Sale barn once a flury of activity

Phyllis Owen Sterba


For this week’s look back at West Liberty’s history, I’ve selected the old sale barn. As some of us remember, the barn was located just across the alley and south from where Ditmars Kerr and Company was (now Jeff’s Market). This structure eventually ran the full length of the block, extending to Chesebro Road. The Post Office and the West Liberty Fire Department building now occupy the area.

The nearby stockyards ran along the railroad tracks on the southwest side of the building.

In 1888, accounts indicated that C.D. Gibson, a cousin of Phineas Nichols Gibson, built a large feed stable on his lots at the foot of Spencer Street. He constructed partial sheds where people from the country brought in their horses to be fed and watered while they did their shopping in town.

In February of 1904, Phineas (often referred to as PN) opened one of the state’s first auction sales businesses at this location. The Gibson surname had become part of West Liberty and the surrounding area shortly after Iowa became a state in 1846.

PN was raised in the South Prairie community. He married Hattie Windus in 1891, and together they had one son and five daughters. In his early life he was engaged in farming, and for ten years he farmed on what became known as the Jim Ruess farm.

In the beginning, PN held general sales on Saturdays, selling “anything you wanted to dispose of” that was brought to the sale barn. He charged a ten percent commission. This continued and increased in volume, finally turning into a livestock business.

Sales of horses were held twice a month, always on Thursdays. Buyers came from many eastern states to buy horses. The general sales were then held twice a month. Later on, the livestock sales were held once a week, always on Mondays.

The first load of horses shipped by express from West Liberty was billed to Lee Coffman of West Liberty, Ohio. This load was billed out Feb 1, 1912.

Some of the out-of-state consigners to the sales over the years came from Montana, Wisconsin, North Dakota, Wyoming, Tennessee, Illinois, New York, Missouri, and New Jersey.

One of the largest consignments from one person was seven carloads of Hereford cows, heifers and steers, from Allen Bros. Ranch in Wyoming.

A couple of local consigners, Pearson and Son of Decorah, and Dan Gatens of Iowa City, started sale barn auctions in their respective towns.

Sam Buckman, PN’s son-in-law, clerked in the beginning, and as the sales became larger, others in the family were brought to the office to help pay the sellers, to list the purchases, and to accept their check payments.

In the office later were PN’s daughters, Clara Buckman, Kathleen Whittington and Grace Gardner, as well as a cousin, Elsie Holmes, and a friend, Iva Young. Men who helped at the sales were PN’s son Dewey Gibson, Grace’s husband Harry, and Elsie’s husband Lyle, along with Harry Wright, a cousin, and Kathleen’s husband Ben Whittington. It really did become quite a family affair.

During the large horse sales, Fred Albin of West Branch cried the sales for PN. PN’s daughter Kathleen wrote “After the sale the horses had to be hitched to another horse to a large dray wagon and made to run a block, from the corner of Third and Spencer, to see if the horse was sound. On this wagon was a large brake on the driver’s side to be used in case the horses started to run away or get out of control. If the horse proved to be unfit, the buyer would reject his bid on the horse.”

Chet and Jeff Grigg took over the sale barn for about three years in the early 1920s, and during this time they enclosed the barn and put a roof over the stalls, extending the barn to the street. They operated the business in much the same fashion as PN had with the horse sales and the general sales.

In 1925, PN again took over the business and resumed his auctions, which became one of the largest in eastern Iowa.

Also sold were feeder pigs, market pigs, and large consignments of fat hogs. These were often shipped after they were sold to Chicago by rail. The Rock Island railroad was of course located just across the way from the barn.

At times early on, PN would buy the farmers’ livestock to finish feeding them out. He would take them to his acreage located on the east end of town, to be fed out. When ready to sell, the family all joined in to herd the hogs and cattle down to the sale barn, running ahead of the livestock to prevent them from getting on the lawns along the way. This was before large trucks existed.

Buyers came from Wilson Packing Company of Cedar Rapids, Richards Packing of Muscatine, and others.

According to West Liberty’s One Hundred Years of History of 1938, “the auction markets have grown in popularity, until there are now 88 in Iowa, and the more markets start, the bigger the business of the Gibson company. The Gibson Company is a very beneficial business to the town of West Liberty, bringing people here on Mondays from far and wide. They handle 85,000 head of livestock a year, and pay a labor and feed bill of $15,000 a year, besides the advertising, lights, water and the one thousand other items that keep money from rusting. No other business brings the management in contact with the rest of the world as does the business of public auction sales, and this might well be illustrated by a time when PN Gibson asked of his friends by public oral invitation to come to his house for ice cream and cake. There were 600 there, and PN had ice cream and cake for all.”

PN’s grandson, Ben, son of Kathleen and Ben Whittington, years later recalled the sale barn as having a sale every Monday, rain or shine, planting or harvesting season. Farmers from miles around would bring their stock to be auctioned, or to keep an eye out for quality additions to their herds.

Sale day was a very special day for young Ben. “The whole Gibson family, well, nearly all, pitched in on Mondays. Harry Gardner, then the barn manager, would see that the long line of trucks and pickups were quickly unloaded and their animal cargos were penned and assigned a sales number. But he needed a couple of drivers.”

“And that was one of the jobs for my brother Dick and I,” Ben wrote. Sam Buckman kept the buy and sell records as the auctioneers cried the sale from the station high above the crowd of prospective buyers and sellers, which could number in the hundreds on a good Monday.”

“The auctioneers with their distinctive chants were not always part of the Gibson family, for Grandpa Gibson and Uncle Dewey Gibson were aided by a number of others. I remember Fred Albin of West Branch, at times a partner with PN, and Mike Jack, who became a manager for Grandpa.”

Ben explained “In the office which was connected to the sales arena by a mechanical trolley, or sometimes a ‘pair of strong lungs’ worked my mother Kathleen with Clara Buckman and Grace Gardner. This was a well-coordinated affair. When the sale started, on the direction of Harry, Dick and I would drive the animals to and from the arena. It was lots of fast work, but exciting for a farm boy who loved animals and also got a day off from school. Looking back, I must say the school authorities must have wondered how I was ill so regularly on Mondays.”

One memory especially stood out from those long ago times for Ben. This was when PN would challenge Dick and Ben to outguess him in determining the weight before putting the animals on the scales. Ben still remembered the distinct heavy clang of the iron scale when they trapped the animal on the scales. Ben said Grandpa never lost.

“I guess you’d have to say I was proud and also frustrated to guess the weight and having PN always be closer than I”, Ben concluded.

After the sale, it was time to load the newly purchased livestock, and if the pigs needed vaccinated, Ben and Dick would hold the pigs for Dr. Carey while he administered the proper shots.

It was indeed a very long day, with chores still to do after returning to their farmhouse. It was a proud and industrious time, Ben wrote.

Other memories of the sale barn were gleaned from West Liberty historian Elmer Merridith’s Rowing Down the Wapsie columns.

Merridith recalled Dr. Carey and his son John who for many years were responsible for the health of the animals housed in the sale barn. All the feeder pigs had to be vaccinated and tested. Many long and tedious hours had to be spent in the sale barn by the vets, when so many animals came and went through the ring each week.

Dr. Carey himself recounted that some persons were always such a help to the vets. Among those were the ever-faithful Rockwell boys, Harry, Bill and Charlie, who would catch the hogs that needed vaccinated.

Dr. Carey also praised Harry Wright who was the ‘clean up’ man at the barn each week, and he ‘did a very thorough job of that task’.

Merridith wrote “It was quite a sight to watch the operation on sale day, and to see the cattle, horses, pigs or sheep herded into the sale ring for the inspection by the buyers. Many of the ring helpers carried a small gate or cane with which to herd the animals into and around the ring.”

Many times, Merridith recalled, he saw one of the ring helpers make a hurried exit by making a wild leap to get on the outside of the ring when an unruly horse, bull or other animal decided to charge them.

“The sale barn was a fascination for kids as a place to investigate and play in. I guess that we were curious. The hay mow was a favorite place for us to play ‘hide and seek’ among the bales of hay”, Merridith said.

“As I think back, there was more than once that we got kicked out or sent on our way when things got out of hand,” he said.

Merridith wrote of watching the horses that had been sold being hitched to the wagon with the lever as a brake for a “test run” as being an exciting time for him. But in spite of the men and the hand brake, he said, “every now and then there would be a runaway, and anyone who has missed that thrill has never lived!”

Next came the larger wagons, he said, which were used to haul the animals. When you had animals to transport to town, possibly ten or twelve neighbors would come with their wagons, thus making a caravan.

Merridith recalled several of the auctioneers who helped over the years in addition to Albin. They included Luke Fitzpatrick, Bert Glaspy, Harry Groth, George Parizek, Lyle Donahue and Harold Davis. At times, beginning auctioneers were given a chance to try out their cry, he said.

As PN got older and his health was starting to fail, about 1948 he sold the business to his friend Mike Jack, who continued holding auctions there. The office help and workers changed at this time.

PN Gibson died in 1950 at 84 years of age, at his house on East Third Street.

In 1954 Jack sold the sale barn at auction to Perry Bodie. The successful bidder was from West Liberty and owned Bodie Truck Lines. He continued the regular Monday sales at the barn.

Ott Nealson bought the business from Bodie a few years later.

Tragically, a fire destroyed the sale barn in December of 1960. The fire, of unknown origin, also threatened the Ditmars and Kerr building for several hours. Considerable damage was done to the asbestos covered rear walls and roof. The building on the south side of the street, Bill White’s Body Shop, suffered damage to the north side and roof. This building was also owned by Ott Nealson.

In addition, the Cedar Valley church ladies who served lunches at the sale barn sustained loss of much of their equipment from the lunchroom.

The Morris family’s garage on the north side of the alley was completely destroyed, contents and all, and there was also damage done to the garages of Harry Reinsager and Carl Schiele nearby. The homes east of the sale barn on Columbus Street and across the tracks on the south were threatened, but only sustained minimal damage.

The wind was out of the northwest and the temperature was -10 degrees on the night of the fire.

Within half an hour from the time the fire was discovered at 9 PM, the huge building had fallen in. A long vigil of burning out began. Part of the 1500 bales of hay and straw burned for several days.

All that finally remained, Nealson said, were ashes, steel, framework, concrete and the furnace.

Rural Muscatine and Wilton fire companies responded to the mutual aid call for help, and arrived in just a few minutes to help the West Liberty firemen contain the fire. Firemen from West Branch, Lone Tree, Nichols and Atalissa also came to assist.

The first to arrive on scene were Bill White, Ken Jehle and Ed Waite. Fire Chief Chet Beach and his crew worked well into the next day or two. The flames could be seen as far away as Muscatine and Iowa City.

The records and office equipment in the barn were able to be saved and were carried out by volunteers. Destroyed in the fire besides the hay and straw were a tractor and scoop, other sale equipment, and three cows owned by Mike Jack. Jack had just unloaded the cows a few hours before the fire.

Nealson estimated the loss of the sale barn at approximately $70,000. Some $20,000 of remodeling had been done in the couple years before the fire. The loss was only partially covered by insurance.

Volunteers came forward to help warm the cold, wet firemen until the blaze was under control. The American Legion and Peters Lunch served coffee and the Gus Reinsagers and the Carl Schieles served sandwiches and coffee at the Crystal Café.

The sale barn fire was called the most disastrous fire in West Liberty since the Morris buildings fire which occurred between Christmas and New Year’s of 1948. The sale barn was not rebuilt.