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No country for old farmers?

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Close of Sale Barn proves more costly than loss to cattle business

By KEN BECKSpecial to The Wilson Post

As Wilson County continues its expansion as a Nashville suburb, it comes at a price.

The latest victim, the Wilson County Livestock Market, commonly known as the Sale Barn, bids so long this afternoon after 74 years as a farmer’s business and social hub.

It’s been easy for those who live within the city limits to ignore, but for farmers who have been selling their cattle 100 yards off West Main Street for decades, the Wilson County Livestock Market will sorely be missed.

   

Three generations of the McKee family wind up 25 years of operating the Wilson County Livestock Market this afternoon as the 74-year-old business closes the barn doors. From left are son and father Joe and Carson McKee, patriarch Alvin McKee and mother and son Wanda and Jared Bates.

KEN BECK / The Wilson Post

None will miss it more than Sale Barn owners, siblings Bill McKee, Carson McKee and Wanda Bates and their father and chief cattle adviser Alvin McKee.

“It’s a place for the farmers to hang out on sale day and visit with everybody,” Carson said. “I’ll miss the people, that’s for sure.”

The McKees have owned and operated the livestock market since 1984. It originated in 1935 on Coles Ferry Pike, started by late businessman Jim Johnson. Later it moved to Cainsville Road and in the mid-1950s relocated to West Main Street.

Surrounded by cityToday, the Wilson County Livestock Market sits across West Main from a touchless auto wash. A hundred yards to the west lodges a Bank of America and within a sheep’s bleat is West View Plaza, nesting place of Kroger, Radio Shack, Papa Murphy’s Pizza and other businesses that share an asphalt parking lot bigger than a football field.

But local farmers have carried on transactions at the Sale Barn for decades as they cashed in cattle, sheep, hogs and other animals, the fruits of their labors. Here is where the workers of the land congregated in a structure not quite the equivalent of a church sanctuary but perhaps a ramshackle temple of sorts to agrarians where an auctioneer shouts out the ceremonies. These are men who wear ball caps and cowboy hats, jeans or overalls and cowboy boots or work boots. They drive trucks, and they pay their taxes just as they pay close attention to the weather.

Now, in early June, it’s hay-cutting season, and the men have no time to reminisce or get nostalgic. They have headed up their cattle, hauled them to town and it's time, the final call, to sell them off Lebanon’s Main Street.

“There are just not enough cattle around in this area anymore to support the sale,” Carson said, explaining a reason for the demise of the Sale Barn. “We used to run anywhere from 1,300 to 2,100 head back in the mid-’80s up to the mid-’90s. It just got to where we can’t get enough cattle anymore. It cost so much to keep the doors open.

“It was a real hard decision. We have been thinking about it for about a year. We been here a long time. A lot of people depend on us to sell cattle here, but not near as many as used to be.”

“Expenses got more than the income. That’ll close anybody down, won’t it?” asked Alvin McKee, 90, a member of the Wilson County Agricultural Hall of Fame. “A lot of farms been cut up for houses. People don’t raise many cattle, sheep or hogs or anymore.”

For years the cattle auctions were held on Thursday afternoons, but the McKees switched to Wednesdays about four years ago. After today, Wilson County farmers will choose between transporting their livestock to sales in Carthage, Hartsville, Woodbury, Cross Plains, Dickson or Unionville (Bedford County).

“I will just miss seeing the people. I tried to sell their cattle as high as I can,” said Alvin, who promises to still make three cattle sales a week.

“He’s still gonna be real active in cattle business,” said his daughter Wanda Bates. “We’ll probably have a little over 400 head of livestock today. When we started in 1984, we had 1,900 head coming through, and we would be here ’til way past midnight. Trucks used to line up here all along Rocky Road. This used to be out in the country. Today, we have farmers from Lascassas, Murfreesboro, Sumner County, Portland, Hermitage and Nolensville, a wide area, but the numbers are less.

“Our whole family has grown up here, and our customers are like extended family,” said the family accountant. “You don’t know how many here have asked me, ‘What are we going to do? Where are we going to buy and sell when you close?’ A lot of young farmers have grown up here.”

Personal bonds were close

News of the Sale Barn closing brought shock and sadness to many of its clients, but the loss is greater than simply business.

“It was not news I wanted to hear. I was really sad to learn that the Sale Barn was going to be closing,” said Bob Prosser, a small farmer who runs about 20 head of livestock on his spread between Lebanon and Mt. Juliet and has done business with the McKees for 30 years. “It’s a great loss, not for just the convenience of having a local market. The McKees are like family in our community. The personal relationship you develop over the years was what was special about it.

“The main impact is the relationship you have with the McKee family being available and providing service. It’s about family and family business. They just provided a great service. I would go in and talk with them and chat, and you valued that more than the money aspect even though it was a place where you sell your cattle and get your check,” said Prosser, who expects to carry his cattle now to Carthage. “Convenience is part of it, too. It is nice to be close and keep your money in Wilson County.” 

Auction barn assaulted the senses

Inside the auction barn, about 35 men sit along three wooden tiers on old couches, worn movie theater or school assembly hall seats in an amphitheater setting. They peer down into the steel auction ring front and center where cattle are run in for a half a minute or less and sold at auction by the pound.

The farmers are mostly 65 years old and older with maybe a half-dozen under 40 years of age. They drink soda and chew tobacco and sunflower seeds and a few smoke cigars as they stare into the ring below. About 20 colorful signs advertising local businesses cover the wall behind auctioneer Brandt Taylor, who sits directly behind and above the ring with a clerk at one elbow and a weighmaster at his other side.

Cedar shavings spill across the floor of the auction ring, and scales hidden beneath the shavings and dirt will weigh the livestock. The auction starts at 12:30, and the cattle, which may range from Charolais, Charolais-cross, Angus, black whiteface, Simmental and Herefords have already been docked in, put in pens and identified with back tags.

Practically out of sight and back behind the amphitheater in the real barn, a half-dozen or so other workers, such as Kenneth Roberts, shuffle the cattle from their pens into the auction ring and back out again. About 15 employees work here on sale day.

“I been doing this all my life,” said Roberts last week. He has worked at the sale barn 20 years, shorting cattle, loading them off and on trailers and checking them out. “On sale day I work 30 hours straight from 6 a.m. Wednesday until noon on Thursday. We‘ve had a pretty good run today. Just one more sale day. I hate that.”

Moos, snorts and grunts come from the bowels of the sale barn. Arising from the pens comes an odor that will never come from a perfume bottle. Ammonia produced by cattle manure fills the air of the lower section of the livestock barn. A whiff can be pretty strong.

Auctioneer Taylor of Smith Grove, Ky., has been taking bids here for 17 years. Once he once worked six cattle auctions a week. After today, he will be left with two, the Bowling Green, Ky. Livestock Market and the Mid-South Livestock Market in Unionville.

“I could foresee it coming. Seventeen years ago, I would drive here and see farms, farmers, cattle. Now I see houses, motels. Growth just pushes it out. The day and time a young man could buy a farm and farm it are gone,” Taylor said. “When the day comes, who’s gonna produce our food? You can’t eat the houses.”

Memories last a lifetime

Gladeville’s Claude Harris, 81, worked for the state agriculture department for 37 years in helping farmers market cattle and hogs. He had an office at Nashville Stockyards and helped close that place down in 1974 before moving to the Ellington Ag Center. Harris knows farmers in every county of the state. He raises 12 to 15 cows and has long and strong memories of the Lebanon Sale Barn.

“We used to dip sheep here. It was a long time ago,” he recollected. “A lot of changes going on. The younger generation doesn’t want to farm anymore.

“This thing happening right now will hurt the small farmers. It won’t hurt the big farmers. The big operators are selling on video now. There will be no place to sell stock without hauling a long ways, take a lot of gas. They gonna have to find somewhere else to go with their calves and cattle, to another stockyard. I guess in Carthage or Unionville,” Harris said.

“It hurts farmers to have to haul cattle that far. It’s 44 miles to Unionville compared to driving 7 miles here. It’s going be a little bit of a trying time on the farmers of Wilson County. What can you do about it? It‘s not a good time for the farmer,” he said.

Bill Dedman has been farming in Wilson County since he was a boy, from running a dairy 45 years to being in the egg business for 35 years. Today, he has a dozen cattle. He, too, has been an eyewitness to the changes in the countryside and city.

“I remember the first stock barn on Coles Ferry Pike at the old fairgrounds. They closed it down and it went out on Cainsville Road. Then they came down here after it burnt up. This building was built in the mid-1950s. Jim Johnson, Bill Talley and Fisher Smith are the three who helped build it. All my life I been coming here. I buy and sell a little,” said Dedman, whose family farm was on Leeville Pike about a mile-and-a-half from Highway 109. The Dedmans farm survived from 1943 until 2006, and is now transforming into a new home community called StoneBridge.

“The Sale Barn’s gonna go, but ain’t anything you can do about it,” Dedman said. “This county is a building county now. A lot of homes are going up and that is what is making cattle business go out. … I hate to see the McKees go out. I sold him (Alvin McKee) many a calf; used to sell him 70 or 80 at a time, but you just got to change as the time goes.”

The show is over

Carson McKee says the family will probably put the property up for sale. Local farmers can still congregate at the Wilson Farmers Co-op or talk over cups of coffee at Four Winds café or Elaine’s Restaurant and chat about the weather and curse the low price of cattle, but for these aged men, who spend more time on tractors than they do in cars and more hours outdoors than inside, their lives have changed in a very palpable way.

For everything gained, something is lost, and for now, who measures the losses as we turn into no country for old farmers?

Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at kbtag2@gmail.com.

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