Ag Pride: SOLD! Looking back at 85 years of Central Livestock

Kelly Klein had managed Central Livestock for the past three years and auctioneered there for sixteen years. Some of the sale barn’s employees had worked there for thirty years or even more, including order buyer Larry Christiansen, who was there 62 years.
Central Livestock Kelly Klein

Wednesdays aren’t the same anymore in West Fargo, N.D. 

It was sale day at Central Livestock, but after 85 years of selling cattle, hogs and sheep, the sale barn closed its doors for good on November 30 of last year. 

There was little warning of the closure, said Kelly Klein, manager of the barn and one of its auctioneers.  

“We were doing dang good business, and they called and said in two weeks you have to lock the doors and shut it down,” he recalled. “I begged them, ‘why can’t we stay open till spring?’ We’ll do eighty percent of our volume in the next few months, and we’ll have time to plan our closure. They wouldn’t hear it.” 

The reason for the closing, Klein surmises, is mostly because of the sale barn’s location. When it was built in 1935, the town of West Fargo wasn’t close. But now the town has grown up around the sale barn, Klein said. “In the last ten years, we’ve been surrounded by buildings and businesses. It boils down to where the property is more valuable than our business was.” 

Tony Heinze was auctioneer at Central for 53 years, starting as back pen help in 1965. After attending auctioneer school in 1967, he started auctioneering that year. He remembers getting $5 a day as pay when he worked in the alleys, and quipped, “when I finished 53 years later, the pay wasn’t much different.”  

At one time the eighth largest sale barn in the nation, more than 300,000 head ran through the gates at Central per year. Heinze remembers, in the 1970s, when the yards were full of cattle, with no more room to unload, and trucks lined up for two miles, waiting to unload. He remembers one time, starting a sale at 9 a.m. on a Wednesday and finishing the next morning at 7:30 a.m., running nearly 6,500 head through the ring.  

When the sale barn opened in 1935, six different commission firms bought cattle, hogs and sheep by private treaty. Those firms were McDonald, Central, Farmers Union, Montgomery and Sons, Dakota Livestock, and Sig Ellingson. 

In 1962, the sale barn went to a live auction, and eventually the business was purchased by Central Livestock, with headquarters in St. Paul, Minn.  

“It takes a lot of money to operate” a sale barn, Heinze said. “As soon as I say, ‘sold,’ the guy selling cattle gets a check and they’re in the bank that day. Well, their check has to be good. And if they bought cattle for someone else, it takes a while for that check to be sent in.” Heinze estimates a sale barn needs a couple million dollars for a line of credit. “We had $3, $4 million sales. There’s a lot of money turned.”  

The people at Central became like family, Heinze said. “They were good friends. It was a great time in my life.”  

Order buyer Larry Christiansen had a longer history at Central than anyone else. 

The West Fargo native had spent 62 of his 81years working at the sale barn.  

He started straight out of high school, working for McDonald Livestock, putting hay in the mangers, scraping the alley, “what an eighteen-year-old kid does,” he said.  

In 1986, he opened his order-buyer company there, buying feeder cattle.  

“That’s 62 years I’ve been going to the stockyards there.”  

He remembers when the ring scale was installed in August of 1971, the first sale barn in the state (and one of the first in the nation) to have a ring scale. Prior to that, the way the sale barn is set up, the animals were weighed after the sale. “You’d try to figure out what they weighed in your head. That left something to be desired, sometimes. The ring scale was a real accomplishment.”  

The closest sale barns are Devils Lake to the north, Jamestown to the west, Bagley, Minn. to the east, and Aberdeen and Sisseton to the south. Klein went to work for the Napoleon sale barn, and Christiansen is still buying cattle, but driving a lot farther to do it. “There are guys calling me, telling me we’ve bought their cattle in the past in the sale ring, and telling me where they decided to go, if I want to follow. Sometimes a guy can do it, sometimes a guy can’t.” 

Christiansen has bought cattle at the Jamestown and Bagley sales, but the driving is getting to be a problem. “At my age, it’s getting a little harder to drive two hours to get to the sale and drive two hours to get back home again.”  

He remembers seeing a picture in the Central Livestock office, of its grand opening in 1935. It was Depression days, when “nobody had anything,” and Central offered a free meal, cooking 30 steers and 7,000 lbs. of meat in the ground and brewing the coffee in a big water tank. “There’s a picture of 300, 400 cars that came out there. I think the cabs were giving free rides from Fargo to the yards. It must have been quite a situation.”  

He, like Heinze, remembers some long days. “There were times, in the 1980s and ’90s, during some of those bigger runs, you’d be there till 1, 2 or 3 in the morning. You wouldn’t get much sleep before you’d have to go back to work. Put on a clean pair of pants and head back.”  

The sale barn had five full-time employees and on sale days, about 22 total. Many of the part-time sale day workers were N.D. State University college students and local ranchers. “You know, we had loyal workers,” Klein said, “a lot that had been around for thirty-plus years.”  

Heinze pointed out that stockyards in several big cities: St. Paul, Minn., Chicago, Sioux Falls, and Omaha, all faced the same demise. “The cities grew up around the stockyards,” and the stockyards eventually closed. “There’d be somebody who would buy a lot, build a house next to the stockyards, and not want to smell cows.”  

Everything in the sale barn was auctioned off by Kelly Klein Auction Service. The wood was reclaimed, to be sold later, and by January 1, a development corporation took over the property. “Everything’s gone except for a few piles of cement,” Klein said.  

It hurt when Central closed, Christiansen said. “It was kind of a jab in my heart.  

“My wife was asking me, when we were driving (to the sale barn) to take a look, how many times have you driven down this road to get there? I would hate to guess how many times I went down that road.  

“It’s an unfortunate thing that they had to sell it, but that’s life and it goes on.”  

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