I guess you could say the beginning of the sale barn in Hutchinson, Minnesota, just west of Minneapolis, was the community sale held at McCloud County Fairgrounds starting in 1934. This community sale was started by Bob Funk, an auctioneer from Buffalo Lake, Minnesota, and Hutchinson farmer August Nelson.
They held sales at the fairgrounds for four years until a sale barn was built north of Hutchinson. From 1937 until June 16, 2017, sales were held there continuously. In 1940, Alfred Stegmeier joined the partnership as clerk. Later, Roy Funk became a partner.
On Jan. 1, 1955, Nelson and Stegmeier took in Everett Munson as a partner. Everett ran the sale barn until the late 1960s. He sold it to Garrett Smith, Luverne, Minnesota. Smith had just sold a sale barn in Luverne in extreme southwest Minnesota.
As a matter of habit, Smith always picked up a Sunday paper from Sioux Falls, S.D., but one Sunday the papers from Sioux Falls were sold out, so he picked up a Minneapolis Sunday Tribune. When he got home, Smith looked through the ads for businesses for sale and saw the Hutchinson Sale Barn was listed. The next day he and his wife went to Hutchinson and bought the sale barn. He owned it until 1978 or ’79, when he sold it to John Kruse.
Kruse owned the sale barn until 1986, when he sold it back to Smith. In 1994, Smith sold it to auctioneer Gary Hotovoc. He ran it from 1994 until 2008. After that, Brad Thelen leased it and ran the livestock and miscellaneous sales. Hotovoc continued to maintain the machinery and special auctions.
Meeting the needs of farm country
The sale barn was recognized as an asset to the town of Hutchinson. On sale days, especially in the early years, it drew a lot of people to town. In the summer, whole families came; in the winter, just the farmer and his wife attended sales. If they had an extra duck, goose or turkey, or a few chickens, they’d take them to the sale barn in gunnysacks or crates. Many times that extra money was given to the farmer’s wife so she could buy something for herself.
Before World War II, many farmers didn’t have a pickup, or even a two-wheel trailer, that they could use to haul a sow, a younger dairy or beef animal, or a sheep or two. When it got cold out, they took out the back seat of the car and used that space to haul pigs, calves or sheep. If a farmer had a mortgage or rent to pay (a lot of farms were rented back then), they’d take enough animals to the sale barn to get the money to make the payment. If the animals weren’t finished out enough to go to the South St. Paul market, they went to Hutchinson.
In the sale barn’s early years, a lot of horses were sold there. There was a separate barn for horses north of the main barn and a tack barn on the northeast corner of the main barn. Because harness and collars were fitted to the specific horse, those were brought along and hung in the tack room. They were tagged with the same number as the horse so they would stay with the horse. In later years, the tack barn was torn down and the horse barn was converted to a cattle barn.
Important part of the local economy
Hutchinson had a thriving business community where farmers spent the cash they earned at the sale barn. There were two big department stores – J.C. Penney’s and Braun’s – where you could get everything from baby clothes to work clothes, shoes, and fabric to make dresses and other clothes.
At one time, Hutchinson was home to five implement dealers and one short line and farm supply store, as well as car dealerships. When the sale barn was really busy, both sides of SR 15 were lined with cars with trailers, cars with animals in them and pickups waiting to get up to the docks to unload.
It was a simpler time, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t bad apples. In the late 1960s, a Hutchinson farm store sold a particular brand of plow lays. A lot of local farmers bought them. If they traded for a new plow and had one or two spare lays they didn’t need, they’d take them to the sale barn to sell.
Jim “Big Jim” Dircks, veteran sale barn ring man, knew his crowd, including the well-known farmer who would buy multiple plow lays if he could get them for half-price or less. One day when Big Jim was in the local farm store, he saw his customer trying to return the lays without a receipt. Big Jim later asked the clerk if the farmer did that often and he said “yes.” Big Jim told them not to give the man cash back if he didn’t have a receipt.
The case of the ghost calves
One summer, for four weeks straight, two to four calves disappeared each week from the sale barn. They were checked in, tags were put in their ears and the matching number was entered on the board to be taken out when the calves sold. But every week there’d be two to four numbers left – and a corresponding number of missing calves.
The weather that June was quite warm, so the windows had been removed from the sale barn’s sidewalls to allow air in to cool the livestock. That made it more comfortable, too, for the people who entered the pens to inspect calves.
As the disappearances continued, the men in charge of the department couldn’t make sense of the mystery. Big Jim got to thinking about those windows, suspecting that one man on the inside was handing calves out the window to a partner on the outside. He installed permanent screens over the openings. That was the end of the missing calves.
Busting a hay scam
Regular complaints marked one summer’s hay auction. Each week, a buyer would complain that the pile of bales he’d bought the week before had nice green hay on the outside, but inside was junk hay, cornstalks or straw.
If it had been the same buyer every time, he’d not have gotten much attention. But each week the complaint came from different buyers. They had one thing in common: They’d all bought hay from the same seller.
At the next sale, the auctioneer found out where the seller had his stock. Then he told his ring man, “When we get to that number, I’ll say 1-2-3 and we’ll hit the stack with our shoulders.” They did, and the stack fell apart. The hay didn’t bring much money and the seller was never seen again.
The end of an era
When Big Jim was hired to work at the sale barn, it was his job to take the tusks out of boar hogs to protect people and other animals. One day the regular ring man couldn’t make it to work, so Big Jim was drafted. The rest is history. Big Jim worked as the sale barn ring man for 42 years. He was a “jack of all trades” there, appraising livestock, buying livestock for people who couldn’t attend a sale, helping the veterinarian vaccinate animals and castrate and dehorn cattle, and sorting cattle so they would sell better.
The sale barn also had a restaurant known as the Stockman’s Café, open only on sale day. It became a very popular place on Wednesdays, offering very good food – including homemade pie baked by local farm women – at a very reasonable price.
The end of the sale barn was brought about by the changing dynamics of farming. These days there are no dairy cows nearby except in one or two big dairies, no hogs and no sheep. A few chickens and ducks are being raised, and there are some yaks, emu and ostriches but not enough to warrant a sale barn. With all of the state inspections, insurance and regulations, it’s no longer feasible to operate a sale barn unless you have the volume to pay the bills and keep the building up. FC
Milferd Smith lives in Darwin, Minnesota.