Every Thursday at Empire Livestock Auction on Route 415 north of Bath big trucks and little trucks converge on the unloading chutes from all over this area. They disgorge calves, cull dairy cows, lambs, beef cattle, swine and lesser numbers of other sorts of farm animals. For hours these parade singly and in groups through the auction ring, where they change owners to the rapid fire chant of an auctioneer. Later that day and into the evening trucks leave the scene loaded with animals who have new owners and new destinations, like meat packing plants at Rochester, Buffalo and elsewhere. On special occasions like Feeder Calf and Dairy Replacement sales they go back out to other farms than those from which they came, there to live some months or years longer, adding weight or producing milk. This same scene takes place on other days of the week at other locations in New York State and Pennsylvania, and some Steuben County livestock goes to the closer by of these. Thus it is that livestock goes to market today in Steuben County.
Much of Steuben County has long been surplus livestock producing country. Within a reasonable distance of the various old railroad lines much of the local hay once went by rail, pressed into heavy wire bound bales, to feed horses in large cities like New York back when such cities were full of horses. But even then, far enough back in the country to make overly long hauls for a product so bulky as hay, most of the hay and pasturage produced on the farms there went to market as live animals such of it as didn't go as milk, wool, or farm made butter.
The present livestock marketing structure is 100% dependent upon trucks and good roads. In the days before there were good trucks that could go anywhere things were done differently. Railroads were available to take animals to a distant ultimate destination. Their own hoofs transported them to the railroad. That's how it was done.
In those days there were individual livestock buyers scattered throughout the little country towns. Of necessity, there were quite a few of them, since horse-and buggy travel didn't range as far as automobiles. These men had connections with market outlets at a distance, like slaughterhouses and stockyards commission agents. Their function was to assemble livestock in carload lots and ship it to their markets. Except in the case of local butchers, this was by rail. The assembling was done out on the farms, often a few head here and a few head there, until a sizable herd would be trotting or ambling along the country roads, being added to as it went.
"Droving" this was once called. It was the time honored way of moving quantities of animals, from way back long before railroads. Livestock then walked all the way to its final destination and progress was slow, taking days or weeks, since time had to be allowed for grazing, water, resting and cud chewing along the way. Eight or ten miles a day was considered a reasonable speed under these conditions. Lots of this "droving" went on far back in history in Europe and Asia, even along the by-ways and trade routes of pre Christian times and to some extent in the oldest-settled parts of the Eastern United States as well as, of course, the Western range. But in Steuben County the railroads weren't that long in coming after farming became sufficiently developed to yield substantial surpluses, so here the "drives" were comparatively short, mostly completed in one day.
Conducting these drives was the particular province, not of mounted cowboys, but of farm boys and young men old enough to be experienced in the ways of cattle and sheep (which, for a farm boy, didn't have to be very old), but young enough to be agile and fleet of foot, able to head off strays, keep the group together and moving and generally to conduct the tour. They walked along with the animals for a wage of a few cents a day paid by the cattle buyer. If an exceptionally good and well trained dog were available he might be allowed to go along and help for even less pay than that.
There could be action and excitement in moving such a herd, particularly when the route ran along roadside pastures with not too good fences. Bulls and rams on either side would naturally feel obliged to check out passersby and passed ones alike for the chance possibility of any interested females. Apart from that, natural animal curiosity and herd instinct would make the passing of a herd a big event in the day of those confined in the pasture. The drivers would be fortunate if the confined ones stayed confined.
Paul Simpson tells of driving a flock of lambs from Jasper over Punches Hill to the Canisteo Valley at Cameron. As the flock reached the valley they encountered another flock grazing behind fences that proved to be inadequate. Before they could prevent, Paul and his co shepherds found themselves in the midst of a mess of commingled sheep. The local flock owner appeared and assuring them that he could identify his own sheep, helped set things to rights. Paul still wonders if the lambs he actually delivered to their destination were really all the same ones with which he started out from Jasper.
Hogs, of which there never were great numbers sold here, and small lots of lambs and calves, often got to ride to market in horse drawn wagons.
At the railroad sidings there would be pens and chutes for holding, sorting and loading livestock. One of the larger installations of this sort was on the Erie at Canisteo and was known as "the stockyards", though it was of course dwarfed by the places of the same name at Buffalo and Chicago. There was equipment like this at several railroad depots throughout the county.
There were a few other country outlets for livestock, too. There were some cattle dealers, then as later, even now, who sold replacement dairy cattle to farmers here and elsewhere, by the head or by the whole herd, who would buy bred heifers or whole herds.
There were always a few farmers who made a practice of buying poor underfed cattle in the spring, ones who had barely survived the winter, as where their owners had run out of hay. They would pasture them through the summer and sell them again in the fall so there was even that spring seasonal market for what might be graded as the poorest kind of "cutter" or "canner" condition today.
As purebred cattle gradually entered the picture and joined the rather nondescript mix of breeds characteristic of pioneer farming, there arose a specialized market in the sale of these animals for breeding stock. Early on, buyers learned of individuals for sale through advertisements in breed journals or farm papers. They might also have learned of them at fairs, of which there once were four in the county: the Prattsburgh, Troupsburg and Hornell Fairs, as well as the fair at Bath. Sales were sometimes made to far away buyers, In that case the shipper would engage a railroad car, shipping several head at a time. Again the young men were needed one or more of them who were more interested in the adventure of travel than in their own comfort would be hired to go along, riding and sleeping in the car with the cattle and seeing to their care and health en route. Paul Simpson remembers making such a trip to Boston, Massachusetts, with Ayrshire cattle. Fay Stewart recalls accompanying a rail car of Ayrshires to Missouri in that same way. I won't divulge exactly what Fay told me he did with some of the manure but certain urban areas were left with striking evidence that some cattle and one prankster had passed that way!
Holstein and Ayrshire dairy cattle in time became the two most popular breeds in Steuben County. As their numbers increased, the breeders organized, together with Allegany County, into the Allegany Steuben Holstein Club and the Allegany Steuben Ayrshire Club. Each club conducted an annual auction sale of breeding animals carefully selected and approved by Club officials. The timing of the development and growth of these sales coincided with the expansion of improved highways and motor trucks. Such thoughtfully chosen and meticulously groomed representatives of the breed as were offered at Club auctions were not entrusted to traveling on their own hoofs through the hazards of the highways. They were the elite, and as such they rode trucks, all the way. In the earliest days, some rather slow and hard riding trucks, but trucks nevertheless. These sales were held at Maple City Park in Hornell and later at the Fairgrounds in Bath. They were handled by auctioneers who specialized in purebred cattle of the particular breed, in a festival atmosphere of great showmanship and excitement. Austin Backus Associates and later Harris Wilcox and his assistants sold Holsteins. Tom Whittaker and a Mr. Granger, both of Vermont, as well as the more local Harry Scott, sold Ayrshires at various times. Consignors watched tense and anxious as the bids rose and stopped on their animals; there were triumphs to celebrate and, inevitably, disappointments to overcome. Buyers came from many states. Many in the crowds who attended were only interested spectators. All present eagerly awaited learning the price of the highest individual sold and the sale average—two very significant figures. The drama here enacted to the rhythm of the auctioneer's chant gripped everyone's interest.
For some years, back in the days when even milking cows roamed hillside pastures for their sustenance, instead of having their meals served to them from silos, as they do now, the Ayrshire and Holstein breeds were about equally popular. The two breed sales were quite close to equal in numbers of animals sold and in prices received, considering that the Holsteins ran to heavier weights. As dairying changed, however, the Ayrshire breed lost ground until eventually the two county sales of Ayrshires discontinued. Today the Allegany Steuben Holstein Club conducts these auctions at its own sale barn near South Canisteo, as an outlet for choice purebred stock. For some years also the Artificial Breeders Cooperative held sales of purebreds and grades at Bath, until that event was moved to Canandaigua.
Marketing, of course, works both ways. It can include both imports and exports. Steuben was sheep and cattle producing country the predominant flow of those was outward, except for individual breeding stock brought in to introduce bloodlines. Also, sometimes ewe flocks and feeder lambs were imported from the desert states of the West because coming from that dry climate made them practically certain to be free of parasites.
The major exception to the outward flow was horses. There were always some brood mares kept on farms which provided some local replacements, but following the pioneer stage of agriculture, with few exceptions the horses that worked Steuben County farms were imported by the carload from the West, largely the Corn Belt. They were brought in by local horse dealers who offered them to farmers, often participating in various ways in the financing of their purchase. A good team of horses, even at old time low price levels, represented a major capital outlay for farmers then, and some farms needed more than one two horse team. They couldn't always be paid for spot cash, but one way or another, the horses needed got sold and eventually paid for.
Among the last to engage in this horse import trade before the tractor took over completely were Thacher Bros. of Hornell, Henry Joint of Campbell, Stucker Sales Stables and James H. Burns of Bath.
Meanwhile, even before the tractor had finished replacing horses on the farms, automobiles and trucks had replaced them on the highways. There were no more droves of livestock on the roads. You couldn't have a bunch of cattle or sheep blocking the school bus, the mailman, the milk truck or anybody else; besides, it was no longer suitable or safe. There came to be fewer individual livestock buyers as everybody became more mobile and wide ranging, and fewer were needed. As trucks became more dependable, more capacious, more convenient and more numerous, they picked up the animals at the farms and carried them ever farther.
As the decades passed the time and surrounding conditions eventually became right for Livestock Auctions such as we know today to start up and succeed. Jay Madsen started Bath's first one down Wilson Avenue in the early l940's. Soon after, James H. Burns began another one at Salubria Lake. Both grew rapidly and for some years there were two separate livestock auctions in Bath operating on two different days each week. Demand for live animals under such conditions was helped as the two more or less competed for business. In time Madsen sold to a statewide cooperative system, Empire Livestock Marketing and the Burns Auction ceased operations. After a fire at the Wilson Avenue site Empire moved to its present location, which brings back around to the starting point of this article.
Now not only are the droves traversing the countryside just memories, and not only are the loading facilities, those little country "stockyards", long ago rotted down or removed, but the railroad depots and even the tracks have disappeared in most places. Only the legend " . . . . . Stock Farm" painted on some old barns here and there in the Southwestern part of the county remains to commemorate those days. But a glance at the Empire facility on a sale day will assure you that Steuben County is still exporting livestock in volume.
When next you're out riding on a country road, don't bother looking upward for a ghost herd in the sky. If there are such things as ghost herds, chances are good that the very road you're on will be crowded with them, retracing their hoofsteps to market over all those years past.
© 1988, John Rezelman
Thank you, Paul Simpson of Savona and Fay Stewart of Kanona