To the Contrary

Fond memories of working at the sale barn

A job could not get any better than this: listening to an auctioneering virtuoso ply his trade, playing cowboy with my fellow cowpunchers and getting paid for it. 50 cents per hour (this was before the days of minimum wage mandates). And to top it all off, add the olfactory pleasure of an earthy mixture of hay, manure and sweat. This pretty much describes the job I had at the York Sale Bam during my high school days some 50 years ago. The auction house, with the snack stand out front, was located on Hwy. 321 south of town beside the old cotton gin; it was open on Thursdays.

The sale barn sold cattle, pigs, goats, sheep and an occasional horse or mule. It was a cavernous, tin covered building designed for utility, not for looks. Farmers dropped off their livestock at the dock where they were driven into holding pens until it was time to run them through the auction. After being sold, they were loaded onto the buyer's truck or until later that day. My job was to herd the animals throughout the process using body language, a cattle prod or brute strength.

The auctioneer's station was located above the arena, a low level pit covered with sawdust, where the animals were paraded around and around. The auctioneer's chant was music to the ear, a barnyard aria with crescendos and decrescendos, staccatos and syncopation, resonance and repetition. It was accompanied by the sporadic percussion of a leather strap striking the auctioneer's desk- a punctuation mark designed to keep the bidders' attention until the final, "Sold!"

Each buyer had his own bidding signal, anything from a secretive nod and -,wink to a flamboyant hand signal or shout. Tension mounted as the cost per pound or the price per head escalated to a fever pitch. When the last bid was recorded by the bookkeeper, the animal was shooed out, and another one was introduced. The paperwork was taken to the office, the price calculated and the bill prepared. The new owner loaded his cargo, and the transaction was complete.

Bob Harper, manager of the sale barn, was part of a family of gentle giants. In today's world, he and his brothers would be in the NFL or NBA. Bob could grab a stubborn critter by the horns and lead it single-handedly. The auctioneer, Charles McBreyer, was blessed with industry knowledge and the acumen to know when the highest price had been reached. Mrs. Mary Virginia Cameron, a generous, jocular lady, ran the snack stand which was known for its succulent hot dogs covered with chili and slaw, My friend "Charles Sandif was one of those few people who looked good wearing a ten gallon hat. Charlie had a talent for working with animals, especially horses. In fact, this has been his life's career- raising horses, breaking them to the saddle and training them.

Black men with wonderful names such as June Bug, Hoover and Fiddler provided a lot of the muscle in moving the animals. They also kept us entertained with tales told in the vernacular of a Zora Neale Hurston novel, stories that offered lessons in cultural diversity before the phrase was invented. We were a team, there was no room for racism at the sales barn. This was an egalitarian work environment- everyone standing ankle deep in muck, getting squirted by an animal with diarrhea or being kicked in the shins by a cantankerous steer- equal opportunity employment.

The livestock's temperaments ranged from the docility of the piglets, calves and lambs to the ferociousness of boars with tusks, butting billy goats and mixed breed cattle, especially the brahman/angus mix. Eight battery cattle prods did a good job in getting most bovines to go through the chutes into the truck beds, but a stubborn brahman required a different technique: make sure that the path to the truck was clear, open the corral gate, taunt the animal and run like hell as it gave chase. The trick was to run into the bed of the truck as it followed, climb out in time to escape and have someone slam the chute door shut, imprisoning the beast.

There were times that temper the otherwise nostalgic feelings I have about working at the sale barn. Occasionally, Charlie and I would deliver stock to the slaughter house, some as far away as Shelby. Like Jodie Foster's character in "Silence of the Lambs."have a hard time forgetting the sounds of the panicked animals as they were herded into the killing pens-, they seemed to sense the fate awaiting them. The ones that bothered me the most were the calves, rickety little things that should have been romping in a pasture instead of queuing up to be butchered. I don't mean to sermonize or to demonize this industry by sharing these feelings-, I have to admit that I do eat an occasional hamburger or pork loin. But veal is out of the question.

The sale barn closed a few years back, victim to a more modern facility in Chester and to declining animal husbandry in York County. The building sat vacant for awhile-) a monument to the industry it promoted, the people who worked there and the livestock that passed through. It has since been torn down along with the cotton gin next door. The former gin location is occupied by one of those ubiquitous convenience stores; the barn site remains vacant.

Awhile back, I visited this hallowed ground. I didn't hear the rhythmic cadence of the auctioneer or the on omatopoelan cacophony of moos, oinks, baas and whinnies. I didn't see the workhands, clad in overalls, prodding the animals through the chutes or the serious-faced buyers taking their front row seats to plan their bidding strategies. I didn't Let a whiff of the appetizing aromas from the snack stand or the pungent smells emanating from the saw dust and muck. But I did sense the aura of that western York County landmark in all its glory, and I was reminded of the most fun job I ever had.