Cause of Watertown auction barn fire remains unknown
Eighty years can be a long time. The sale ring at South Dakota Livestock Sales, Watertown, South Dakota, had been in operation for at least that long when an early morning fire on Aug. 31, left the historic structure mostly in ashes.
The building that housed the sale ring went up in flames. “Probably forty feet of the back is still standings but it is charred. It is a total loss,” one of the auction barn’s owners, Gene Popham said. A second auction barn, Glacial Lakes Livestock, also operates in Watertown.
Because the fire started at about 1:30 am on a Monday, traffic was light, and it wasn’t spotted immediately. A policeman saw flames and smoke from the road. “I got there within 10 or 15 minutes, and I thought I could go in and get some things from the office but there was fire coming out the window,” said Popham.
He said on Tuesday that investigations continued by the fire marshall and others as to the cause of the fire, but that no foul play was suspected.
Nobody was hurt and all of the cattle that had been waiting for load-out were hauled away safely Monday, Popham said. The yards were unaffected by the fire. “The wind was in the south and the yards are off to the west. There were cattle in the west pens but they were fine,” he said.
Popham praised the barn’s bookkeeper, saying her preparedness and handiwork saved their records. “She had everything backed up from the computer. They poured water on the safe through a window and saved that. When we got it out, one folder had a little water damage, and that was it. We have everything. She even had the last sale. We are very fortunate that way.”
Those records are valuable, even just as memorabilia, said local seedstock producer Mike Bergh. He and his family buy customer cattle to feed, and he has ended up sitting in the seats at South Dakota Livestock Sales many a Wednesday to bid on calves sired by bulls he raised.
“It was a salebarn that people trusted very highly. People trusted the ownership and management and they’d call and say ‘I’m bringing a load of fat cattle or feeder calves’ and they might not even ask what the market was that week. They had faith in the management.”
While most of the area sale barns provide a similar marketing opportunity, loyalty to South Dakota Livestock Sales was notable, said Bergh. “Everyone there was a professional. These guys treated people well or they wouldn’t have had that loyalty.”
In addition to cattle, the auction barn has traditionally marketed sheep in significant numbers. Bergh said an acquaintance of his feeds over 5,000 head of lambs each year, mostly purchased through South Dakota Livestock Sales. “He said it’s really going to be crippling. They provided a very good market.”
Bergh said having two salebarns in his hometown was unique and provided a strong market. He doesn’t worry that cattle prices will suffer, but the economic impact of one being closed – even temporarily – will be significant to the town, he said. “From the full time people working at the barn, to the auctioneers, cooks, truckers and cattle buyers – it will change people’s lives.” The barn generated not only jobs but economic activity throughout the town, he said. “Watertown loses if those people don’t come to town. When I go to the sale, my wife comes along to do some shopping.”
He also pointed out that having two local sales back to back – Tuesday and Wednesday – was helpful for both barns. “If a buyer didn’t get an order filled on Tuesday he could fill it out on Wednesday.”
Popham doesn’t know if he and the other owners, Randy Owen and Ray O’Farrell, will rebuild. “We don’t know when we’ll have another sale,” he said.
This is not typically a busy time for the barn, Popham said. Their busy season would normally start in a couple of months.
Two Montana auction barns – Miles City Livestock Commission and Lewistown Livestock also suffered fire this summer. Both continue to hold regular sales.
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Outtagrass Cattle Co. cartoon by Jan Swan Wood for the June 19, 2021, edition of Tri-State Livestock News