait.
As Brad walked back outside, he saw two young men motion to someone in the alley. Feeling that something wasn’t right, he went back inside and told the owner. The man muttered a couple of slurs and then pulled a big Dirty Harry-style revolver from his top desk drawer. Brad was trying to keep calm as they walked through the warehouse to the back door. When the owner opened the door, there were two guys standing in the alley and two guys hiding under the trailer, waiting for him to come back to the truck. The owner cocked the gun and pointed it right at the guys, so they all took off running. Brad was instructed to get the doors open and hit the dock. Two workers quickly emptied his load as the owner stood there, with that big gun in hand, talking about a Bears game. After getting the paperwork, the owner told Brad to just get back to the expressway and don’t stop for anyone. At only 23 years old, and being from a small town, he didn’t need to be told twice!
In 2001, 76 years after moving the first time, the 14th Street and Water Street Market warehouses closed for good. The buildings that were noted as historical or architecturally-significant were remodeled into residences and named University Commons. This time, when the produce market moved, it lost its historic name in the process. These days, drivers deliver to the Chicago International Produce Market at Damon Avenue and the South Branch of the Chicago River. Today, when I drive through Chicago and I look over at where the Market used to be, I remember the nasty old parking lot that was used to stage the trucks making deliveries, and can still see the hustlers and hookers wandering around. It was not a pretty place.
All this being said, I still feel a little nostalgic about the place. The Market long outlived the practical use of the design that had seemed so large at the time. Backing up to a sidewalk that had been designed for a horse and buggy meant that all of the unloading was done with a pallet jack inside the trailer and a forklift on the street. It was a lot of work! If I remember right, there were elevators to get the produce to the coolers in the basement. Back then, no one could have imagined how the trucks and trailers would grow to what is common today. I can honestly say that I am glad that I got to deliver there, and have memories of the place, before it disappeared. That is true about so many of the places that I’ve got to deliver to over the years – they were a pain in the behind and tough to get into, but these places are all part of history.
In all my years on the road, I had never made it to the Fulton Market. Mario, the guy I recently met on the dock there, was apologizing for it taking so long to get me unloaded. I told him not to worry, and used the time to wander around and take some pictures. It was a beautiful morning when I was there, but over the years, I can only imagine how awful it was to unload in the street on snowy or rainy days.
The Fulton Meat Market is another place that outgrew its practical use, but they kept making it work (well, sort of). Walking down the street, I could see the Chicago skyline. The buildings that are left have character, and I am happy to see that they are going to be saved and not the victims of a wrecking ball.
Chicago became the headquarters for the meat industry during the Civil War and retained that position until the 1920’s. Chicago’s “big three” meat packers – Philip Armour, Gustavus Swift and Nelson Morris, successfully applied industrial methods to meat processing to become national leaders of the packing industry and global brand names by the turn of the 20th century. The Fulton Meat Market provides a link to these very important companies: Armour, Swift and Morris. The center of their operations were at the Union Stock Yards, but all three had branch houses on Fulton Street, in a block of market buildings erected in 1887.
The Fulton Market District is an area comprised of historic wholesale produce and meat-packing buildings that were primarily built between the 1880s and the 1920s. While there are also industrial and warehouse buildings in the district, the historic buildings designed for food distribution and processing are rare in Chicago, and the concentration of this building type makes the district unique. The presence of the sidewalk canopies that shelter the loading docks show the district’s historic and ongoing function, which are now rarely found elsewhere in the city. While not unique in the context of Chicago’s architecture, these historic industrial and warehouse buildings within the district exhibit a high degree of design, detail and craftsmanship, built in the old and traditional style of brick masonry.
The prosperity of the Fulton Meat Market was in part due to the massive Union Stock Yard nearby. The stockyards success was due to both the concentration of railroads and the creation and evolution of refrigerated railroad cars. Its decline was due to further advances in post-World War II transportation and distribution. Direct sales of livestock from breeders to packers, facilitated by advancements in interstate trucking, made it cheaper to slaughter animals where they were raised and excluded the intermediary stockyards. At first, the major meatpacking companies resisted change, but Swift and Armour both surrendered and vacated their plants in the old stockyard in the 1950s. In 1971, the area became The Stockyards Industrial Park. The neighborhood to the west and south of the industrial park is still known as the “Back of the Yards” and is still home to a thriving immigrant population.
A remnant of the Union Stock Yard Gate still arches over Exchange Avenue, next to the firefighters’ memorial, and can be seen by those driving along Halsted Street. This limestone gate, marking the entrance to the stockyards, survives as one of the few relics of Chicago’s heritage of livestock and meat-packing. The steer head over the central arch is thought to represent “Sherman” – a prize-winning bull named after John B. Sherman, a founder of the Union Stock Yard & Transit Company. The gate is now a designated U.S. National Historic Landmark.
Talking to a friend, Cathy Sherman, she remembered a time when she delivered to the Fulton Market. After unloading, she closed her doors and pulled out, but then a woman started motioning for her to pull over. When she got to a light, the woman said that her doors were open. Cathy was afraid to pull over, so she drove a few blocks before pulling over to check, and, sure enough, her doors had been opened, but, thankfully, she was empty. That same day, another driver had his trailer doors opened right in the street, and five lamb carcasses were stolen. Although that has never happened to me personally, I have heard a lot of stories just like it over the years about this place.
For all of the drivers who have never experienced delivering to old places like this, when you do, take some pictures, because before long, all of these historic facilities will be gone. I hope that you all enjoy the old pictures of how it was when these markets were bustling. As drivers, we know what it takes to keep food on the tables across America. But today will quickly become yesterday, time and time again, and before we know it, our fading memories and old photographs will be the only things we have to remind us of where we are and how we got there.