Sunday, December 9, 2012

Stockyard Memories

Better take a bathroom break before you start this one; I was a bit of a windbag today!

I wasn’t very old the first time I went to the stockyards, maybe not even school-age yet. The old wooden building was tucked there between the river and the side street that paralleled it and the double railroad track. Just a few yards away, a major street (still narrow by today’s standards) went under the tracks and over the river. Neither the narrow streets, nor the narrow old bridge built in 1907 were designed to handle the traffic that arrived every Saturday. The stop light at that end of the bridge, placed to let folks out of the side street, was often as much a hindrance as a help on those days. The smell of truck exhaust and cow manure permeated the air, as did the sound of bawling cattle and men’s voices, venting the nervousness of the cattle, the frustrations of the farmers unloading their stock, and the wheeling and dealing of the pinhookers on the docks, as they sometimes tried to buy the cattle before they were even unloaded.
After the sale started, the cattle would be brought into the ring by lot, sometimes a single animal, and sometimes several at a time. The auctioneer would usually be making favorable comments on the animals, pointing out good traits and conveniently ignoring bad ones. His chant would get the bidding started as his voice became a loud, hard-to-follow string of blather to those not accustomed to the sound. Those familiar with it had no trouble following the proceedings, of course, as men raised their hands, nodded their heads or just raised a finger to the auctioneer as a sign that they were placing a bid at the level the auctioneer had mentioned. The increases got smaller as the resistance to price got more obvious, until at last you heard the “Going once, going twice, SOLD!” that ended each transaction. Sometimes, bidding could last a couple minutes; other times, it might last only thirty seconds or never even get off the ground. The latter rarely happened as long as the animal was healthy enough to stand on its feet, though.

The arena seating was built a bit steep, so as provide the best view of stock to the bidders. It was a strange and wonderful place to a country kid, watching both the action in the ring and the interaction of the people in the stands. However, I remember the board seats of those old wooden stands getting a little hard on my tender parts after a while. Therefore, I was sort of glad to hit the road after my dad had watched Harry (his former brother-in-law) call the sale for a while. (Harry had been married to my floozy aunt years earlier and he and Dad were still on good terms, but that’s a story in my yet unpublished book.)
We did okay on selling at the yards as long as the old wooden stockyards were there. The old place was a fire-trap, though, and burned to the ground during my teens. The story was that a couple kids had been seen playing with fireworks in the area, and of course, the old wooden building also contained sawdust and hay. A new concrete and steel building was built suspiciously soon across town by the interstate on land owned by one of the partners, and the sale went on with a new auctioneer. We took a few head there, but got about a hundred dollars less per head than we would have expected at the old yard. When we took a few to the old stockyards upriver at Maryville, Ohio, we got as good or better than we expected. Harry called the sale up there by then, so Dad felt he would look out for our interests, so we started selling in Ohio after that.

A few years later, Harry quit calling at Marysville and we thought we’d try the new yards again. This time we stayed and watched the action. At weigh-in, the guy running the scale was one of the partners, and a fellow farmer from one of the early families in the area that Dad knew well. He commented that he liked my steer and would bid one him. We thought that was nice of him. When the time came, the bidding was moving right along on my steer until the partner bid. That was the last bid, and it was at least a hundred dollars less than the animal should have brought. The scenario was repeated on the animals that Dad brought, but it was a couple other fellows that made the closing bid. We were a bit suspicious.
After talking to a couple neighbors who always made a day of it when they went to sale, we got the story. The partners and a few buyers who counted on filling their semi’s with cattle for the Midwest feedlots were in cahoots. They’d let the locals start the bidding, but would then come in with a bid themselves. The locals, used to being outbid by these buyers, would often stop bidding. The other “big boys” would also refrain from bidding and let that guy get the animal. They took turn about, though, so each could get his truck full. Needless to say, we never went back to that sale, and we lost our respect for the partner. Dad thought it was especially ratty to do that to a young fellow like I was at the time. I guess I’d feel the same way if someone I knew did something similar to one of my granddaughters.

By coincidence, we didn’t stay in the cattle business much longer, but when we had to sell at auction, we went back to Marysville, since the cramped loading area and the distance from the interstate made it inconvenient for the semi guys.
I was thinking about the yards and talking with my mom and one of my cousins recently, and we counted at least eight stockyards that used to be within a couple hours’ drive of here. The local one, the last one open, is now closed. However, I hear that one did reopen about an hour south of here. Still, some local folks travel as far as Sugar Creek, Ohio, a good two-hours away, to sell their animals. Most folks now try to make person-to-person sales to save the trouble. I guess that’s better in many ways, except when it’s done because of a lack of other options.

I’m sure economic factors played a role in the disappearance of the local stockyards, but I heard that it was government regulations and the high cost of liability insurance that drove most of them out. Why doesn’t that surprise me? © 2012


Bob Mc said...

I’ve been to a few horse auctions, but never bought or sold anything. I figured if a horse was really good a person didn’t need to take it to an auction to sell it. I got a real education one time. A friend and I drove several miles to an auction away from home. We watched all the horses go through the sale, then spent the night at another friend’s place. That was on a Saturday. The next day (Sunday) we stopped at another auction on the way home. Some of the same horses that we saw sold the day before were up for sale at this auction. Professional horse traders! Buyer beware.

Penny said...

Well, as you know, I really love reading your long-winded reminiscing. This was especially interesting as it reminds me of my father who was raised on a ranch in Texas. He would sometimes tell tales of going to auction, although those days were gone by the time I came along.

Gorges Smythe said...

I know what you mean, Bob; my great-grandfather was a horse-trader and I wouldn't have wanted to do business with him!

I'm glad you enjoy my mental meanderings, Penny. Texas to Alaska, eh? That's quite a change!