Art Gatts of Washington, left, sells tack and saddles from his pickup truck at the flea market outside a Greene County, Pa., auction parking lot. Friends like Albert Statler of Core, W.Va., stop by to swap stories. (Jack Graham/O-R)
By Colleen Nelson
WEST WAYNESBURG, Pa. – Trucks loaded with bawling livestock pull through to the weighing station, leaving deep tire tracks in the gravel and grass of the parking lot.
Vendors display their wares while standing beside their vehicles as shoppers pore over tools, toys, plants and odds and ends. Tables are loaded with boxes of fresh produce, and saddles and tack decorate tailgates at this rural flea market in West Waynesburg, Pa.
The area in front of the old wooden building with the silver roof and its name painted in big block letters on the side is filled.
And never mind the gathering clouds. Rain or shine, sleet or snow, it's also auction day at the Pennsylvania Livestock Auction.
Every Thursday, this piece of rural history on the hoof comes alive as it has since the 1930s. That's when the narrow-gauge railroad stopped running between Waynesburg and Washington and trucks and auctions became the way to do business. Rich in tradition and touched with the color of a carnival, the auction continues to draw farmers, livestock buyers, impulse shoppers and those who just stop by for a good home-cooked meal.
"A lot of people come here to eat – businessmen, lawyers, office workers from uptown. We get plenty of take outs, too," waitress Alicia Harry said, pausing by the stout wooden steps that lead to the cozy upstairs restaurant where diners can look down on the auction ring.
A generous half moon tier of wooden benches is where the bidders sit, eyes intent on the action in the ring. The bidding moves to the staccato of the auctioneer's voice. Nodding heads and nearly invisible gestures bring the bidding to an end in record time as animal after animal moves through one gate and out the other. Still, there's always
time to take a break, go upstairs for coffee or lunch and still not miss the animal you've been waiting for.
"You can get a four-course meal for $5.50 and it's all homemade. Every week there's a different special. This week it's creamed turkey over biscuits. When we have fried chicken you can't get in the door," Harry said.
Under the steps, stacks of boxes of farm-fresh eggs and other miscellaneous items wait to be the first lot of products to get the auction day started at noon.
Beyond the steps, long rows of stalls hold the day's assortment of stock to be sold – heifer calves and steers, cows and bulls, ponies, mules, goats, sheep and horses. Highland cattle, llamas, emus, even potbellied pigs make the occasional appearance, but in Greene County, well-proportioned beef cattle, especially black angus, and Hereford crosses are what attract farmers and buyers to the sale ring.
Outside, there are cages of chickens, ducks and rabbits. Horse traders saddle up to put on a show for those who will be bidding later.
"Horses go anywhere from $5 to $500 depending on their age and how well broke they are," owner and veteran auctioneer Joe Friend said, catching an early helping of cornbread and beans and all the fixings before the noon rush.
A big man with an easy smile, Friend also owns auctions in Grantsville and Accident, Md. He bought the Waynesburg business in 1971 and runs them all with the help of his family and an extended family of loyal employees who make the food, balance the books and manage all those animals for sale.
"I've been selling since 1958. My son, Joe Junior, was born and raised in the business. He does the auctioning now, but I can still sell cattle when they need me to. It's a specialty business and it takes awhile to hear what the auctioneer is saying. You learn from being around and listening," Friend said.
His advice to would-be buyers: "Your eyes are your marketplace, your pocketbook is your guide."
The long wooden building started life as the Waynesburg Sheet, Tin and Forge Mills in 1900. A group of local investors, led by Belgium horse breeder and auctioneer Charles Orndorf, bought the site and turned it into a livestock auction in 1936.
Old timers remember "Charley" as a dapper man who used a cane to gesture at the auction podium.
"I hung out with my granddad a lot when I was a kid. He gave up auctioning in 1980 when I was 12. There used to be auctions in Morgantown, Moundsville, Uniontown and West Alexander, and I remember going with him to Scenery Hill. Now only Waynesburg and Eighty Four are left," grandson Corbly Orndorf said. "Buyers come in and buy calves and ship them to feed lots in the Midwest. It's cheaper to ship the cattle than haul the grain. There used to be a wool house in Waynesburg, too, but that's gone now. When there were more dairies, there were always a lot of calves in the spring. But times have changed and auctions change with the times."
Beef cattle now outnumber sheep dotting the hillsides, and the numbers of farmers are declining. But coming to town for auction day is still a powerful draw, even for those who can no longer climb the stairs to dine with friends.
"This pie is good!" retired auction secretary Mildred Phillips declared, sampling the apple pie brought fresh from the auction restaurant to her kitchen table just outside town and just in time for lunch. "When I worked there in the 1950s I baked 25 pies on Wednesday, filled my cream pies on Thursday morning and was at work by 9 a.m. I used to make an apricot pie for George Conners every week. Those were long days and we stayed until the books balanced, even if it took all night!"
Computers have made keeping track of every sale a little easier, but the auction office, upstairs and next door to the restaurant, bustles with activity from the time Joe's sister, Patty Friend, arrives at 6:30 a.m. to greet the milkman until the last animal is loaded and on its way and the last slip is tallied.
Out-of-towners should keep a sharp eye out for the turnoff when on Route 21 in West Waynesburg. Just past Wayne Lumber is the entrance to a bustling, colorful past that will be there as long as there are animals to be sold to the highest bidder.
(Colleen Nelson is freelance writer and artist in Holbrook, Pa. She teachers creative writing at Bowlby Library in Waynesburg, Pa. Reprinted from Living in Greene County magazine, a publication of the Observer-Reporter)