Buying and selling Kansas, one bid at a time

07/10/2011 12:00 AM

07/13/2011 9:27 AM

On hot summer days, the cries of auctioneers can be heard in almost any corner of Kansas.

In the midst of bawling cattle, clucking chickens, oinking pigs, estate and land sales, the chants and sing-songs go on.

To hear an auctioneer is to listen to another language. Microphone in hand, words sometimes come faster than human ears comprehend.

"Dollaring, dollaring, dollaring, make-it-two, two-ala-ring," chants Charly Cummings, the 2011 World Livestock Auctioneer champion from Yates Center.

You don't have to be licensed to be an auctioneer to sell personal property, but you do if real estate is on the auction block, says LaDonna Schoen-Gehring, director of the Kansas Auctioneers Association.

There are more than 600 auctioneers in Kansas.

Some auctioneers go to school.

Some learn on their own.

Some are celebrity auctioneers.

Kansas may hold the distinction of being the only state in the nation with an auctioneer as governor.

At April's invitational Governor's Turkey Hunt in El Dorado, Gov. Sam Brownback was presented a custom-made turkey call.

When informed that protocol dictated such a gift be sold to raise funds for a local scholarship, Brownback surprised the crowd when he broke into full auctioneer chatter.

His banter brought $1,300 for the call. When the call was donated back to the event Brownback auctioned it off for at least that much more money at a banquet the following evening. The money went for local college scholarships.

Brownback later said he'd gone to auctioneering school when he was younger and looking for a possible second income in case he went into farming.

Some auctioneers come into the profession through multiple generations of the family-owned business.

Whatever the case, they all say that becoming a good auctioneer is an art form.

But in times with more competition from the television and Internet, it may be becoming a lost art.

Auctions in the past

It is an old profession.

Since the beginning of Kansas, auctioneers have been rattling off high-speed pitches.

Sometimes the auctions have been controversial, such as in Kansas' territorial days, when African-Americans were sold as slaves.

Although Kansas was considered a free state and against slavery at the time, some Kansans would go across the Missouri line to make purchases.

The Kansas State Historical Society has a receipt from 1856 for $800 from Thomas Johnson, the minister and founder of the Shawnee Methodist Mission in Johnson County, for the purchase of a 15-year-old "Negro girl named 'Martha' of black complexion ... a slave for life."

He purchased the girl in Westport.

The majority of early auctions in Kansas, however, were horse auctions, said Schoen-Gehring, director of the Kansas Auctioneers Association, with a legacy dating back to early forts.

"When they started, they would auction off the horses in the military," she said. "That's why auctioneers are sometimes called 'colonel.' It came about because the colonels in the Army auctioned off the horses."

During the 1890s and 1930s, and again in the 1980s, farm auctions and sheriff's sales became almost commonplace due to drought, commodity prices and high mortgage payments.

"Farm foreclosures and sales become fairly common up into the 20th century," said Virgil Dean, historian at the Kansas State Historical Society in Topeka. "The auctions are approached with mixed feelings. It's hard going to the sale of a neighbor who has fallen on hard times. But the auctions also become a way to get people together with their neighbors and get good deals."

The auctioneer's cry

Larry Carr of Carr Auction in Larned has been in the business for 45 years, doing typically about 140 auctions a year throughout the state.

He won the state auctioneers' contest in 1972 and through the years has sold everything from livestock, farm equipment and land to banks, guns and ammunition.

He taught himself how to be an auctioneer, starting out working at the local cattle sale barn, unloading and sorting cattle and listening closely to how the auctioneer sang. Then, he'd go home at night and practice.

"You not only have to have a good chant but you need to be knowledgeable about your product. You have to make yourself understandable. If people don't know what you are saying, they are scared to participate."

Indeed, an auction can be intimidating. Crowds can be between 75 and 1,400 people at a Carr sale.

The auction chant is often a rhythmic repetition of numbers and filler words, punctuated by the "yip, yip" of the auctioneer's crew as bidders give an indication they are participating in the sale.

Some of the bidders nod with their heads.

Some are more discreet.

"That's just something you learn," Carr said. "Sometimes you've got to ask if a person is bidding. Most people nod their head or wave a head. Some don't want anybody to know they are bidding."

One customer may pull an ear lobe, while another puts his thumbs through the loops of his overalls, Carr said. Yet another will scratch his nose or play with a cap.

Some sales can be action packed, like the ones during the 1980s involving bank sales and farms whose farmers had ties with the Posse Comitatus and Freemen movements.

"There was this one sale in Stafford County that was a sheriff's sale, and we had choppers circling in the air when we picked up the machinery," Carr said, "and KBI (Kansas Bureau of Investigation) agents in the crowd."

Entertainment factor

A good auction is good entertainment — even with competition from TV and the Internet.

And for some, it's like comparing the difference between hearing a piece of music in a recording or being there, live in person.

Roger Emigh is the 1991 World Livestock Auctioneer champion. He is the auctioneer at Winter Livestock in Dodge City, America's largest independent cattle auction company and one of the nation's oldest.

The auction typically sells about 4,500 cattle a month.

Go to the Winter sale barn in Dodge on any given Wednesday, and it smells of cattle and peanuts. Hundreds of peanut shells line the floor — buyers eat the nuts while making bids.

The sale barn hasn't changed much in the 75 years it has been in operation.

Emigh's voice blares over the microphone as calves bawl:

"These calves came off the cow today.... The male cows weighed out early.... This one's got a little rupture in the bag department."

There are the sounds of slamming gates, a cellphone ringing and ringing, and people applauding when a chagrined cowboy finally does answer his phone.

Blue-jeaned cowboys in hats and worn boots caked with manure sprawl on wood seats throughout the show barn, watching intently as cattle are shoved through in groups and singles.

Dave Mendenhall, who lives near Gove, places a bid.

So do Ralph Frazee of Garden City and Doug Parham of Pierceville.

"It's a good time to buy calves. Well, they are available, anyway," Mendenhall said.

He brought his 7-year-old grandson, Gabriel, with him to the sale. Gabriel marks the seventh generation of Mendenhalls to buy cattle. Together, the two have a mound of peanut shells around them on the floor.

A drought in southwest Kansas is making it a good time to buy cattle if you are a producer elsewhere in the state.

"If they ain't got nothing to eat, a guy has got to sell them," Mendenhall said. "I'm up there at Gove where we got some rain, so I can feed them."

Gabriel Mendenhall studies the calves.

What's the best part of coming to an auction?

"Buying calves," he says.

A good auctioneer will create not only a satisfied customer, but also drama and excitement for the rest of the crowd.

"Your chant is just the way you merchandise," Emigh said. "It helps entice the buyer to bid. It helps create excitement."

There have been plenty of auctions, Emigh said, where things don't always go the way they were planned — like the time a cow jumped out of the ring, over him, and out the back door.

"I got up. Readjusted the microphone, and those crazy rascals brought her in again," he said.

The cow jumped out of the ring again and into the crowd.

Cowboys roped her and were willing to bring her back into the ring, again.

"I said, "Everybody has seen her twice, let's go ahead and make bids," Emigh said.

They did. She sold.

Art of chanting

David Keim of Keim Auction Service in Yoder is another auctioneer who taught himself the art of chanting.

The Amish auctioneer started 2 1/2 years ago selling birds — chickens, geese, ducks and pigeons. Some auctions attracted only 10 to 15 people.

Now, several hundred people come to the monthly auctions, which have expanded to include ponies, sheep and goats.

He says the sale "has turned into anything that walks."

Keim started the auction in part because some of the local Amish farm families didn't like their children coming home late at night from an auction in South Hutchinson.

Now, he said, people of all faiths and walks of life come to buy and trade poultry.

And so, beginning at 4 p.m. on the final Friday of each month, he holds an auction in downtown Yoder.

"I have people coming from Oklahoma City, Wichita, Missouri, Scott City — all over," Keim said. "I don't advertise. I don't need to, although that first winter I thought about it.

"We had about three cages of birds and two buyers, and between me and my wife, it took about two to three minutes for the sale and we were done."

At the last sale, an emu was offered.

It sold quickly.

The future

Wichitan Bud Palmer has been in the business for more than half a century, selling shipyards, hotels, business liquidations, furniture and estates. His region includes an eight-state area around Kansas.

He says the Internet, combined with a long recession, has hurt his auction business.

"If people don't have money, 25 percent of nothing is still nothing," Palmer said. "It is all relative. If times are good, sales are good. When times are tough, sales are tough. Anybody who tells you different don't know what they are doing."

Cummings, the 2011 World Livestock Auctioneer champion from Yates Center, says auctioneering will always be around. Why?

"The only way to get true price discovery and true market value is through the auction method of selling," Cummings said. "Sure, you might put something on the Internet and get someone to bid on it, but if you have two people standing at a live auction and if they want it, 90 percent of the time, they will buy it. And that's how you will discover the true price of something."

That's why the future of auctioneering is bright, says Megan McCurdy of McCurdy Auction in Wichita.

At 28, she is the first woman to hold the Kansas state auctioneer title. She won the 2011 title this year and predicts more women will become auctioneers, particularly as they join family operations.

Ask her for a sample of her auctioneer's chant, and she'll tell you it is a slower rate than those at a livestock sale because she deals in estate and real estate sales.

She says the auctioneer's chant is a small portion of what the business is all about.

"I'm in a family business where it is rewarding to work with your dad, brothers and mother. We help people. They come to us in times of need to help them dispose of things — maybe they are moving, going through a divorce, or someone's died," she said. "We step in and become part of their life."

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