The American Royal: A Gift from the Stockyards

As a beloved and longstanding institution, the American Royal owes much of its early success to the Kansas City Stock Yards (KCSY) Company. The bond between the Stockyards and the growing organization was certainly one of mutual benefit. The American Royal needed leadership, financing, and housing; the Kansas City Stockyards needed a thriving livestock industry. This relationship, which lasted for the greater part of the 20th century, proved to be successful.

With Kansas City steadily emerging as a livestock market center, the KCSY Company had been promoting successful cattle shows since the 1880s. It was not until the first American Royal in 1899—then called the National Hereford Cattle Show—that a large-scale livestock exhibition would become an annual Kansas City tradition. The first cattle show drew a crowd of 55,000 people and the event would continue to expand each year, eventually becoming a general livestock exhibition. By 1905 the popular horse show was added, and the annual event became known as “The American Royal Live Stock and Horse Show.”

The KCSY Company made the success of the American Royal a high priority. The promotion of livestock shows and sales was a company policy, and the American Royal proved to be increasingly vital to the livestock industry.

In its 1946 publication 75 Years of Kansas City Livestock Market History, the company referred to the American Royal as the “educational extension department of the Kansas City market and the Kansas City Stock Yards Company.” Not surprisingly, many Stockyards administrators, such as Eugene Rust, W. H. Weeks, and Jay B. Dillingham, took up leadership positions with the American Royal. For many years, other Stockyards employees were responsible for building preparations and maintenance at the American Royal.

In addition to significant staff involvement, the KCSY Company also provided proper housing for the American Royal. The annual exhibition was constantly outgrowing its facilities, and the Stockyards routinely solved this problem by using its own land and resources. The early cattle shows had taken place in a tent around 17th Street and Genessee. By 1908, the KCSY Company had constructed a one-story arena at 20th and Genessee for American Royal horse shows and livestock judging. After outgrowing this space, the show moved to other venues throughout the city, including Electric Park and the downtown Convention Hall.

Then, in 1920, KCSY Company stakeholders agreed to finance a new American Royal building on Stockyards property at 23rd and Wyoming and provide a 20-year operating budget for the annual show. This impressive building, completed in 1922 at a cost estimated at $800,000, was the company’s largest single expenditure to date. The spacious, two-story building included an amphitheater-style arena and annex unit and was made of reinforced concrete, brick, and tile. The Kansas Citian praised Stockyards president George R. Collett for his involvement and proclaimed that this “truly wonderful home built for the ‘American Royal’ is really the gift of the Stock Yards Company to Kansas City.” The venture proved to be well worth the cost, and the new building would serve as the home of the American Royal for over 50 years.

American Royal construction site, 1922

Despite the benefits of the new American Royal building, it also endured a fair number of complications. Even this building, with its 7½ acres of floor space, was quickly outgrown. Several acres of barn space and other Stockyards facilities had to be used to house livestock and host the junior departments. In February 1925, the roof caught fire during an auto show but was restored in time to host the American Royal that November. Another quick turnaround would occur after the 1951 flood, when the KCSY Company remarkably repaired $85,000 worth of damage just in time for the annual show.

American Royal Exposition Building
Architectural drawing of American Royal Building

By the 1960s, the American Royal Association was leasing facilities from the KCSY Company but was unable to pay rent. Dillingham, the Stockyards president, readily forgave the American Royal’s debt, which at one point totaled $400,000. This type of arrangement continued into the years leading up to the construction of Kemper Arena in the 1970s. After a complex series of negotiations, the American Royal Association was able to purchase land from the KCSY Company, signaling its increasing independence from the Stockyards. Kemper Arena was the show’s new home, and the old building would eventually be torn down in the early 1990s.

Postcard of American Royal building interior

The American Royal has continued to thrive long after the 1991 closing of the Kansas City Stockyards. Fortunately, evidence of the KCSY Company’s substantial involvement in the American Royal endures through the Library’s Kansas City Stockyards Collection. This historic collection—currently being archivally processed by Missouri Valley Special Collections staff—includes hundreds of items documenting the construction and renovation of the iconic American Royal building and its related facilities.

- Joanna Marsh, project archivist, Missouri Valley Special Collections


References:

“American Royal. Directors Praise the Big Show.” The Kansas Citian. Vol. 11(1), January 3, 1922.

Barr, Paula. “A Royal History.” Kansas City Star. November 8, 1990.

Coleman, Daniel. Biography of Jay B. Dillingham (1910-2007), Businessman. 2009.

Kansas City Stock Yards Company. 75 Years of Kansas City Livestock Market History, 1871-1946. Missouri Valley Special Collections, The Kansas City Public Library.

Paxton, Heather N. The American Royal, 1899-1999. Kansas City, MO : BkMk Press, 1999.