September 29, 2016
Miles City, Montana, is known for its extreme summer heat. But even when a fire raised the temperature and a few questions about the future of the facility, the Miles City Livestock Commission crew beat the heat.
Less than two weeks after a June 13, 2015, fire leveled the main building, Bart and Misty Meged went ahead with their regularly scheduled sale.
"We had to move forward," said Bart Meged, who owns the facility along with his wife. "A lot of people depend on this sale yard.
With regular sales being held on Tuesdays, nobody was in the building when the fire started on a Saturday, and no livestock were injured. Flames were noticed about noon that day, and by the time the fire engines arrived, the whole second story was engulfed.
Twenty firefighters (from the Miles City Fire Department and Custer County Fire Department) fought the blaze for two hours, keeping the fire contained to the main office and sale ring building, which was deemed a total loss.
Tith the Megeds resumed their regular sales using temporary facilities, but a new main building is now under construction.
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"We took the bull by the horns and went forward once the insurance guys released the site after checking everything. The fire was on Saturday and they didn't release the site until Thursday. We made preparations for the sale to be held on Tuesday the following week, and throughout the summer," he says.
Because the Fire Marshall, insurance staff and clean-up crew were still busy and couldn't release the site quickly enough, one regulary weekly sale was missed.
"It burned so hot that nothing was salvageable; there were two walls standing, and the old original cinder block safe, but everything else was destroyed," Meged says. "The building was a total loss, estimated at about $1 million dollars. It was thought to be an electrical fire but burned so hot that they couldn't determine exactly where it started," Meged said.
The sorting shed and office—the main exchange building—were totally destroyed.
The pens were unharmed and still useable, but the building had served as one side of the alley so panels, and free-standing fencing were used in its stead. "We brought in a portable scale, for cattle to be weighed beforehand, and used the existing horse shed for the buyers to sit. We used our normal yard-back alley (where animals came out of the ring in the back of the building) to set up at the face of the shed. The cattle come in there, with gates on each end," he said.
A local contractor helped put up a small building and auction block.
Bob Redland and his wife drove by the auction yard recently and were amazed at the progress in rebuilding. "We drove by it while it was on fire and it was gut-wrenching and heart-breaking. So it's nice to see it rebuilt. We were going to take a load of cattle to the sale the week it burned, so we didn't – and were surprised at how quickly they were able to have another sale," says Redland.
The Redlands donated a heifer through Billings' Northern International Livestock Exposition (NILE) "Merit Heifer" program last year, and Bart's son Haven received their merit heifer.
"They had a heck of a summer, but Haven has kept in touch with us about his heifer. He took it to the Miles City Fair and showed it this summer, and we were there to see it. Bart told us, 'For the summer we've had, we've still done ok.'
Redland says he's glad to see the auction rebuilding because it's so good for the local area, and not just Miles City. "It's handy to have local market rather than have to send trucks all over the country. It's been a booming success for Miles City over the years–ever since the days of trailing cattle from Texas to get on the railroad here. Our family settled here in 1889. I can remember grandpa recalling a year that he shipped calves to Chicago on the railroad and the calves didn't bring enough to pay the freight! Everybody has hard times, but this auction is a good thing to have. It's so important for this town. Ranchers bring their calves to the sale and buy their tractors and pickups here," Redland said.
"Rural America can't afford to lose our livestock auctions; they are the lifeblood of the countryside. The videos are great, but we still need a place to send cull cows, bulls and the odd load of cattle—at a fair market," he said.
Redland recently saw the roof being added to the new building. "It looks like it's going to be bigger and better than before," he said.
Meged said quite a few of his regular consigners plan to bring cattle for the the first sale in the new facility, scheduled for Oct. 6. "The office, bathrooms, scale and part of the sorting pen should be done by then," he said.
Such progress isn't made without some help. "There are 40 to 50 people on site, working on it. Everything is double crew, with subcontractors," Meged said.
This sale yard has a rich history. "The building we just lost was built in 1950-51, after a group of stockholders met together and got the sale commission up and going," said Meged. The group included area ranchers and businessmen who felt there was a need for a livestock auction.
"They had a horse auction here already. It was one of the oldest in the West and very active during the 1920s and 1930s," said Meged. Thousands of horses were sold through this auction. Many were purchased by the U.S. Army for the Cavalry–and shipped all over the world.
"There was a railhead here, previous to our auction, so many horses and cattle were shipped in and out. When the auction was built it was set up so animals could go two ways, to either railroad, right from the yards. We had an alley that went back to the Milwaukee Railroad, and one underneath the highway to the other railroad," he says.
"That was before the present yard was built in 1950, but even afterward they could take cattle out the back to the Milwaukee Railroad. There were still cattle shipped on the railroad from the sale yard, at that time." Today, cattle are hauled out on trucks.
The sale services a large area, especially for certain classes of livestock. "We get cows and bulls from around Broadus and a few steers. But the pot loads of feeder cattle tend to go east, to the sale at Belle Fourche, South Dakota. We usually get cattle from as far as 150 miles west of us and from the north," Meged says.
If there are plenty of buyers, people will bring their cattle.
He and several partners purchased the sale yard in 1991. Then he and one of the other partners bought out the rest of them in 1995. "I'm the last man standing. I purchased the sale commission in its entirety in January 2015 but have been an owner since 1991," says Bart. "Everything depends on good customer relations," he says.
Regular sales are every Tuesday, with special cow sales in the fall. "This sale is an important part of the economics of eastern Montana, for the businesses as well as the cattle industry. We've had a lot of support from everyone to get this facility rebuilt, because it has been a major business here for many years."
The insurance covered only a portion of the loss, and there is also more expense involved because there were changes and improvements that needed to be made and Bart decided to go ahead and make those changes. "This made it cost a little more, and also you don't get many cost breaks when you need something built this fast. You pay full bore," he explains.
"What would normally take a year to a year-and-a-half, to plan and build, we are doing in just 120 days—from the fire to the first sale in the building again. Many people have set other things aside or doubled up their jobs to help make this happen," he says.
There has been a lot of community support, but it still comes down to a lot of hard effort. "Many people have good intentions, and many offered to help, but when it comes right down to it, it's on my shoulders," Meged says.
"I still appreciate all the community support because that's what it takes, for an auction to function. These auctions don't work unless you have community support," he explains.
Chuck Steadman, area rancher and businessman, has been in business for 48 years in Miles City. "This sale yard has been a real asset to our region, and I admire Bart for keeping it open and only missing one sale. This sale draws cattle from a large area and they do an excellent job. We are happy to watch it being rebuilt; they've made huge strides and it is coming together quickly," he says.
"This sale is very important to our community and we are glad they're going to continue on. Bart will get it done in a hurry, and it will be done right. They worked hard to keep it going during this rebuilding and were innovative. It didn't slow anything down. People kept bringing cattle." The whole community is looking forward to completion of the new building. F