From the number twenty-seven, 1985 issue.
Not long ago, after reading of the passing of Mr. Frank Farrar, I sat staring out the window for a few moments as a rush of childhood memories flooded into my consciousness.
Dozens of sights, smells and sounds brought back the Farrar livestock auction and the town of West Plains.
To a six-year old farm boy, living five miles from the nearest post office (which was Bakersfield), West Plains, Missouri during the mid-1950s looked like the biggest city in the world, and since I had nothing to compare it to, it was.
Every Monday was auction day at the stockyards, and during the summers I eagerly went along on these weekly trips with my father.
The narrow two-lane blacktop from Bakersfield seemed endless, so to pass the time I constantly shifted in the seat of the 1952 Chevrolet pickup in order to see everything that was going on in front, back, and both sides of the road. At the same time I kept up a steady stream of questions.
“Who lives there, Daddy?” “How much farther Dad?” “Are we nearly there?” “Who’s that man in the field?” “What’s he doing Dad— do we know him?” Dad answered each question as if it were important, probably wishing I had never learned to talk.
Finally we drove around the square in West Plains, which was always crowded on Mondays, to the stop sign on St. Louis Street, where we turned left into a scene never to be forgotten. Trucks and pickups were backed up almost to the intersection, men were running and yelling, often carrying sticks or wads of cash in their hands. If we were hauling cattle or hogs, livestock traders, called “jockeys,” would jump on the running boards of the truck, often two or three at a time.
Questions were shouted over the din, “what’cha got there buddy, how much ya want for him?” Many times I would sit in total confusion while Dad negotiated with two or one of the traders, referred to as selling “on the yards,” you were paid for the animal and unloaded it further down the street at the city scales. If you decided to sell in the auction, a right turn took you past Tooley’s Ford tractor dealership to the unloading chutes of the Farrar Livestock Auction.
Once inside the livestock auction, the action would begin, with coops of ducks and chickens selling first, then horses and mules (the part I lived for), and finally cattle. Of course to a kid, boredom sets in very fast, so I would start looking around the sale barn. I noticed (for the hundredth time) the huge hand-carved ox yoke, with a tiny exact miniature replica attached to it. Then I stared at the mounted elk’s head for a while, wondering how they got the eyes to look so real. Now if you are wondering how a dumb country kid knew about all of these things, the answer is, I had asked my dad about every person and object in the place dozens of times.
C.C. Grace was the auctioneer. The man in the strap undershirt whose glasses kept sliding down his nose was John Hanley who kept a wide-mouthed gallon fruit jar filled with ice water at hand during the summer.
Hanley and Frank Farrar always stood in the sale ring. Mr. Farrar always wore a low-crowned straw hat and carried a leather cattle whip which he popped each time he “set in” a critter — that is he named the price at which the auctioneer started the bidding. One of my ambitions was to someday own a whip just like it.
When a buyer bid, there was no quiet moving of the fingers or nodding of the head as is the custom today. The potential buyer bid by raising his arm and shouting “yeah.”
If there were two bidders they would alternately point and holler until one bidder quit. The buyer’s name was then announced and duly recorded by Joe Horst, who also sometimes worked in the office. When I asked Dad Joe Horst’s name I misunderstood him, so for years I thought is name was “Joe Horse.”
Finally I could stand it no longer and started pulling on Dad’s arm, “Daddy, can I have a soda pop?” Most of the time he would dig out a nickel, and I would march over to the big metal cooler filled with great chunks of ice coming up around the necks of the stuff dreams were made of.
I heard the friendly voice of Henry Bean over the drone of the auctioneer, “What flavor do you want, sonny?” Not trusting myself to speak to such a great man, I pointed to either a Grapette or a Nehi Orange, (unknown to me these drinks were known a little further south as “bellywashers”).
As soon as my choice was made Mr. Bean snatched the bottle from the cooler, wiped it off with a white rag as big as a pillow case, and after opening it, handed it over with a great ceremony. I would then stand and watch the popcorn bounce inside he popper for a few moments, before I turned to dawdle my way back to my seat by the longest route possible.
Once Dad handed me a dollar bill, and concentrating on buying cattle, forgot to ask for his change back. That will live forever in my memory as the day I learned that it is not wise to mix every flavor of “sody pop” under the rainbow, along with peanuts and popcorn, in a digestive system unaccustomed to such gastronomical delights.
Often Dad would be watching the auction so intently that I was able to sneak off down the street to the city scales. I stood by the door of Henry DeShazo’s trucking company hoping to see a real truck driver. If I was extremely lucky I saw the black man who drove for him in those days.
Getting to see a black person was an event guaranteed to draw a listening audience when I told about it at recess during the next school year.
My route then took me between the rows of parked trailer trucks down to the railroad tracks. There was always action around the freight yard. Cars were switched form track to track, and sometimes long freight trains passed through, some of them more than 100 cars long, (I don’t know how many more than 100 cars, since I could only count to 100 in those days).
After watching the trains for a while, I started back to the sale barn, hoping I hadn’t been missed. Once in a great while, however, I got to see a dispute in the stockyards settled the old fashioned way — with fists. When Dad was around he always removed me from the scene in a hurry, but when I was on one of my solitary excursions, I always stayed and watched, invariably learning some new words in the process. I also learned, however, that when these new words were used in ordinary conversation, a shocked silence followed. Then my mother removed said words from my vocabulary with surgical precision, using her favorite weapon, a peach tree switch.
Sneaking back into the sale barn I watched with interest for awhile before boredom again set in. Mr. Frank Farrar had a sure cure for a fidgety kid; he would point at them and pretend to take their bid. After one of these treatments the culprit would sit like a rock, afraid to even scratch his nose.
But when the sale was not in progress Mr. Farrar always found time to tousle a boy’s hair while asking the lad’s father, “Who’s this fellow you’ve got with you?”
To which the father invariably replied, “Oh, just a feller I picked up down the road.”
At some point during the day we usually went over to the Stockyards Cafe for dinner (eaten at noon, supper is eaten in the evening for the benefit of anyone not acquainted with Ozark terms). I always ordered the same thing, a hamburger and, you guessed it, an orange or grape “sody pop.”
I always thought the hamburgers had distinctly pleasant taste not found in Mom’s burgers. Only in later years was I to discover this distinct taste was caused by grease that had been used too hot for too long. But even today I love the taste of sale barn hamburgers.
It was always late in the day and usually after dark as we started down the road toward home. I would start to get drowsy and struggle to remember the names and faces of the cattle buyers and traders. They were such people as Paul Hoover, Bill Starkey, Cotton Reese, “Sock” Hyler, Pete Ward, “Doc” Buford, and Homer Burtram. As the drone of the old six-cylinder Chevy sang me to sleep I was already hoping to get to go again the next Monday.
Joe Smith is now a science teacher at Viola High School in Viola, Arkansas. He is also quite active in the cattle business, owning his own farm and still helping his father with his operation.