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Many moos ago...: 80-year-old sales ring still spot for top cattle, food, socializing

Larry Schnell, owner/operator of Stockmen's Livestock Exchange Inc., stands inside the sales arena on Feb. 24. (Linda Sailer/The Dickinson Press)

Dining out can be a chance to relax, let someone else cook — and just watch the world go by.

Or, sometimes, in Dickinson, to watch the cows go by.

Thousands of them, literally.

About every week in Dickinson, on Thursdays, and lots of Tuesdays, there's an opportunity to pull into a big lot at 815 Livestock Lane, find plenty of parking, park, and then buy a whole bunch of homemade food — breakfast or lunch, buffets, prime-rib sandwiches, homemade pie.

And then eat while watching up to about 5,000, sometimes more, of the state's finest walk on by.

Sometimes it might be a $100,000 bull or other lighter-on-the-wallet stock — some grown, some calves, of various cattle breeds that area ranchers bring to sell at the Stockmen's Livestock Exchange.

There are some people, besides the sellers and buyers, who attend religiously: Retired ranchers who still love the cattle, the socializing, and the food.

But also for someone coming through town with a big rig, or horse trailer, who want to eat in Dickinson but parking is tricky, this is an easy stop, said Tami Hurt recently, who makes the food with her sister-in-law Denise Hewson.

And it's an opportunity for anyone who wants to experience some western heritage and some of what the sisters-in-law — who call themselves DT Mobile Catering — create.

"People come in and say this is the best-tasting prime rib (sandwich) they've ever had," Hurt said.

Their workdays, on sale days, can be long — starting at 6 a.m. and sometimes going as late as 9 p.m. They are there until the sale is over and done.

Long, too, is the history of Stockmen's Livestock Exchange.

It's still on the very spot where it started 80 years ago in 1937 with a different name — Dickinson Livestock Sales Co. —after founder Ray Schnell and his partners bought the old Stark County Fairgrounds property.

And now, the same family still co-owns and runs it — third generation, grandson Larry Schnell, and longtime business partner James Erickson.

After Ray Schnell died in 1970, Ray's son Willard Schnell and siblings continued the business.

In 1976, Willard's son Larry Schnell, now 63, became a partner.

Willard, now in his late 80s, retired, kind of, seven years ago.

"He's here every day. Checks up on us," son Larry Schnell said recently.

With all their years of experience, things can run like clockwork — or not.

Some sale days have had more drama than others.

Larry Schnell said there was that day when someone brought in to sell a bucking bull from a rodeo string.

Let the rodeo begin.

The Brahma bull, while Schnell was in the auction block trying to sell it, apparently decided to put its athletic abilities on display and run for freedom.

It jumped the ring's 6-foot fence into the grandstand where people were sitting. It jumped into the seats and ran from one end of the grandstand to the other without, somehow, hurting anyone.

Then it jumped back into the ring and ran out the gate. The fence was built higher after that incident.

"Every time we remodel, we build it higher," Schnell said.

Another time, Schnell said that a back door or two — used by workers to go from one area to another — were accidentally left open and a rampaging cow ran into the auction block where Schnell and an auctioneer, Armon Wolff, happened to working at the time.

Schnell said the auction block didn't have much room: Was about as big as the cow — 3 feet wide and 8 feet long.

At the time, Wolff was in the midst of selling and Schnell was clerking when the cow barreled in and butted Wolff, knocking him head over heels into the sales ring.

Schnell was able to get up on a chair and jump into the sales ring to escape, he said. Both were uninjured except for a few bumps and bruises. The cow also managed to step on the computer keyboard, rendering it inoperable, stalling the sale while they searched for a replacement keyboard.

Then there was that situation one very early morning at 1 a.m.

He said during a really big sale that had gone very late, someone — found out later to be a mentally disabled person — was upset that calves and cows were bawling for each other after being separated. To remedy that, the person opened up a bunch of gates to get the cows and calves back together.

Schnell said it was a big mess as there were lots of owners trying to sort out whose cattle were whose. Brand inspectors had to be enlisted to help and eventually the now very very late sale commenced, again.

Schnell said the family business started after his grandfather, who grew up near Richardton, was struggling to ranch during the Dust Bowl and Great Depression days. To help his lot, his went to Chicago to auctioneering school.

Larry said before his grandfather established the livestock market, ranchers would drive their cattle to loading points such as Medora and Dickinson and sent by rail to terminal markets such as Chicago, Ill., St. Paul, Minn., and Sioux City, Iowa, where cattle buyers pretty much dictated the prices.

But Ray Schnell knew that that way of doing things was changing. Livestock markets were being established elsewhere in the nation and he wanted to start one in Dickinson.

After Schnell's Dickinson market opened, cattle buyers didn't have it so easy. They found themselves in bidding wars, resulting in more dollars for the rancher.

"We represent the sellers," said Larry Schnell. "The rancher entrusts us with trying to get the best price."

Schnell said at various points in his grandfather's life, Ray Schnell was involved in community efforts such as helping to start the Home on the Range program in Sentinel Butte for troubled kids and the Match of Champions Rodeo in Dickinson that would evolve into becoming the Champions Ride Saddle Bronc Match, an annual fundraiser for Home on the Range.

It's now a Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) event that draws in top saddle bronc riders from across the country to compete.

Ray Schnell would also serve six terms in the North Dakota legislature and was elected lieutenant governor in 1950. And he helped start the national Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City,

"He was a worldly man," Larry Schnell said about his grandfather. "He knew a lot of people. He covered a lot of ground. He was in China at one time, and Russia, I think... on ag tours."

Ray's son Willard, Larry's father, was a champion rodeo calf roper and cow cutter and involved in establishing major rodeo events in the state, charitable work and helping various livestock and horse organizations. He would later be inducted into the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame.

Larry, as a young adult, had other plans for his life.

"I had no intention of doing this for living," Larry said.

He wanted to race motorcycles and did for a couple years right out of high school.

"It was an opportunity to do something different," he said.

But then he returned to auctioneering and the family business.

His business partner, James Erickson, 50, was the opposite.

Erickson said this is all he ever wanted to do — auctioneering, working with cattle and being around farmers and ranchers.

"They're great people to work with," he said. "They're good family people, hard-working, good ethics."

Erickson was about 11 when his dad, Delmar, became a partner in Schnell's business.

James Erickson has, since that age, been involved — on horseback, sorting cattle, herding cattle through the alleyways, and a jack-of-all-trades at the livestock market.

Erickson later developed into an auctioneer and does a lot of roadwork — visiting ranches, appraising cattle while Larry handles paperwork and advertising tasks.

Erickson, who doesn't have children, said he and his wife are aunt and uncle to many of their customers' kids.

And through this business, he said he has been privileged to know many great ranchers. He didn't want to single one out, but greatly admired Floyd Unruh, now deceased.

"He was a hard worker, great to everyone — a great man," Erickson said.

Erickson, who has been Larry Schnell's partner for about 20 years, said he admires Larry's honesty and integrity.

Schnell said he admires Erickson's "livestock sense."

"He's a much better cattleman than I am," Schnell said.

Stockmen's employs about 10 full-time employees, but also about 30 to 35 part-timers to help on sales days — many of them ranchers or younger people experienced with livestock.

"It's hard work. We do appreciate them coming in," Schnell said.

They continue to improve the physical structure at what Erickson calls their state-of-the-art operation. He said they are also offering new methods of selling — such as getting their customers' cattle into online auctions.

To do that, Erickson travels to the ranches to videotape the cattle and then the day of the online auction — which is headquartered out of Brush, Colo. — those cattle can be seen online, on computer screens, and on satellite television.

Registered buyers at their computers can bid and buy cattle with a click of a button.

Back at the truly live auction in Dickinson — generally held on Thursdays and many Tuesdays — they are still selling a lot of cattle, Schnell said.

In 2016, it was about 135,000 head, he said.

The year they sold the most was in about 1980: 160,000 head during a drought year.

"In the 1980s, the U.S. had the biggest number of cows it ever had," Schnell said. "Since then it has been up and down, mainly down."

Also down are prices, currently down by about 30 to 40 percent from the high of a couple years ago.

"Prices of cattle were higher by a long way two years ago," Schnell said.

He said why that is, "We continue to try to figure out."

What is up is weight.

Schnell said in the 1960s, calves weighed between 300 to 500 pounds. Now, he's seeing 500 to 700 pound calves.

"Cows are a lot bigger, more efficient...Ranchers are much better managing grass and feed and genetics," he said.

He said the recent oil boom didn't help business at all.

"I'm not against oil, but I sure would like to see it more controlled, mellow," he said.

He said ranchers and their families would literally take their lives in their hands trying to haul cattle to the sale — a dangerous navigation to Dickinson through constant and hectic truck traffic. Some ranchers ended up trying to sell their cattle in other ways.

Also, he said another problem for beef producers: There was so much dust generated from constant traffic that pasture grass within 100 yards of the roads would be so coated with it the cattle wouldn't eat it.

Aside for all of that, another concern he has: The average age of a farmer/rancher is about age 60 and there are fewer of them.

He said in the 1970s, the cattle they sold would have come from more than 100 ranches. Now, they might come from about 40 or 50 ranches.

He said his business is also finding it harder to find workers with experience handling livestock.

"We need young blood," he said.

In the meantime, the older blood will still run this show. Erickson isn't thinking of retiring anytime, soon.

Schnell, who lives on his grandfather's old ranch, about a mile southeast of Stockmen's Livestock Exchange, doesn't have a retirement timetable.

But when he retires, if he ever does, that may end any Schnell participation in the livestock-sales business.

Schnell has two grown kids and five grandkids, but says of his family getting into the business: "As of right now, looks like I'm the last one."

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