From Stockyards To Speakeasies: A Chicago Historian Tackles 5 Questions About The City’s History

Dominic Pacyga shares his encyclopedic knowledge of Chicago history and answers questions about everything from “gin joints” to stockyards.

Pacyga Thumbnail
Katherine Nagasawa / WBEZ
Pacyga Thumbnail
Katherine Nagasawa / WBEZ

From Stockyards To Speakeasies: A Chicago Historian Tackles 5 Questions About The City’s History

Dominic Pacyga shares his encyclopedic knowledge of Chicago history and answers questions about everything from “gin joints” to stockyards.

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Curious City has received over 9,000 questions since its first episode in June 2012. During that time, it’s become clear that many of you want to know more about Chicago’s history, neighborhoods, and ethnic groups.

Luckily, we know the man who literally wrote the book on Chicago Dominic Pacyga.

The Columbia College emeritus professor recently sat down with us for a rapid-fire round of questions.

Andrew Waple wondered: What’s the record for the number of animals not just pigs, all animals killed in a single day at Chicago’s stockyards?

At its peak in the early 1920s, more than 18 million animals were brought to the Chicago yards, Pacyga says. About two-thirds of those animals were slaughtered at nearby packing houses.

That’s an average of about 38,000 animals each city work day.

Because there were so many meatpackers throughout the city, including many smaller shops that didn’t keep written records, the most animals killed on any given day is unknown. However, a large meatpacker like Armour & Co. could have slaughtered 8,500 hogs, 2,500 cattle, and about 7,000 sheep per day.

And people lined up to see the action: About 500,000 tourists came to the stockyards each year at the turn of the 20th century. Some of the more notable names include famed French actress Sarah Bernhardt, Japanese princes, and every presidential candidate of the era.

1920s Chicago stockyard
At its peak in the early 1920s, more than 18 million animals were brought to the stockyard each year — and about two-thirds of them were slaughtered in Chicago. (Courtesy Dominic Pacyga)

Ernesto asked: How frequently do Chicago neighborhoods have major changes in ethnicity?

Pacyga says the average ethnic lifespan of a neighborhood is about three generations.

Bronzeville’s residents have been mostly African-American for more than a century.

Other neighborhoods have seen major changes. The Polish community, for example, settled near Milwaukee Avenue and Division Street in the late 1850s and remained there until the late 1960s. Puerto Ricans then came to the neighborhood, and Mexican immigrants soon followed.

Ethnic churches and grocers are often the last to leave changing neighborhoods because older residents who choose to stay rely heavily on those neighborhood services.

Curious City Historian Questions St. Stanislaus Kostka
The building for St. Stanislaus Kostka church in the Wicker Park neighborhood was laid in 1877 and the church was dedicated in 1881. It serves a largely Polish community that no longer lives in the area. (Courtesy St. Stanislaus Church)

Clyde Behrendt asked: Did the city or developers have more influence over what type of housing was built in North and South Lawndale in the early 20th century?

Paycga says there was no zoning ordinance in the city of Chicago until 1923 so private developers decided whether to build apartments or single-family homes based on what they believed the market could handle.

When Eastern European Jews first started coming to Chicago in large numbers in the late 19th century, they settled in the manufacturing hub near Maxwell Street on the West Side. Pacyga says the Jewish community preferred apartments, so that’s the kind of housing developers made available as Jews started migrating west to North Lawndale. By 1930, North Lawndale was the largest Jewish community in the history of Chicago.

Early developers took a different approach in South Lawndale or Little Village in the late 1800s. Instead of apartments, they built “worker’s cottages” for Eastern European immigrants and their children. These were mass-produced, single-story homes usually made out of wood.

Czechs, Germans, and Poles moved into the area from Pilsen as industry began to boom around South Lawndale after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871. As the population grew larger, the housing in South Lawndale got taller with two- and three-flat buildings.

Curious City Historian Question Speakeasies
An 1883 flyer advertised the availability of inexpensive brick cottages in Chicago for would-be factory workers. (Chicago Historical Society ICHi-06577, reprinted in Prosser 1981).

Mary Nell Murphy asked: Were there bars or speakeasies in most neighborhoods during Prohibition? Could anyone go or were they just for the upper classes?

During Prohibition, there were “gin joints” in every neighborhood, and they were extremely popular, Pacyga says. A lot of former taverns began to advertise themselves as ice cream parlors. But really, they sold beer.

Along South Ashland Avenue, or “Whiskey Row,” it was the coffee shops that sold beer. Often, the police were willing to look the other way if they were paid off, Pacyga says.

Some establishments did discriminate based on class, but those were more of the speakeasy variety.

In Bronzeville, many places [that served alcohol] were protected by the Republican Party because at the time, African-Americans voted heavily Republican. Mayor William Hale Thompson, aka “Big Bill,” was the last Republican to occupy City Hall. He promised Chicagoans the taps would flow again.

“When I’m elected, we will not only reopen places these people have closed, but we’ll open ten thousand new ones. … .No copper will invade your home and fan your mattress for a hip flask,” Thompson proclaimed.

He was unseated after three terms by Anton Cermak, a “wet Democrat.”

But you could also get alcohol by prescription from a doctor. And if you were really desperate, almost every pharmacy sold Hoffman’s stomach drops. Just add one to a cup of water and you had yourself a hot toddy, Pacyga says.

Curious City Historian Question Speakeasies
A group of Chicagoans celebrates the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. (Courtesy Chicago History Museum, DN-A-4961)

Brian Brostko asked: What was Ravenswood like before all the breweries moved in?

Pacyga says that in the mid-1850s, Ravenswood was home to a lot of English and German farmers many of whom grew pickles, flowers, and celery.

Rose Hill Cemetery opened in 1859 and “attracted not only mourners, but picnickers.” Those picnics and later the additions of a train station and electric streetcars helped transform the rural district into a neighborhood near the end of the century.

The new transportation helped turn the area from a wealthy neighborhood to a middle-class community filled with factories. Much of the community’s German roots disappeared after World War I, but there are still remnants in some of the shops and restaurants. There’s even an original section of the Berlin Wall that can still be seen from the Brown Line at Western Avenue.

In 2017, the Greater Ravenswood Chamber of Commerce rebranded a two-mile stretch along Ravenswood Avenue as “Malt Row.” A half-dozen breweries and one distillery are now part of the that strip between Irving Park Road and Balmoral Avenue.

More about our questioners

(Courtesy Andrew Waple)

Andrew Waple was an architectural tour guide for eight years and is a high school social studies teacher. He got interested in the stockyards because he was fascinated with the efficiency of the operation: “To be able to slaughter so many animals in such a small amount of time would have required such fine-tuned logistics,” he says. “And it was all done before computers!”

(Courtesy Clyde Behrendt)

Clyde Behrendt worked as a mailman for 31 years and is now retired and enjoying gardening, reading, and researching his family’s history. He spends his free time walking around Chicago neighborhoods, and these walks got him interested in the forces behind the architectural development of neighborhoods.

Last month, Mary visited Kelly's Cellars, an historic Belfast pub. (Courtesy Mary Nell Murphy)

Mary Nell Murphy lived in Chicago for about 30 years and worked in I.T. at the University of Chicago. Last year, she moved to northwest Indiana.  

In the 1990s, she read and competed in poetry slams at places like famous Chicago speakeasy The Green Mill. She doesn’t read much of her own poetry these days but still enjoys a good gin cocktail, or a pint.

(Courtesy Brian Brostko)

Brian Brostko is a sales manager for a pharmaceutical company. Now that he’s learned more about Ravenswood, he says he can’t wait to find out how major infrastructure decisions shaped other neighborhoods over time.