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Union Stockyards: 1941

Union Stockyards: 1941

July 1941. "Union Stockyards. Chicago, Illinois." Medium format acetate negative by John Vachon for the Farm Security Administration. View full size.


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Stockyard Inn

In the late '40s and early '50s, a day at the annual Chicago Boat Show with my parents was always followed up by dinner at the Stockyard Inn. I was just a kid, so I don't remember what I had, but it must have been good because I still remember how I looked forward to eating there. What I remember most was that I always wondered if it was going to smell as bad inside the restaurant as it did outside, but apparently it didn't, because my most two vivid memories from over 60 years ago are how bad the neighborhood smelled, and how much I looked forward to dinner at the Stockyard Inn!

"How sad, to leave Chicago. I have had such a wonderful week."

John Vachon's letters to his pregnant wife Penny sent during his week in Chicago at the end of June 1941 reflect a combination of emotional peaks and valleys. Expected by FSA to spend his time photographing cattle and produce, he experienced and photographed intriguing Chicagoans in many settings, and loved wandering through the Institute of Arts and seeing nightly movies (including, on this trip, Citizen Kane). Yet he was practically broke, wearing through his clothing, and neglected by a seemingly uncaring boss back in DC (Roy Stryker) who was slow to pay him, communicate to him, or to even like the negatives he was sending back to the office. This particular series of his letters to Penny appears, in full, in "John Vachon's America" (on Google Books).

Requiem for some heavyweights

I thoroughly enjoy John Vachon's work. There are aspects of this photograph that are immensely pleasing from an aesthetic standpoint. But probably not if you're a cow.

The View Is Fine Depending on the Wind

In one of his radio shows, penurious comedian Jack Benny bragged he was staying at the Stockyards Plaza hotel while his cohorts wasted money staying up town in the Ambassador East or the Drake.

View from the El platform

At the very bottom of Vachon's image is the Exchange station platform of the Chicago Elevated rail transit line that served the Stockyards. You can see a billboard for Clorox bleach, among others. Here's how it looked if you were standing on the Exchange station platform. It is interesting to note that men were riding horses among the pens.

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