Bob Hooper chants without ceasing, as if in prayer in an exotic tongue, as animals skitter before his auctioneer's booth for sale to new owners who will fatten them, breed them or slaughter them.
Behind him, hundreds of animals moving among wooden pens, waiting their turn in the limelight of the auctioneer's pit, answer in bellows, bleats and squeals.
Hooper presides each Tuesday night over the sale of 500 to 700 animals -- cattle, sheep, pigs and goats -- at the Westminster Livestock Auction. Producers from Central and Southern Marylandcome each week to sell to packing house representatives, livestock dealers as well as other producers who come from as far away as Kentucky.
They sit on old wooden movie theater seats in an amphitheater. The stage where each animal makes its appearance for sale is a sawdust pit bathed in bright fluorescent light. Overhead fans stir the close atmosphere. Most of the animals need coaxing by men with sticks. One of the high steel rails around the pit is still bent from the leap of a bull that tried to escape.
At a dinner counter off to the side, people consume hot dogs and platters of hot beef on toast with mashed potatoes.
The night moves to the cadence of Hooper's staccato, which is best rendered as something like "45 now, fiddly biddly biddly, 50 . . ." The filler between the bid prices has no actual meaning. "I can't really tell you what I say, it's almost automatic," Hooper explains, "fiddly, biddly, biddly. . . ." He chants to keep the crowd attentive and enthusiastic through bidding that starts at 5 p.m. and lasts well past midnight.
Buyers bid up the prices invisibly to the unpracticed eye. But Hooper seems to miss nothing.
"The professional buyer will just blink his eyes," he says. "Or they'll stand with their hands on the rail and just lift a finger." And, fiddly biddly, the price moves up. "I decipher in a split-second whether it's a bid or somebody waving."
Hooper, 47, grew up in the livestock auctioneering business. His father was an auctioneer in Frederick. "I've been going to sales with him since I was old enough to walk, just sitting and listening and studying," Hooper says. "There's auctioneer schools, but I never went to any."
He got his start at 16 while accompanying his father to a fire consignment sale that was short of auctioneers. His father told ,, the organizers, "This boy'll help sell."
Which he did, well enough apparently to suit a livestock farmer in the audience who later asked him to auction the cattle at his farm. Hooper's career was launched.
The Westminster auction started downtown in 1935, but moved to the outskirts of the city in the 1960s to avoid traffic and parking problems. Jim Starliper, who with his wife, Barbara, owns the auction house along with two others in Frederick and Hagerstown, bought the place in 1985.
Before he had his own auction house, "I worked down there just like them boys," he says, motioning toward the men in the auction pit prodding the animals with sticks to show themselves off to the buyers. "My father was in the business."
Maryland is down to eight weekly livestock auction houses, having lost three over the last 10 years, according to Roger Olson, the assistant state veterinarian. The most recent loss was a house in West Friendship, in Howard County, that went under two years ago, he says. Delaware also has lost a few in recent years, he adds.
So, more livestock producers and buyers now come to Westminster to find each other. The farmer who raises calves may sell them to someone operating a feeder lot to fatten them to maturity. The feeder lot farmer might return with the mature cattle to sell for slaughter.
"We really provide a service for the small producers. If a guy has five cattle, he can't call a man in Philadelphia or even across the state," Starliper says, but the Philadelphia packing plant buyer, the small producers, even the interstate markets speculator, can be found at the Westminster auction.
Regional price discrepancies arise from differences in local farm economies, and in the weather. In Maryland, where the grass has been parched brown from the summer drought, Starliper said, producers are trying to unload some of their animals, rather than buy feed to sustain them. Cattle are selling cheaper here than in, say, Kentucky.
That's why James Rodgers drives 600 miles each week from his farm in Liberty, Ky., where he says the grass is green and knee-high, and it would be going to waste if producers couldn't get enough livestock to graze it. "We've been getting all kinds of rain," Rodgers says.
This night he's in the market for a few breeder cattle and 50 calves to sell to someone back home. "See, we don't have the dairy that you all have up here," he says.