Frederick growth is auction's death

Livestock: The evolution from farm country to suburbia puts end to decades of tradition.

November 20, 2001|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

FREDERICK - The din on the floor, the auctioneer's musical cadence, the farmers gathered in ritual. The weekly Frederick Livestock Auction hooked Jim Starliper from the moment he encountered it as a young boy.

Forty-two years later, Starliper was breathing in the heady smells of cattle and wood shavings at the auction barn last night for the final time.

The auction, a Monday evening staple since 1959, has tagged its last calf and heard its last "Sold!" Its demise is part of a transformation that has seen once-rural Frederick County attract businesses and residential developments, but lose farms, woods and gun clubs.

"The economics of it just isn't there," Starliper, the auction's owner, told a crowd overflowing the bleachers last night.

He acknowledged the oldest of the regular patrons and employees and told of his own love for running the sales over the years: "It was all I ever wanted to do."

The auction was a victim of progress, of a sort. The state is expanding an Interstate 70 interchange, and the ramshackle, wood-frame barn lies between the planned new entrance and exit ramps.

It is an ironic fate, says Starliper, 50. Decades ago, the business benefited from new roads helping dozens of farmers travel here from around Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia to buy animals for slaughter or to enlarge their herds.

Barn to be dismantled

Now, the old auction house lies directly in the cross-hairs of further transportation improvements. Starliper owns the building, but he leases the land from the state - so he won't be compensated for loss of the site.

In the next several months, the barn, which seats about 125 people, will be sold off in pieces - lumber, fencing, lights - and then demolished. The process began last night when a bench and set of chairs became the first items auctioned, followed by five pigs.

"Things happen in the name of progress, and you wonder sometimes whether it's really progress or not," said auctioneer Robert Hooper, 57, wearing his trademark, dark-brown cowboy hat. During one 20-year stretch, Hooper missed just one auction - when his mother died.

In March 1959, when he was 14, Hooper worked the barn's first sale, helping lead cattle to be weighed. His father was an auctioneer.

With the aid of a tape recorder, the son, too, mastered the singsong rhythm and learned to identify the subtle signals used to make a bid.

Not that there haven't been some communications mix-ups along the way.

Casual, confusing wave

"Buyers will have a card, and they'll just move it a little bit or move their finger a little bit" to get his attention, the auctioneer says. "But it does happen that somebody will come in and see someone they know and wave to them -`Hey!' - and I'll take it as a bid."

When that happens, Hooper will allow a re-bid. But it doesn't occur often, because he's been auctioneering for so long, and is so familiar with the regulars, that "when an animal comes in, you almost know who's going to buy it before it happens."

"This is a meeting place, that's what it is, and you get to know people," Hooper said. "There's a person named Weikert who buys a lot of beef cattle. Then there's a packer named Shapiro from Georgia."

In many ways, the auction fulfilled the same social function as a bingo hall.

Said owner Starliper: "The guys would bring the cattle in, go to the little lunch room and get something to eat, talk farming, compare how their stuff was growing, how much snow you got."

Heavy on dairy cattle

On a typical night in its recent history, the auction would sell 300 to 400 animals, mainly Holsteins from dairy farms.

Like Hooper, Starliper inherited a love of livestock sales. His family has owned the Frederick auction house since 1985, but his late father managed the sales many years before that.

"When he first brought me, I wasn't much taller than the calves," he said.

Starliper also owns auction barns in Westminster and Hagerstown, where he plans to add a second weekly sale to make up for losing the Frederick site. He says he considered building a replacement Frederick barn, but decided that, in the long run, the outlook for a new facility wasn't promising.

"With the expense of buying land, along with the decline of animals in the area, it didn't seem like a sensible thing to do," he said.

Few auctions remain

A handful of Maryland livestock auctions have closed in the past 15 years. Only two remain besides Starliper's, both in Garrett County.

The decline in farms is one factor, but another is that an increasing number of farmers have opted to sell directly to meatpackers, skipping the time and money required by auctions.

Starliper said he's not too upset about losing the Frederick barn.

"It is sad, but it's a material thing," he said. "We haven't kept it up or anything because we knew this time was coming. It needs a coat of paint."

But the actions of Starliper and his relatives last night betrayed a certain sentimentality.

Out of retirement

In 1959, one of Starliper's uncles wrote an identification ticket for the first animal ever to arrive at the barn. The family decided that Dave Starliper should come out of retirement last night to write the last ticket, too.

Like his nephew, Dave Starliper started working auctions as a young boy and was hooked from the first "moo."

"I didn't want to miss the last night," the uncle said. "I made many a friend here, and I don't miss the work but I miss the friends."

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