MEMORIES OF THE MARTIN LIVESTOCK AUCTION
By Steve Moreland, January 24, 2019
As of January 2019, the sale barn in Martin, South Dakota has changed hands. I wish the new owners well, and hope their step-of-faith carries on to be very successful for them, and that this livestock auction is a continuing success for the surrounding community.
Martin Livestock Commission Company was first formed as a corporation in 1951, by William I. Porch and a group of local men including R.D. Cook, O.A. Hodson, Fred Weimer, and Alvin Brown. The purpose was to organize a sale barn and yards on land owned by William I. Porch, which was on the east side of town. One hundred four shares of stock were sold in the Corporation, and the project was completed in 1954. Ed Bailey leased the facility, and sales were held until July 25, 1962 when the lease ran out. Management was then taken over by William I. Porch and Alvin Brown, and the new corporation was known as Martin Auction Co., Inc.
Alvin Brown passed away in 1963. Bill Porch continued on with the sale barn, assisted by Don Daughters as field man and yard foreman. Phyllis Daughters became office manager. Bill’s son, William A. Porch and wife Judy, continued working at the sale barn. Other family members also assisted with the sale barn operation.
In 1982, William I. Porch passed away, and the sale barn was closed for a short time. Son William A. “Billy,” and wife Judy acquired all the shares of Martin Livestock Commission Co. They proceeded to build a new facility, which housed 250 seats and had a computerized sale ring capable of weighing a pot load of cattle at one time. A new café was also included in the plans.
Don Daughters stayed on as field man and yard foreman with Billy and Judy. With a lot of community involvement and donated labor from many volunteers, the new sale barn was ready for action. The first sale in the new facility for Martin Auction Co., Inc. was in October of 1983. Cattle and hog sales were held every Monday, and annual livestock sales ranged between 20,000 and 30,000 head annually.
Don Daughters died in 1994, so Porch’s daughter Shelly and her husband Brad Otte moved to Martin to assist in the operation of the sale barn. In 1997, Brad and Shelly purchased Martin Auction Co. and established a new corporation, Martin Livestock Auction, Inc. The Ottes have owned and operated the business ever since, and now in early 2019 the business is in the final stages of changing ownership again.
Family members and area ranchers have helped on sale days. Brad and Shelly have also owned and operated the café, which is open for business five days a week. Dining customers enjoy delicious home-cooked food and good conversation with friends, along with daily games of cards. There is no longer a local market for hogs, but Ottes have sold 25,000 to 30,000 cattle each year. New technology and internet options have also enhanced marketing capabilities in the auction business.
Some of the brand inspectors through the years have included Gib Valandry, Lee Jacobs, Les Lessert, Scott Hicks, and Bob Coyle. Veterinarians have been Dr. Morgan Dahlman, Dr. Boyd Porch, Dr. William Hines, and currently Dr. Rachel Embree.
Thanks goes to Shelly Otte for the preceding historical information, which was found in the book MEMORIES OF OUR HOMETOWN – Martin, SD – 1911-2011, by the Bennett County Historical Society.
The first time I was ever at the Martin sale barn was probably going to horse sales with my dad. They used to be somewhat of a regular occurrence, and well worth attending just for the entertainment. There is something about a horse sale that usually generates more excitement than just an ordinary cattle sale. The horse traders seem to be characters, and a lot of them probably deserve the tarnished reputation they share with used car salesmen. There is an old saying: “All is fair in love and war.” This could probably be amended to: “All is fair in love and war and horse-trading.”
When Alvin Brown and William I. Porch were partners in the sale barn, they also worked together with their respective registered Quarter Horse programs. There were several “Brown and Porch” catalog horse sales in that time period. They probably didn’t own mares together, but they did each own half interest in a stallion named Half Bar, who was an own son of Three Bars. We had a registered mare that we called “Blue Belle,” even though her pedigreed name was Barry’s Nellie Gray. Although the stud fee for Half Bar was quite high, Dad got a filly out of Blue Belle sired by Half Bar. He later traded Blue Belle and her daughter, “Sybil’s Brownie,” to Kenny Allison from Gordon. There were a lot of nice horses that sold at Brown and Porch catalog sales, and many of them were ridden through the ring by Bobby Porch, son of Bill, and brother of Billy. He was a fine horseman, and showed these horses to their best advantage. Bobby always dressed sharp, and wore a sports jacket. He was the first person I ever recall that wore a dress-up sports coat with blue jeans, but I think he may have started a trend that has remained quite popular ever since.
On one occasion in 1964, Dad bought a sorrel mare at the Martin horse sale. She had a sorrel colt at her side, and she was carrying another. As I recall, this “three-in-one” package came from Sylvester Livermont. We hauled the mare and colt home in the back of Dad’s pickup, which was equipped with a stock rack. The mare was unregistered, fresh off the range, and not halter-broke. The older colt turned out to be a horse Dad called “Crackerjack,” that rode pretty well. Dad eventually traded Crackerjack to Ray Bennett from Valentine. The unborn colt turned out to be a horse that I acquired. His name was “Corky,” and I had the worst run-away of my life while riding this horse. This occurred while using a hackamore with a rawhide bosal. I had ridden Corky out on our “Home Meadow” to round up calves to bring them in for their daily grain. The meadow was full of ice. Something spooked this green-broke horse called Corky, and he took off running. It can’t be said that he “took the bit between his teeth,” because since it was a hackamore there was no bit to get between his teeth. I could just as well have been riding with a halter for all the control I had. Corky ran full speed the full circumference of the meadow, and jumped two ditches on one end and one on the other. With about 20 percent of the meadow being ice, with just small patches of grass sticking up, it’s a wonder we didn’t wipe out big-time. We went full speed for at least a mile and a half. I was plumb apprehensive, but too scared to want to jump off. He finally ran back to where the run-away started, and was tired enough that I regained some semblance of control. We got the calves gathered, but did so in cautious fashion. Jim Gray had been stationed at Fort Robinson, and broke lots of horses for the military. He advised me to get a long-shanked bit, and wrap it with electrician tape until the bit was over an inch in diameter. I used that bit for the several years I had the horse, and it worked very well on him. With this headgear I had control, so there were no more run-aways. I eventually sold Corky to Butch Tinant for $350. He paid me all in cash, and it made me quite nervous carrying around that many big bills until I could get some of them into a safer place.
On another occasion, Dad and I went to the Martin horse sale. Dad’s brother, Stan Moreland, took up a horse that he wanted to sell. In those days, when a fresh horse would pull into the sale yard, the horse traders and scalpers would all gather around to try to buy the horse before the sale. The infamous Lyle Nelson, who got to serve a little time in the “big house” for stealing cattle, was on hand. Stan asked him if he’d be interested in riding the horse through the ring later in the evening. Lyle was more than happy, and only charged five dollars for his services. A couple hours later, when Lyle rode the horse into the ring, he gave a big spiel about all the virtues of this particular steed. He said he’d been riding it all spring during calving, and that he’d drug a lot of calves to the branding fire. It made a pretty persuasive speech, but was all completely “hot air” because he’d never laid eyes on the horse in his life until my uncle unloaded it a couple hours previous.
As mentioned before, Lyle had been caught rustling cattle. He had them loaded in a trailer house to be deceitful. All would have been well, except the house trailer had a flat tire. A highway patrolman stopped just to be helpful, and the trailer house started gyrating with the cattle on board. He arrested Lyle. A few years later, I was at a Rushville horse sale when Lyle rode in a nice looking horse. He was always quite a showman, and he grabbed the microphone from the auctioneer’s hand. He said, “You all know that I was convicted for stealing cattle, and that I was caught because the cattle were on a house trailer. Well, this is the horse I was riding to put them in there.”
There was a lady by the name of Undeen Jones who worked in the Martin sale barn café. Back when William I. Porch was still in charge, this lady stepped out of the café and just poked her head around the corner to watch the sale for a few minutes. A scraggly little Hereford calf was in the ring, and it didn’t bring too much money. Old Bill said, “Sold! To Undone Jones.” She shook her apron in the air in exasperation, and indignantly stomped back into the kitchen. Dad was on hand to watch that incident, and it brought a lot of laughter from the crowd.
At a Martin horse sale in the early 1970’s, a nice looking gray six-year-old gelding was ridden into the ring. The horse handled fairly well. I was about ready to bid, when I saw that my friend Mike Mosher was bidding. I didn’t bid, and no one else did either. Mike bought the horse for $160, and got a pretty good bargain. The horse had a brand on his left hip which was GOP. With GOP standing for Grand Old Party (meaning Republican), and with Richard Nixon being the president of the United States at the time, Mike called his new horse “Tricky Dick.” I saw Mike riding the horse at Ray Gardiner’s branding the next spring, and even took a picture of him riding “Tricky Dick.”
For several years from the early 1980’s through the mid 1990’s, my dad Bob Moreland put cattle out with Stan Barber, who ranched east of Long Valley. Weaned calves would be hauled up to the Barber Ranch, wintered there, and summered on Barber’s good hard grass pastures. Dad sold yearling steers weighing right at 1000 pounds in mid-July. On one Monday in May, Dad and I had gone to Long Valley to check his cattle, and we had hauled horses along to accomplish some task. On the way back home through Martin, we stopped at the sale barn because it was sale day. A thunderstorm had been brewing off to the west, and rain had started when we went inside. The sale was still in progress, so we went in to watch the action. Rain started coming down hard, and we could hear the drops hitting the rooftop. One of the yard crew hollered in, “Boy, it is wet out here!” Billy Porch was sitting up in the auction block, and he shouted back, “Don’t worry about it! I’ve never seen an Indian on a paint horse drown yet!” He was ribbing his son-in-law, Jeff Waln. Soon the sale was over, and the outside crew stepped into the ring to get out of the rain. Jeff was riding a nice looking sorrel and white paint gelding, which he tied to the railing of the ring. We all adjourned to the café for pie and coffee, and in Dad’s and my case it was for a late dinner. I complimented Jeff on his nice looking paint horse. He described it as being good and gentle. I asked if it was for sale. He said he’d take a thousand dollars. I ended up buying this nice sorrel and white spotted horse, and led it out to Dad’s trailer. My son Will rode “Sarsaparilla” many miles in the next few years. Our other two younger kids already had good horses, so when Will graduated to a bigger horse, we sold Sarsaparilla back to the Waln family for the same thousand dollar price. Good horse, and good memories.
The summer of 1985 was very dry in our part of the Sandhills. Grass was used up early, and there was not much hay to put up. Conditions looked rather bleak going into the winter. The whole area was over-stocked on cattle, and prices were not very good. I happened to be in Martin at a bred cow sale in early December. The days were short anyway, and this particular night it was starting to snow and blow. There was a consignment of red Limousin heifers bred to Longhorn bulls that was about ready to sell. They had been preg-checked at the yards, and about 20 or so open heifers came into the ring first. I don’t remember the weight or the price per pound, but they dollared out at $390 per head. About 70 or 80 bred ones came in next, and they weighed just about the same as their open herd mates. They sold by the head, and only brought $320 each—$70 per head less. It would have been tempting to have bid on these bred heifers, but reality nudged me real hard. I had no extra feed, and there was literally none to be had. It was snowing and blowing outside, and a purchase under these circumstances would only complicate life. It did look like a bargain, and my thought process was that a person could lose every calf and still make money on the deal. For better or worse, I passed on the opportunity, but have often wondered how the buyer came out when all the dust of the deal had settled.
A lot of times I take a trailer load of cows to the sale, and “by design” arrive just shortly before the weigh-ups are scheduled to be done selling. I can usually watch my cows sell, eat a good dinner, and pick up my check before either going home or staying to watch the “special” feeder sale or the “special” bred cow sale. One day, I stayed at Martin to watch the feeder sale, and the calf market looked to be hot. I lamented to Billy Porch that I should have brought up about thirty light calves that were weaned and needed to be sold. He asked, “Why didn’t you bring them?” I said I only had one 16’ bumper hitch trailer, and it wouldn’t hold them all. He said, “Take my 30’ foot trailer, and go home and get them. The sale will still be going on when you get back.” This sounded like a good plan to me, and I did just that. Billy let me take his pickup and trailer, both of which were a lot nicer than anything I had, and I hurried home. Carol helped me load the calves, and by hurrying back, I made it just in time to sell my calves as the last consignment in the sale. They brought a good ticket, and I was happy. I gave Billy some fuel money for the use of his outfit, and we were both pleased with how things worked out.
One spring I hauled a trailer load of open two-year-old heifers (about seven head) to the Martin sale. I think they brought right at $600 each. Charles Merrill from Scenic had about twice that many bred heifers in the offering that day. I paid an extra $100 per head over what my own had averaged, and traded open heifers for bred ones. I did have to make two trips to get all the new heifers hauled home. They turned into very good cows, and were in the herd until they got old.
On another occasion, I hauled some open cows to the Martin sale. Later during the auction, Donovans were selling all their cows that hadn’t calved by April 1st. Their black cows brought about $650 per head, but the red ones brought a hundred dollars per head less. My assortment of open cows had brought about $500 per head. I bought 14 of the bred red cows for $550 each, which made two trips hauling them home with my 16-foot bumper hitch trailer. These cows were red baldies, with freckled faces, and several of them had horns. They were really wild. Bill Steinmeyer was working on our ranch at the time. He and I dehorned all of them when we put my brand on, and “cleaned them up” so to speak. They were too wild to even have in our calving lot, but fortunately the weather was nice, and they calved out in the pasture on their own. After the calves were branded, we added them to our existing red herd. They settled down, and their calves fit right in with our own red calves by the next fall. I had some of those cows for quite a few years, and they also proved to be a good investment.
Monday, October 19, 1987 was a day to remember. It was one of the big calf sales for the season at Martin Livestock Auction, Inc. I had already sold our calves through the Valentine Livestock Auction, but had gone to Martin just to watch a lot of top quality western South Dakota calves sell. I was still in the pickup listening to the radio, and all regular programming had come to a halt because the stock market on Wall Street was in the process of crashing. I can’t remember if the sale had started yet or not, but the phones were ringing off the wall. All the order buyers were getting calls from their customers to not buy a thing. Most of the calves that had been hauled to town that day were hauled right back home. They weren’t even run through the ring. I don’t recall how the rest of that fall selling season went, but think things settled down a bit, and that the cattle market got back to some semblance of normalcy.
Back in mid-April of 2011 or 2012, I was sitting at the Martin auction. A consignor brought in seven head of nice looking black and black baldy two-year-old heifers that were bred and just ready to start calving. They were weighing 1150 pounds. It was announced that these heifers were probably bred to Charolais bulls, as the black light-birthweight Angus bulls had been pulled early enough that these heifers would not have calves from them. There wasn’t a very big crowd on hand that day, and I was sitting on the bottom row of theater seats. The bid was on $1100, and the auctioneer Mike Baxter finally got $1125. He was trying to get $1150, without much luck. Doug Davis was the ring-man, and he spoke to me, “You’d better buy them.” I told him I didn’t need them. He said, “You wouldn’t sell yours for that price, would you?” I grinned and answered, “Probably not.” By then Mike said, “Will anyone give $1135?” I raised my hand and bid, and no one bid any further. I hauled home the seven heifers. They were gentle, and I put them in a close corral with the remainder of our cows that were yet to calve. All seven calved with the first two weeks they were here, and I only had to pull one calf out of the seven. The calves were white Charolais, and really looked nice. I didn’t rebrand their mothers, and didn’t brand the calves. Six weeks after my initial purchase, I hauled these nice black and black baldy heifers with their pretty white calves at side to a special bred cow and cow/calf pair sale in Valentine. When they came into the ring, the bidding stopped at $1825 per pair. This may have been the best cattle deal I ever had the good fortune to experience. Making $4830 on seven head, with just six weeks of feed involved, kind of put a smile on both my face and that of Brian Kirk, my loan officer at Security First Bank.
In the fall of 2014, cattle prices were at an all-time high. On October 9th, our two big loads of steer calves weighed an average of 642 pounds and brought the amazing price of $285.50 per hundred weight. This calculated out to $1,832.91 per head before selling expenses. It was a one-time deal, probably once in a lifetime, but very exhilarating nonetheless. I recall my dad saying that back in the early 1940’s his dad, Jack Moreland, had sold steer calves for $10.00 per hundred weight. As a young boy, Bob thought if that price could be guaranteed for life, a rancher would have pretty smooth sailing. My dad died on August 28, 2014 at the age of 91. Had he lived another 42 days, he could have witnessed this exciting sale, and I think he would have been impressed.
During that high-dollar cattle market of the fall selling season of 2014, any kind of bred heifer seemed to sell for $3,000 or more. At a bred heifer sale that year in Martin, I happened to be on the bottom row of seats. About 20 head of real nice black Angus bred heifers came into the ring, and the bidding started. The price kind of stalled out at $2,500. That looked like the bargain of the day, so I raised my hand a few times, and had the final bid at $2,700. Mike Baxter was the auctioneer, and he said, “SOLD!” just as another bid came in behind me for $2725. Not needing the heifers too badly, I told Mike, “Oh, let the other guy have them.” He did. I don’t know who the other bidder was, and really don’t want to know. I did dodge a bullet on that deal, as cattle prices didn’t remain high for very long.
Unfortunately that bubble in the cattle market didn’t last for long. Now in 2019, prices that calves bring don’t quite pay expenses. For those of us who are cattle producers, we are going to have to keep our wits about us to stay in business. It’s probably a good thing we don’t have crystal balls, or life wouldn’t be very interesting. The old physics law applies, “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Another axiom that holds true but is hard to do is: “Sell when everyone else is buying, and buy when everyone else is selling.” Life is good, and there is never a dull moment.
I’ve had the pleasure of spending quite a few hours at the Martin Livestock Auction facility. Usually this would be at a sale, or enjoying a great meal at the sale barn café. Occasionally there is a supper held in this venue that promotes feed, vaccines, or other agricultural products. Recently the sale barn hosted a somewhat unusual but very appropriate happening. Gerald (Beef) Palmer was a long-time order buyer, who was nearly always present at Martin Livestock Auction every Monday. He was 19 years old when he attended the first sale held at the old Martin sale barn in 1953, and he hasn’t missed too many sales there ever since. He bought a lot of weigh-up cows and feeder cattle through the years at several different auction barns. He became ill back in September of 2018, and was hospitalized most of the time since. He passed away on January 17, 2019. It was decided that the most logical place to hold his funeral would be at the Martin sale barn. Every seat in the place was filled, and an overflow crowd watched a video of the proceedings from the sale barn café. Dr. Bill Hines, veterinarian and pastor, officiated at the service. Jack Hunter, owner of Crawford Livestock in Crawford, Nebraska gave a very nice eulogy. Earlier Jack Hunter had given a nice tribute to Beef Palmer at his sale barn, where he officially retired Beef’s number 5 bidding number. At the cemetery, representatives from several livestock auction facilities all contributed a little of the dirt from their barns to fill in the grave. All in all, it was a fine meaningful service and burial, and it was handled just the way Beef Palmer would have liked.
These are some of my many memories of Martin Livestock Auction, Inc. It’s been a mainstay of the local community since the first sale in 1953, and hopefully it will remain a viable entity in the years to come.