My most exciting memories of life along the French Broad River in my very early teens were of my surreptitious forays to the Asheville stockyard, which was then on Riverside Drive near Day’s Tobacco Warehouse.
I would wait till my dad left for his regular Friday buying trip and then jump off the back rail dock and scamper across a dozen sets of tracks to get to Riverside Drive.
I loved the trains, and even as a tiny figure among these huge, smoking, choking, banging, clanging monsters lumbering slowly up and down the tracks, I was not intimidated.
My favorite sound was when the engineer of a standing freight train would start the train forward and take the slack out of the draw heads that coupled the cars together, with a staccato snap that could echo as far as a half-mile of cars. It was as if the engineer were cracking his whip over each member of the herd behind him to roust them from their lethargy.
I was much more afraid of the whipping I would have gotten if my father had found out about my sneaky visits to the stockyard.
Friday was sale day at the stockyard, and it seemed to me like a combination county fair, flea market and family reunion. People came from far and wide in trucks big and small, and even horse-drawn wagons. Many left home at daylight, coming from such exotic places as Alexander, Plum Tree and Shootin’ Creek; some traveled all the way from Tennessee.
I would go about noon, and as I approached, I would speed up to a dead run (as did my heart rate), hearing fiddlers and pickers playing music for their own entertainment and the pleasure of the crowd.
There were lots of kids, and everyone was friendly. I was a city boy, and I guess I didn’t understand the loneliness and isolation of living far out in the country, which made this such a social event for the young people who got to “go to town.”
I am sure I looked like a street urchin in my bib overalls, already covered with soot from the trains and the grease and dirt from working with the metals and the hides and furs.
I didn’t discourage this image, because the mothers felt sorry for me and shared the most incredible fried chicken, real country corn bread, and homemade biscuits with honey from their own hives.
As I recall, the auction didn’t begin till 3 o’clock, which gave the women time to visit and sell their handmade articles, little homemade dolls, marmalade, apple butter and jelly by the jar.
Occasionally they offered me a jar to take home, but I politely refused, not knowing how I could explain to my father where it had come from. The men were busy telling tales and trading jackknives, farm equipment, geegaws and pocket watches. Occasionally they would slip over to their truck, pick up a fruit jar, and take a sip of a clear liquid that I thought at the time was ice water.
There was one young woman who would pitch a small tent as the headquarters for her preaching. I overheard one of the men say that for $5 she would lay that Bible down, take you inside the tent, and teach you what salvation was really all about.
There was also a medicine man who peddled pine oil that was good for what ailed you. He had a stooge who would have some ache or pain, and in the course of the pitch he would rub on the pine oil with miraculous results. He even hired me a couple of times to pass out the bottles and collect the 50 cents, giving me a nickel for every bottle I sold. I made almost a dollar once—a lot more than the 15 cents an hour my daddy was paying me.
The stock sale started about 3 p.m., but I could only watch for a few minutes before I had to rush back to avoid being found out. Call me Cinderfella.
I was mesmerized as the ring men choreographed the dance of the bovines and swine and an occasional horse or mule, to the aria of the auctioneer’s chant.
Some of the kids told me they’d raised their own hogs or calves in a 4H program, putting them on sale to make money for themselves and their families. They weren’t always happy about letting go of these animals, which quite often became more pet than project, and it saddened me to hear them talk about it.
And as I raced back to the warehouse, working up a carefully prepared fib concerning where I’d been in case I got caught, little did I know that a few years later I would be an unusual buyer at the stock auction myself. But that’s a story for a later “Gospel.”
[Jerry Sternberg has been active on the local scene for many years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org]