So to wrap up the Ukiah Sale sheep auction management saga, here’s a description of what a grueling summer day out in the dusty sheep pens and corridors felt like to a forty year old City Kid. My last article noted that early June was the Mendocino County sheep industry’s selling peak. Typically ranchers sheared their bands then and immediately brought lambs and culled old ewes and bucks to market. Some Saturdays over five thousand sheep could show up at The Auction.
I still remember vividly the worst Saturday of my auction career. I believe it was around 1980 or ’81, because about then I had reluctantly made another career change decision I had been avoiding by moving to Anderson Valley a decade before. My family had been in the publishing business back in New York for generations. I enjoyed my various engagements with publishing activities, including starting with friends a couple of political journals, but like many children I didn’t really want to work for my father, the high expectations patriarch heading what he believed the venerable family enterprise. Part of my avoidance strategy had been to “hide out” in Anderson Valley, growing grapes and running sheep.
Then in 1980, to please my parent, I joined the board of directors of this publicly traded, family controlled business. The job’s responsibilities were not burdensome: two-day meetings in New York four times a year; free plane tickets; a dining expense account; and a chance to walk around the office and listen to publishing stories…though I did have to teach myself what “generally accepted” accounting practices were and what “cash flow” was. Most important my father was pleased by my apparent interest in the family business.
So the trajectory of the auction day I want to describe actually began in New York City the day before. The company board meeting that Friday ended about 3 PM. I had my travel bag and brief case packed and at the Third Avenue office where I hailed a cab and headed for the airport and the 5 PM flight to San Francisco. In San Francisco I transferred me and my luggage to my car stowed in the airport’s long term parking area and headed up Highway 101 to Cloverdale. I knew there was, as there still is, a funky fleabag motel in the middle of downtown Cloverdale and decided it was more efficient to bed down for the night there rather than driving another hour home, staying up too late enjoying being back in Navarrah, then facing another hour trip over the hill to my Saturday Auction job in Ukiah.
The only thing I didn’t know is that at 11 PM, there was no publicly available food, restaurant or convenience store, open in Cloverdale. I hadn’t eaten any of the free junk food on the San Fran flight, not realizing the old 24 hour locals’ breakfast joint at the north end of town I used to visit regularly ten years previous didn’t stay open all night anymore. So empty stomach notwithstanding, I went right to sleep at the Fleabag and didn’t stir until my alarm clock went off at 5:30 AM, Saturday. With dawn emerging to the east I drove up the street to the familiar Welcome Café, had a leisurely eggs and sausage breakfast, plenty of home fries and toast. From there it was half an hour on 101 to Ukiah where I arrived at the Auction yard around 7:30, still not quite awake but just before my staff came to work.
It was a good thing they all showed up a little early too, because sheep were beginning to arrive at The Sale by 8 AM of a day we could already tell was going to go to 100 degrees F temperature. By 9:30 the arrival yard was overfilled with pick-up trucks and small stock trailers unloading sheep in units of anywhere from 20 to 200 head, and we all were moving the stock in the pervasive dust at full steam energy level, wiping soupy sweat from our brows and blowing grey snot out of our noses every five or ten minutes to avoid on-the-job coughing fits. And as calm and serene as we needed to be to manage the sheep in a dominating way, we knew we were racing against the clock and The Sale’s 1 PM start time.
And of course, the larger sales units from the big ranches north and south of Ukiah, the couple of hundred head ones, were the later arrivals, around 11 AM, or sometimes even a few minutes before the Sale began. By 12:30, the thermometer in the shaded Auction front entrance read 102 degrees, no breeze, so changing gears from the seller stock arrival chaos to moving sale lots one at a time into the auction arena was actually a physical relief for me and my crew. And they were good enough at this orderly, systematic job, I could take a break and actually sit with the bidding crowd for a few minutes rest during the auction, a real treat, especially since at 85 degrees the windowless sale area felt like the place was air-conditioned.
Being a participant in the actual sale event, whether buying or selling or just for the Saturday sociability, was in effect being audience to a real drama of human competitiveness, like poker with thirty or forty players. Watching, for instance, old “Grand-pa” Cecil Gowan buying a couple of ewes for the family backyard flock: I also liked those two ewes for my band and entered the bidding til I realized that for Cecil the sky was the limit. He was a Gowan, after all, part of the Anderson Valley aristocracy, and could afford any price. So I stopped bidding, let some others, perhaps the seller, bid him up to well over market price, and “Grand-pa got his ewes for a dime a pound more than anyone else would have paid.
Then there was an interesting New Age kind of buyer from Fort Bragg. “Fred Ennis” was a guy a little older than I, tall, skinny, short-haired, dressed in levis, work shirt and work boots. Even though he had arrived on The Coast during the High Hippie Days in the mid-sixties, he had gone right to work at Union Lumber mill, saved his money and bought a small farm off Tregoning Way east of town on the edge of the pygmy forest. The auctioneer knew “Fred” only as “Sauers Ranch,” “Fred’s” real name, because he regularly bought a few sheep now and then, but more interesting, he also bought any lame or wounded animal, be it sheep, mules, burrows, even horses.
One sale day well before I took my auction job, I walked across the stands and introduced myself to “Fred” and heard his story. He had gotten tired of life on the farm in Nowhere, Kansas, had hitch-hiked in both directions away from home on nearby Route US 40 and ended up in Fort Bragg. He bought the injured livestock, he said, whenever he could afford them because he hated the idea of letting them go to the knacker-man for pet food. Instead he took them home to the farm, nursed them back to health, then sold them at a good premium to auction prices to local people wanting a pet animal. Those were the kind of interesting people one could run into at the Saturday Auctions.
Anyway, back in the heat and dust around the sheep pens, the long day meandered on. Fortunately for me and The Crew as our stamina wore down after the first sale hour, the size of the lots being sold got larger. Larger bands, because of their size, created more dust than the small lots but were easier to maneuver through the pens and into the ring, and the bidding also lasted longer inside the auction arena. In retrospect, I have to admit, by 2 PM, we all were dogging it a bit, regularly stopping for a drink of water or slowly brow-mopping as we moved the bands from their pens to the arena and back. By 3:30 or so as the sale wound down, we were all dragging our butts through the dust and noise, moving ourselves and the bands at a snail’s pace. Fortunately, to my knowledge no one among the Busman family running the sale every complained about our mid-June Saturday’s work performance.
And there was still the stock to load out for the buyers. I remember well how difficult it was at that time of day to arouse a last round of stamina to get our work and the day, done. Again fortunately for us the buyers were familiar with our plight from their own ranchlife summer days, so many of them pitched in and helped us with the loading out, they too probably wanting to get home for a beer. And of course the Armour Company buyer Warren Dutton was his usual gentlemanly self with assistance helping us load the company’s trailer for the trip over to Dixon.
By 6 PM, we had gotten the last sheep on the road, drunk our fill of water, blown our noses, unstuck our sweaty shirts from our backs and armpits, hacked and spit relentlessly and begun to unwind our bodies and brains from over ten hours of virtually perpetual motion.
I remember that day’s end well, for after being in workday motion since the day before back in New York, I was at a shambling pace as I looked for my driver home Sammy as the sun started over the hill west of The Sale and the temperature dropped about fifteen degrees. Once I found him, I had to sit on a bench outside the Sale office for five or ten minutes, inhaling deeply and hacking and spitting some more before shuffling across the parking lot into his pick-up truck. The drive into town to buy our six-pack of Bud was silent, and Sammy hopped out to make the purchase for us. I didn’t offer a word in response to his gossip until after we’d finished our first beers and started our next at mile marker 14 on 253. Finally, as we flattened out of the Boonville Road steep grade at Butler Ranch into Cole Valley vineyard, I woke up from my eyes-open stupor and joined the conversation reviewing the day’s events. When I awoke at home the next morning, It was a relief to feel so well-rested though my head was still full of Auction yard dust.
To this date that Auction Saturday forty years ago was the longest, most exhausting work day of my farm life in and around Anderson Valley. But we got ‘er done with the support of a lot of folks, paid and unpaid. I did continue my sheep sale management career through the rest of the Ukiah Auction selling season, but come the next early spring, I turned in my resignation to the Busman brothers and came away pleased with having learned a new skill and met a lot of interesting people. The Saturday Sale as a social and business event continued as part of my Anderson Valley life until I went to work at the family business a decade after my retirement from the Ukiah Livestock Auction.
(Next Week (maybe): Book Review, Maurice Tindall’s “eclectic’ Anderson Valley life.)