Lewis Livestock Auction: “Looking Back”

Reprinted here by special permission of the author, Cindy Beckman, a retired Conway High School history teacher who writes local history.

For those who raised beef cattle in Faulkner County, Tuesdays held a special significance because that was auction day. On that day, we would round up the cows and load up the ones we wanted to take to auction. At the sale barn, we would get in line with all the other trucks and trailers and wait for our turn to unload the cows.

Major Lewis established the first livestock auction in Conway in the 1930s. The first sales were in a small building on the east side of Markham by the Old Gin building. In later years, City Barber was located at the site. That is where my brother got the “buzz cut” that was popular for little boys in the 1960s.

The auction quickly outgrew the small building so Lewis and Homer Brown negotiated with Theodore Smith to build a new barn behind the Smith Ford dealership. They tore down an old sawmill that was located on the site and used the lumber to build cattle pens. For the next 25 years, the sale barn would be located at Van Ronkle and Markham where U.S. Bank is today.

Every Tuesday, the line of trucks and trailers would be backed up all the way to Hendrix. At this sale barn, the sellers had to wait for their cattle to be unloaded and tagged before they could leave so the line moved very slowly. The sale averaged around 1,500 a week by the 1960s as Lewis Livestock became one of the largest regional auctions in the country. Traffic congestion in the area on Tuesdays was just an accepted part of life in Conway.

The auction would start at 2 p.m. every Tuesday afternoon. Other livestock besides cows were sold first. The calves would be sold next. This part of the sale could last six or seven hours depending on the supply that week. The old cows would be sold last. The sale might not conclude until noon the next day.

One of the reasons Lewis Livestock became a top auction in the region is because of a practice Major Lewis started from the beginning. He believed the auction should be a “seller’s market”. He set a bid for an animal when it came out to be sold. If the buyers did not meet his price, he would buy the animal himself.

The old sale barn was also busy on Saturdays because it was often an entertainment venue. Buses bringing people from the rural areas of the county unloaded next to the sale barn on Saturday afternoons.

From about dusk until 9 p.m. stands were set up with a variety of produce or freshly cooked hamburgers for sale. After grabbing a burger, people would go to the sale barn to hear live music from various local bands.

By the 1970s, the auction had outgrown the facilities downtown and frankly, people were a little tired of the traffic congestion and the “smell”. Major Lewis and his nephew, Tommy, built a new sale barn off of Interstate 40 in October, 1971. The new barn had more than two acres under roof and was set up to be more efficient in processing the cattle as they were dropped off. Sellers could drop off their cows, go park and come back for their tickets so the line moved faster.

Lewis Livestock grew even bigger at its new location. By the mid-1980s, it averaged 500 sellers a week and buyers were coming from five or more states. An average of 800 people came to the sale barn weekly. Political candidates would often visit and would be allowed to say a few words during a break in the selling. In the 1990s, the cattle industry began to decline in Faulkner County. Some sold their herds because of “Bang’s disease”, a condition that affected the cow’s reproductive capabilities. Others turned their pastures into subdivisions. As a result, the number of cattle coming to auction also declined. The sale barn was closed in April, 2013 and the land sold to build a new shopping center, Lewis Crossing. The closing marked the end of an era in Faulkner County.

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