Sturgis Livestock Exchange – The spirit lives on
We all drive down a certain road and have memories of places we have passed by throughout our lives. Perhaps we’ve been there before and it resonates with us. One of the emptiest places in the Tri-State region would have to be where Sturgis Livestock Exchange stood at one time. Anyone in agriculture will say it’s hard to drive by Sturgis on Interstate 90 and not look north and picture the buildings and yards where they used to be.
The dust from a late night sale in the fall would float above the yards and linger in the lights. Trucks would be lined up to load or unload along side a packed parking lot. The indistinctive smell of a sale ring filled with sawdust wafted through the front doors but not before the tempting aroma of cheeseburgers and homemade pie from the cafe. The intercom would echo with a familiar voice from the office asking for buyers to pick up a phone line and the faint voice of the person calling pens in yard back could be heard in the night air. There was such a contagious vitality about the place. Anyone who had been through the doors or a gate there would say the same.
That vitality lives on today, however, through the family of people who made it what it was to begin with. Over 100 people turned out for the Sturgis Livestock Reunion last Saturday at the American Legion in Sturgis to dine and visit about the old days when the sales were long and the weather just as frigid.
“It was amazing,” said event organizer Karen Speed. “It was almost like we had just finished working a sale together and decided to go downtown afterward like we used to.”
Every vital cog that makes a sale barn work was represented at the celebration. Kitchen staff, office staff, auctioneers, veterinarians, brand inspectors, buyers, consigners, yard back and sorters came from all over to attend the function and re-unite with old friends. Some came from as far away as Chamberlain, SD.
Several people got up and spoke to relate stories of “the good ol’ days.” Folks also remembered and spoke of the people who have passed over the Great Divide and the old ones who worked so hard to start Sturgis Livestock.
“I just couldn’t believe how many people braved the cold and came out for it,” Speed commented. “We were thinking maybe 20 or 30 people would actually come and instead we had over 100. To have that much camaraderie over that kind of time span is incredible. We had people who represented pretty much every decade since the 1950’s.”
One underlying word comes to mind when any sale barn is part of conversation and that is loyalty. It’s a business that requires a family-type relationship with employees and Sturgis Livestock certainly exemplified that.
Well respected long-time cattle buyer and major contributor to the cattle industry in South Dakota, Darrel Hoar was among those who attended the event.
“What it meant to me was how many lives and families it changed,” said Hoar. “People who worked there often had kids who grew up to work there as well. Sale barns cement a community. People do their shopping and banking because they come in for a sale. An auction serves a community and they are needed. Of all the sales I’ve covered over 49 years, Sturgis had a certain flavor to it. They had loyal hands from the receiving end to load out and everything in between. I was so happy to see everyone gather to remember an institution like Sturgis Livestock.”
Hoar retired from the business on Dec. 31, 2008, but is still involved in all aspects of the cattle business. At the time of his retirement he was in charge of around 16 order buyers at 56 auctions in six states. He said he is going through telephone withdrawls but is enjoying the silence these days.
Tommy Thompson of Thompson Livestock in Whitewood, SD was also a major player at Sturgis Livestock Exchange for many years.
“We all kind of miss it,” he said. “There are a lot of good memories there. It was really good to see everyone. A lot of people built it up. I was the first person to ride a horse through the ring as a boy. It was a Shetland pony.”
Another well respected long-time buyer is Wayne Anderson, who was also astonished at the turnout for the gathering. A wealth of historical knowledge, Anderson knew the first sale date at Sturgis Livestock Exchange.
“It was August 16, 1944 that they held the first sale,” Anderson said. “The people who started it up included my father, William Anderson, Russ Bowden and Tommy Thompson, Sr.”
Anderson is still going strong in the buyer’s seats and simply said he just hopes for a better fat cattle market soon.
Jack and Betty Smeenk were also in attendance for the occasion. Jack owned the sale barn with Richard Orwick and together they built a business and memories to last for a hundred years or more. Bud Knight, 1983 World Champion Livestock Auctioneer, was part of the team at that time and contributed a great deal to both the business and moral with a few humorous pranks along the way.
The evening was spent talking about more than a business – it was an institution. It was a vital part of a community and affected countless lives. Throughout the years, people celebrated or wept together depending on the market. Some still have a potholder, pen or pencil that has the old Sturgis Livestock insignia on it. Some have even saved calendars. The things that remind us of Sturgis Livestock Exchange may get lost or fade away but the memories will always remain.
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Outtagrass Cattle Co. cartoon by Jan Swan Wood for the Oct. 23, 2021, edition of Tri-State Livestock News