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Taking stock

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The Garrard County Stockyards have been closed for almost a year now. The building has been demolished and all that remains is rubble and a single remnant of an era gone forever. The audio behind these photos was taken from the original video produced in the last weeks of the stockyard’s life. Click the “more” link below to read Greg Kocher’s story about the significance of the stockyards’ closing.


By Greg Kocher

Editor’s note: This story was first published in the the Lexington Herald-Leader on Wednesday, June 13, 2007.

LANCASTER — After more than 60 years in business, the Garrard County Stockyards will close this summer. And with it will go an important part of Lancaster’s history and character.

“It’ll be sad,” said Sonny Williams, an auctioneer whose rapid-fire chant has filled the sale ring for 15 years. “Most of all, I’ll miss the farmers. I’ll miss everything about it.”Mike Carter, agricultural extension agent for Garrard County, said the stockyards is more than a place to sell cattle.

“It’s a meeting place and part of the social fabric of the community,” Carter said. “I can recall as a youngster going to the stockyards with my dad and my older brother, and it was quite a deal to go to the stockyards.”

In January, Blue Grass Stockyards of Lexington, the third-largest livestock auction company in the country, purchased the Garrard business. Blue Grass is building a new stockyards in Stanford, about 8 miles south of Lancaster, and when that facility opens later this year, the aging, wooden Garrard complex will close.

“These old buildings are hard to keep up and the insurance is high,” said Dickie Arnold, one of the co-owners of the Garrard yard. “New yards are more efficient and they’re all metal.”

Millions of dollars worth of cattle and calves have shuttled through the Garrard stockyards over the last 60 years. In 1997 the stockyards sold more than 84,000 head of cattle — more than any other market in the state except Louisville and Lexington, according to the Kentucky Department of Agriculture. Last year the Garrard stockyards sold 52,590 head, making it the 10th largest among the state’s
31 cattle markets.

When the stockyards close, it will be one more economic hit against Lancaster, which saw its only hospital close in 2003. Garrard used to be among the top 15 burley tobacco producers in the state; it’s now ranked 45th.

Without the stockyards, “Lancaster will be a graveyard,” predicted Debbie Price, a former owner of the White Barn Cafe, a restaurant that is part of the stockyards complex. “This has been the big revenue for Garrard County. We don’t have many businesses here.”

Mainstay of downtown

The stockyards has been an important part of the weekly rhythm of life for this Central Kentucky city of 4,000. Cattle sales have been on Fridays for as long as anyone can remember, so they lent an exclamation point to the end of the week. Farmers came to town, added a little more bustle to the place, and spent their money on gasoline, groceries and goods.

“We’ll keep coming till they lock the door, I guess,” said Coby Ward, a Paint Lick farmer who has gone to the auctions for 55 of his 65 years.

The stockyards began in 1935 as a horse and mule sale in a barn that had been a livery stable. The next year the business was moved to its present location on Stanford Street, which at the time was owned by the L&N Railroad. The railroad had used the property as holding pens for the receiving and shipment of livestock by rail.

The business grew through the 1930s and ’40s with the mottos “Operated by Farmers For Farmers” and “Check Day of Sale.” (The Stanford Street side of the yard now boasts, “Not the Biggest; We Try Harder.”)

But on Feb. 24, 1949, fire destroyed the stockyards and the adjoining restaurant then known as Traveler’s Inn. More than 60 head of cattle perished in the blaze, while 30 horses and mules were led to safety.

The stockyards was rebuilt, but disaster struck again six years later. In September 1955, fire not only reduced the stockyards to rubble, but also the adjoining restaurant, several neighboring homes, a service station and a car dealership. The fire began when a truck unloading gasoline exploded.

That time, more than 1,000 animals died and 300 were saved. The $2 million in damage caused the local paper to describe it as “the most disastrous fire ever to hit Lancaster.” It could have been even worse had some nearby above-ground fuel storage tanks ignited.

But the stockyards was rebuilt again and has had various sets of owners in the years since.

A time-honored practice

What hasn’t changed much is the method of sale.

Farmers from surrounding counties start trucking cattle and calves to market on Thursdays. Auctions start a little after 9 a.m. on Fridays and continue until 6 p.m., with only a 30-minute break for lunch. Some farmers recall sales years ago that went all night and didn’t end until the wee hours of the morning — at which time the stockyards owner treated the people remaining to breakfast.

Once unloaded at market, the cattle are separated by sex and size and grouped into lots. They wend their way through a series of chutes and pens that funnel them to just outside the auction ring. A door to the right of the auction ring slides open horizontally with a pneumatic hiss that’s oddly reminiscent of doors on the Starship Enterprise in Star Trek. Steers, heifers or calves enter jumping and slipping like they’re sliding into third base.

Two men with sticks poke and prod the animals around the ring. Auctioneers Sonny Williams and Ralph Meadows take turns chanting, each pulling a couple of hours at a time.

The sale ring is paneled in dark wood and is surrounded by wooden flip-down seats on steep risers. The ring has a timeless character with those old seats — some with arms bearing the scars of generations of whittling farmers.

The signs advertising crop insurance and farm credit, and the big ancient fan in the corner stirring the air, and the semi-circle of farmers’ eyes watching carefully from beneath the bills of their caps — the whole atmosphere is almost hypnotic as one lot of animals succeeds another.

Sitting there, listening to the auctioneer’s drone, time seems suspended. Sitting there, one gets an inkling of what William Faulkner meant when he wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

And sitting there, one can see why country singer John Michael Montgomery, who grew up in Garrard County, used the auction ring as the setting for the video of his 1995 hit Sold (The Grundy County Auction Incident).

Sitting directly in front of the auction ring are eight to 20 “order buyers” who look at each lot of animals entering the ring. They’ll pick up telephones the color of yellowed teeth and describe individual animals to clients in Iowa, Nebraska and other points west.

Order buyers will barely give a wink or nod when bidding.

“One man just looks at me and I know he’s bidding,” Williams said.

Farmers tend to be a little more demonstrative: They might raise an index finger to indicate their bid. Within a few seconds, the scoreboard above the ring registers the animals’ weight and sale price in red numbers. Then a door to the left hisses open, and the cattle dart through the opening. From there, people on horses corral the animals into pens.

Although the stockyards has been virtually downtown for more than half a century, there wasn’t much of a stink raised over the smell.

“It’s just been there in Lancaster and I guess they just kind of accepted it,” Arnold said.

The cattle bought by order buyers will go to feedlots in Nebraska or elsewhere in the Midwest. An 850-pound steer sold in Lancaster will be fattened to weigh 1,300 to 1,400 pounds by the time it is ready for slaughter, Arnold said. From there, it’s on to the packing plants, grocers and finally the grills and plates of consumers.

Other passages

The closing of the stockyards affects other businesses that are part of the same complex. Brummett & Todd Barbershop, long known for its impromptu bluegrass music jam sessions, moved to a new location in the block north of the stockyards.

“I’ve been doing this 40 years,” Charlie Brummett said recently as he cut a gentleman’s hair. “And I’m going to do it another 40 years and then get out.”

Although the barber shop will live on, the White Barn Cafe in the stockyards complex will close when the yard does. So, too, will the all-you-can-eat buffet of two meats, vegetables, drink and dessert for $7.

“I promised to ‘em I’d keep it open till they closed,” said proprietor Kay Hopkins. “But it’ll be a big loss for us because it means jobs, and this is where the farmers want to eat. I enjoy every one of them.”

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One Response to “Taking stock”
  1. Melissa West says:

    I hate to see such a landmark be torn down. I drive through Lancaster every year for a family reunion and I always enjoy looking at the stockyards. I can just imagine how many stories there are that are attached to the stockyards.
    I understand change has to happen but it doesn’t take the sting out of losing such a historical site.

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