2018 Update: Auctioneers still need speed, stamina, and livestock savvy to do the job. This video from several years ago show several champion auctioneers in action.
Barn Sale Memories: This sixth generation farmer recalls attending barn sales with her dad, and she now sees the ranchers as one giant community where everyone is watching out for each other.
Rappin’ Out a Sale: Check this short video to catch a cattle auctioneer with a bit of “rap, rhythm, and rhyme” thrown in.
Some livestock auctioneers have added an online audience to their ringside performance with as many as 10,000 potential bidders logging on, but a skilled voice still makes the difference. Good auctioneers have a “signature chant”—individual rhythms and tones help them coax buyers and bring up the bid. Like the digital world, the cry has a binary scheme to it. Auctioneers repeat two numbers—the current bid and the next desired price—and they add filler words to tie the chant together.
When Dedicated Lines Were Rope;
When Digital Mode Meant Finger Action
In days gone by, those hypnotic cadences rang out in sale barns filled with restless cattle, tobacco-chewin’ farmers, and local women selling meals along with “some of the best darn pie you’ll ever find.” The business end was handled by “clipboard bankers,” and they might send their receipts along a clothesline-pulley system so the transactions could be recorded—a type of dedicated line for the analog age.
Dad has firsthand knowledge of that era since his father—everyone called him Pappy—was an auctioneer. “Good ones knew how to work the crowd,” says Dad. “Pappy had a sense of humor and an easy-going style. He started at his uncle’s sale barn in Zearing, auctioning off anything from hogs to turkeys, and maybe a few geese somebody had in a burlap bag. And local farmers might herd in cattle, sell them off, and then help move them to the train station several blocks away. Townsfolk put up with a few cow pies on the potholed streets.”
Back then, the only digital aspect came when buyers lifted fingers to bid, and the social media interaction was in the form of gestures, grunts, and the daily chit-chat that fueled rural towns. A thin cloud of cigarette smoke and dust might hover above the ring, but the auctioneer kept his voice flowing and the sale moving. A few skinny hogs became “pork chops on the hoof ready to fatten up.” It could be tough putting lipstick on a pig, so they used body language and smooth tongues to emphasize an animal’s positive aspects—sort of like digitally enhancing a photo, but in this case it was verbally hypnotizing the buyer.
Dad says, “Most auctioneers also did house and farm sales, and they thought it was better to have a cold, dreary day in the front yard. It would cut down on the chatter and get sales going.”
Apparently Pappy had another method to keep things rolling during winter sale days. He kept a flask of whiskey in a hidden pocket of his raccoon fur coat. “A bit of antifreeze courtesy of the bootleggers back in prohibition times.”
Pappy was a cattleman at heart, and I imagine he preferred doing livestock sales rather than house or farm foreclosures. “He was good with people and with cattle,” Dad says. “He knew how to keep the crowd interested and the bids flowing.”
That couldn’t have been easy at times. “I heard about an old boy named Junior,” Dad said. “He’d slouch on a bench in the stands, seemingly asleep the whole day, but by the end of the sale, he’d bought a truckload of cattle—usually ones nobody else wanted. When sick, lame, or skinny steers came into the ring, usually somebody would mumble ‘better wake up Junior.’”
Whether it involves eager buyers with laptops or drowsy “Juniors” in the stands, it takes a certain gift of the gab to be a successful auctioneer. Times change, but the traditional auction cry still echoes from sale barns across the country.
by dan gogerty (top pic from outbacknotes.blogspot.com; bottom pic from web.missouri.edu)