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Salem livestock auction under new management

Thursday, June 14, 2012

After more than 35 years operating the Salem Livestock Auction, J. W. and Sharon Guffey have turned the business over to 18-year old Tyler Jackson, who just graduated from Salem High School. While Jackson is young, he has spent much of his life hanging out at the auction, and planning for the day he would run the show. Photo by Richard Irby [Order this photo]
About 6:30 on a Thursday night, burgers are cooking and customers are visiting in the restaurant, there are trucks and livestock trailers in the parking lot and animals are mooing and braying in old wooden pens.

Just as it has for the past 52 years, the Salem Livestock Auction office is open for business. But, for the first time in years, there is change in the air.

J.W. Guffey and his wife, Sharon, who have owned the auction since 1975, are relaxing in the restaurant.

It is a young man in a baseball cap, 18-year old Tyler Jackson, who is running this way and that making sure everything is ready for auctioneer Danny Perryman to begin selling the first animals.

"It's a big responsibility, a big step, but I think he will do a good job," Sharon Guffey said. "It was time for us to move on, and I'm just glad the auction will stay in business."

Guffey is commenting on the fact that Jackson bought the Salem Livestock Auction in April, just a few weeks before he graduated from Salem High School. While the Guffey's have been present to help him along, Jackson has been running the business since April 12, and now has all of his permits and other requirements to fully operate on his own.

"My dad has worked here for as long as I can remember, and I've been coming here my whole life," Jackson said.

Tyler's Mother, Sherry Jackson, looked through school work she saved to find proof of Tyler's sale barn fascination. A first grade school project taped to the wall in the auction's business office displays a partial sentence printed by a teacher on a piece of paper. It says, "When I get bigger, I will be able to do lots of things like..." Jackson's first grade printing finishes the sentence with "work at the sale barn -- drive in town."

As with many farm families, the livestock auction is a family tradition for the Jackson family. Tyler's grandfather, Homer, often took his son, Ronnie, to the sale barn as a boy, and he began working at the auction when he was about 12. In 1984, the Guffey's gave Ronnie a set of keys, and he has been in charge of the barn area ever since -- caring for livestock being held at the auction, cleaning pens and doing whatever must be done on non-sale days. Tyler has been tagging along since he was knee high, and always joined his grandfather for a ringside seat on sale nights.

"In a way, Tyler has been preparing to run the auction since birth," Sherry Jackson said. "I worked there when he was an infant, so he was here when I was. When he was a little boy, he always played auctioneer with his toys and, in high school, he went to auctioneer school."

"One of the first things I did, was go back to doing weekly auctions," Jackson said, of his first management decision. A few years ago, the Guffey's cut back to two auctions a month, as they got older and wanted to slow down a bit.

While the auction is open just four days a month, Jackson is finding that operating the business is pretty much a full time job.

"I'm over here a lot, and every day it seems like I'm doing something related to the business," Jackson said.

He also recently took a class to learn how to legally sell poultry at the auction. "I learned how to take a blood sample from chickens and do a shake test," Jackson explained. "If there's no problem with the test, I can issue a certificate allowing the poultry to be sold."

Jackson said he wants to be approved to sell about any animal people brought in. Another idea he is considering is to hold a monthly flea market on the livestock auction property -- seeing it as a way to keep the auction in the public spotlight and make additional revenue.

Jackson is learning fast that money must be managed carefully. On sale nights, about 15 people -- from the auctioneer and clerk to office staff to livestock handlers -- are on the payroll. There are also utilities and other expenses to be paid.

On the income side, the restaurant operator pays rent, as do the owners of a horse auction, which continues to be held the second Saturday of each month.

"His operational costs are more with weekly auctions, but I think, over time, the volume he sells will increase," said auctioneer Perryman, who has worked the auction for 42-years. "When you do only two auctions a month, it's hard for people to keep up with when they are going to be, so a weekly auction should bring more people in."

Like the Guffey's, Perryman has thought of putting his livestock auction gavel down -- but he says he will continue to help young Jackson get established.

"A lot of small livestock auctions have shut down, as bigger sale barns have come to be. But there is still a place for an auction in Salem, if it has good management and the community supports it," Perryman added. "Buyers will come if you have a good volume of fresh farm livestock."

J.W. Guffey agrees.

"I have been in the cattle business all my life, and have made a living out of it. I hope it's good for Tyler," Guffey said. "There have been changes over the years. This has gone from primarily a cattle sale to, about four years ago, a big increase in goats. There's a lot of interest in goats around here now."

Guffey said his family finally convinced him that, because of his age and medical problems, it was "time to hang it up." While he was at the June 7 sale, he and Sharon left as it started to go to a grandson's ball game.

"It's nice to be relieved of the auction," Sharon said. "It's great to have a little more freedom to spend time with our kids and grandkids."

Sharon adds, however, that, while the livestock auction had to come first for more than 35 years, it was really "a family affair."

"All of our kids began working here when they were really little," Sharon said. "Our girls could work in the office if they were needed, or out back with the livestock. On auction days, we were all here."

The Guffey's presence continues since daughter, Teresa Lester, has operated the restaurant -- cooking up those famous burgers -- for about 16 years.

The Salem Livestock Auction was opened around 1960 by Kenny and Evelyn Willett, the parents of County Judge Charles Willett. In 1972, Guffey and R.G. Foreman bought the auction but sold it about a year later. Larry Turner and Nathan Carter were subsequent owners, before Guffey bought it back in 1975.

One constant through the years was Evelyn Willett, who served as bookkeeper for decades, until finally stepping down in 2010.

As the June 7 auction progressed, Tyler Jackson was the ringman -- showing off the stock being offered for sale -- just as J.W. did for years and years.

It is a big step for a shy kid just out of high school but Debbie Perryman, a long-time auction office worker, said the spotlight is doing Jackson good.

"I can see he has gained a lot of confidence in the past couple of months. If a problem arises during the auction, he's dealing with it and keeping things moving," Perryman said.

Jackson said the first night he ran the auction he got a little choked up, because people kept telling him how his grandfather would be proud to see him running the auction. He is now looking to the future.

"Things have been good good so far. I think it's getting better every week," Jackson said.

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