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Where's The Beef? In El Paso!
Article first published in Vol. 9, 1991.
By Eric Bangs
El Paso sometimes is disparagingly called a "cow town." The fact is that El Paso is rich in cattle history. The Sun City actually is a cow town in the very real sense of the world.
Drawing by Eric Bangs
Cattle are not native to our area. The bison, distant cousins to modern cattle, were living in areas further to the north and east of El Paso. Spaniards brought cattle to the area when they came to settle. Don Juan de Oñate arrived near present day Socorro in 1598 with nearly 7,000 head of livestock. Soon after the arrival of these first permanent European settlers, cattle were firmly established in the pass and river valley.
Cattle raising was a risky endeavor. As the area continued to grow, so did unrest among the Indians. Raids by the Apache Indians on small ranches occurred from time to time. During the 1870s the U.S. Army placed the Apache on a reservation. This slowed the raiding down somewhat, but the renegade chief named Victorio and his band from the Mescalero reservation became the principal threat to El Paso's cattle men during this period. Gregorio Garcia of San Elizario wrote to Adjutant General Steele in Austin and complained that the Apaches carried off all of his stock. Victorio was eventually hunted down and killed by the Texas Rangers. This ended the reign of terror, and ranchers could get back to raising cattle.
The railroads opened up the rich cattle markets of the east to El Paso and Chihuahua area ranchers. The Southern Pacific was the first to arrive in May 1881. Other railroads soon followed. A spur from the Mexican Central crossed the Rio Grande into El Paso during the summer of 1881. Within a short period of time, five railroads served El Paso, making it a major of transportation hub for cattle.
El Paso soon became the port of entry for Chihuahuan beef, helping the regional beef business to continue its growth. Then the unexpected happened. The Mexican Revolution began in 1910, and cattle imports came almost to a standstill. Holding Ciudad Juárez gave the rebels control of the Mexican Central railroad.
By October of the same year, the rebels had gained full control of the Mexican railroads. Cattle ready for market did not move at all. With the railroads out, some area ranchers braved driving their cattle overland to reach market. In February of 1914 General Pancho Villa announced that cattle could not be exported without his written permission.
Even with the revolution to the south, however, El Paso's cattle industry continued to grow. In 1913 a total of $13 million in cattle were sold, and in 1914 sales continued to exceed $1 million a month.
When peace returned to the area in 1919, El Paso ranchers actively began to promote El Paso as a livestock center. To help in this endeavor, El Paso became home to the Southwest International Livestock Show and Rodeo in 1929. The yearly show officially opened in 1931 and ushered the Sun City into its current role as a major livestock center.
Throughout the 1930s and 1940s the cattle industry prospered, and by 1957 El Paso's cattle imports exceeded $6 million. In 1967 the cattle industry in all its forms was worth $150 million annually. A few examples of the many facets of this business include packing houses to slaughter and package meat for sale, import brokers to move cattle through customs and health, auction houses to sell beef on the hoof, and feeder-breeder lots to fatten beef for sale.
Today, El Paso continues to be an important center in the cattle industry. Imports average approximately 125,000 head of cattle per year. These imports cross from Juárez to El Paso on their way to feed lots and packing houses. Cattle exports are between 500 and 1,000 head of registered cattle per year. These are primarily Brangus, Angus and Hereford breeds of cattle shipped south for breeding purposes. According to the Texas Agricultural Extension Service, local beef production for 1990 was an estimated $6.5 million in fed beef and $40 million in all other beef. With a projected increase of $5 million, this year looks like another good year for the cattle industry as well.