Lewis Livestock Auction: “Looking Back”

For decades, Tuesday was auction day for area farmers who raised livestock. On that day, livestock was rounded up, loaded into trailers and taken to the auction in Conway.

The first Conway livestock auction was held in October 1943. Major Lewis of Shirley and his partner, Homer Brown, would hold sales every Tuesday in J.H. Berry’s on the east side of Markham by the Old Gin building.

Approximately 900 head of livestock were brought to the first sale on October 2, 1943. Ernie Cox of Little Rock served as the auctioneer. Immediately popular, more than 700 head of stock would be sold later that month, for a total of $21,000. Three cars of cattle were shipped by rail from Conway the following day.

The auction quickly outgrew the Berry barn, so Lewis and Brown negotiated with Theodore Smith to build a new barn behind the Smith Ford dealership, at the corner of Van Ronkle and Markham where U.S. Bank is today. 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 there. Every Tuesday, the line of trucks and trailers would be backed up all the way to Hendrix, as sellers waited for their cattle to be unloaded and tagged. Traffic congestion on Tuesdays became an accepted part of life in that part of Conway.

The auction started at 2 p.m. with other livestock besides cattle being sold first. The calves would be sold next, a process which could last six or seven hours depending on the supply that week. The sale might not conclude until noon the next day when the last of the old cows was sold. The sale averaged around 1,500 a week by the 1960s as Lewis Livestock became one of the largest regional auctions in the country.

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” and therefore 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 as 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 around the barn with a variety of produce or freshly cooked hamburgers for sale. After grabbing a burger, people would go in 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 “fragrance.” So Major Lewis and his nephew, Tommy, built a new sale barn off of Interstate 40 in October 1971.

The new red and white 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 allowing the line to move faster.

Lewis Livestock grew even bigger at its new location. By the mid-1980s, it averaged 500 sellers a week with buyers coming from five or more states. An average of 800 people came to the sale barn weekly. Political candidates often visited and were 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 closed in April 2013; the land would be developed as a shopping destination center—Lewis Crossing. The closing marked the end of an era in Faulkner County.

Photo as appeared in the Log Cabin Democrat.

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