Sioux Falls Stockyards takes on new life as museum

The Stockyards Ag Experience Barn is located in Falls Park, a tourist destination that attracts more than one million people annually to the Sioux Falls region. Photo courtesy Sioux Falls Stockyards

For nearly a century, the Sioux Falls Stockyards was a hub of activity for southeastern South Dakota and the surrounding region. Livestock producers would travel to Sioux Falls, S.D., to sell their hogs and cattle, eat at the sale barn cafe and visit the local stores with their families.

For many in the agricultural community, the Stockyards will always hold a special place in their hearts, so when the doors closed in 2009, it quickly became evident that these memories needed to be preserved for future generations.

Building a museum to capture the rich history of the Stockyards has been a dream for Jim Woster.

“I grew up on a ranch, and we sold calves at the Sioux Falls Stockyards when I was a kid,” said Woster, who worked at the stockyards and later as a cattle buyer in the stands for 43 years. “With John Morrell close by, there was a processor and a stockyards right in Sioux Falls, and it was really a big economic boost for the Sioux Falls community. Everybody who came to town bought something; it was a big day for sales for local merchants.”

The Stockyards opened in 1917, and at that time, it could accommodate 5,000 hogs and 6,000 head of cattle. The facility had 62 cattle pens, three closed hog sheds and an area for sheep. Over the next 45 years, business grew, and so did the need for expansion. The complex soon covered 49 acres, and at its peak, sold as many as 10,000 animals daily.

“When I graduated from SDSU, I had pretty bad grades and couldn’t find a job,” said Woster. “I managed to get a job at the Stockyards, and I’ll never forget showing up to work at 5 a.m. the day after graduation. I opened up my car door and stepped out, and the smells, the trucks, the cattle bellering, the guys going to work at Morrell — it was all so excited. I never had a Monday because I always really enjoyed going to work. Even after 43 years, I never lost that feeling. You go to any sale barn across the state, and they’ll tell you the same thing. There’s an excitement about being in the marketing business. I was really lucky to work there.”

The Stockyards was the largest livestock market in the U.S. in 1976. It earned the number one designation again in 1981, processing more than 2.2 million head of cattle, 1.2 million butcher hogs, 223,000 feeder pigs, and 190,000 sheep that year. In the 1980s, the Stockyards sold animals to nearly 70 packing plants across the United States and Canada.

Stories of the Stockyards have been captured through the Stockyards Ag Experience Plaza and Barn, a regional attraction located at Falls Park in Sioux Falls. Officially opened to the public on March 2, the facility not only focuses on sharing the history and legacy of the Stockyards, but it also features a farm-to-table exhibit that educates visitors about where their food comes from.

“We’re located in an 1880s horse barn located in Falls Park; it’s a highly visible location near a tourist destination that attracts one million visitors annually,” said Jennifer Hoesing, Stockyards Ag Experience executive director. “We’ve leased the building from the city of Sioux Falls, and we’ve spent the last year preparing the designs and getting the barn open.”

The Stockyards Ag Experience has dedicated 900 sq. feet of the facility to presenting the history of the Stockyards with photographs, artifacts and interactive touch screens that feature oral history interviews and first person accounts of the Stockyards from former buyers, sellers and workers.

“Our goal is for ranchers who visit our two exhibits to see their culture and livelihood reflected in a positive way,” said Hoesing. “For our visitors who aren’t familiar with agriculture, our goal is to show them that farmers and ranchers work hard to produce safe, nutritious food, and that it’s grown right here in South Dakota.”

The farm-to-table exhibit focuses on common crops like corn and soybeans as well as beef, dairy, pork and poultry.

“We worked with Hy-Vee to set up a display kitchen that features nearly 100 food products with a bar code,” she said. “Visitors can scan the food and learn a fact about it. It’s really fun, and the kids at our grand opening seemed to really enjoy it.”

The exhibit is kid-friendly and was geared for elementary school students, with a focus on second and third graders. Admission is $5 for adults and $3 for children, and the museum is hosting a free day on April 7 for anyone who wishes to come check out the exhibits.

“The response in our first month has been great so far,” said Hoesing. “Ranchers who have stopped in and really felt a sense of nostalgia about the Stockyards, and the visitors from outside our area have commented that they’ve been given a new perspective on the rural way of life that they really appreciate. I think these comments show we’re hitting the mark and achieving our goals for this experience.”

Hoesing anticipates that visitor numbers will ramp up as the busy summer tourist season gets underway. But there’s much more in store for the Stockyards Ag Experience in upcoming years.

“The barn and two exhibits are the first phase of a multi-phase project,” said Hoesing. “We have 3.5 acres of land through contract for deed with the city of Sioux Falls. It’s within 100 yards of the barn located at the Stockyards’ sheep load-out area. We plan to build a visitors plaza there, and we’ve raised $600,000 so far. Our goal is a $1.9 million campaign, which will go toward the total project costs.”

With a farmer’s market close by, the barn and plaza will be perfectly located to tie into the real farm-to-table experience. Visitors can come learn where their food comes from and walk outside and purchase food from local farmers directly at the farmer’s market.

“We are excited about the synergy and the opportunity to tell the agricultural story to so many people,” said Hoesing.

“People who like history, agriculture and the beautiful Fall Parks will love this experience,” added Woster, who serves on the board of directors for the Stockyards Ag Experience. “This is a great place to visit, and for tourists wanting to spend a few days in eastern South Dakota, it’s just 50-60 miles from the Ag Heritage Museum and South Dakota Art Museum located in Brookings and the Music Museum in Vermillion. I think people will be surprised at the extensive photographs and interviews in the exhibit, and it’s a fun place for kids to enjoy, too.”

For more information on the Stockyards Ag Experience, check out