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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with G. Sherwood Stewart, September 21, 2002. Interview R-0194. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Honing auctioneering style and role of auctioneering in the sale of tobacco

Stewart speaks at length about the importance of style in tobacco auctioneering and the centrality of the auctioneer to the sale of tobacco. First, he describes in vivid detail how he came to develop and hone his own auctioneering style and chant, explaining that he sought to combine clarity with comedy for a memorable style. Additionally, Stewart explains that good auctioneers take seriously their duty to ensure that sales are fair for both buyers and sellers, suggesting it is the unique role of the auctioneer to guarantee balance in the sale of tobacco.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with G. Sherwood Stewart, September 21, 2002. Interview R-0194. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

They like it. The farmers like the auction. The auctioneer makes a lot of difference in selling tobacco. So, I perfected [my work] and as I was coming up as a young auctioneer—. I like Jimmy Jollet. I saw him and I would try to imitate him. And Les Hobb, I run into him. I tried to imitate him. Billy Clarke, in Greenville—. When I went there to sell tobacco, I said, "Wait a minute. This guy's tremendous." I said, "Maybe I ought to push Billy Clarke mine." But Billy was a comedian auctioneer. One of the finest I ever seen. He had a chant that would just entertain you. Somebody asked me one time, "you know something—" I said, "I've tried Jimmy Jollet. I tried to auction like different ones and be like them, but I decided there ain't but one thing to do: be one style, Sherwood Stuart. So, I became Sherwood Stewart's style.
SALLY PETERSON:
And has somebody imitated you?
G. SHERWOOD STEWART:
Yes, oh I had them. I had a guy to walk up to me one day and he tells me—. I was helping him. He said, "You know, "I want to be just like you. I try my best to sound just like you." I said, "Don't do it, friend." I said, "I appreciate that, but the best thing you could do is take in, adopt, your own style." I said, "Every auctioneer—. I have never seen two that was exactly alike. Basically, we do the same thing, but there is different styles." I said, "You adopt your best way of selling tobacco that is your style." They all got different styles.
SALLY PETERSON:
So tell me about your style.
G. SHERWOOD STEWART:
My style? Well you know how other people describe it? I have people saying, "You're the best entertainment auctioneer I've followed. You're not boring." Tobacco buyers tell me, "I'm not bored following you." Said, "I like your style. You are clear. You can understand it. I know where I'm at buying tobacco all the time and I know where you're at."
SALLY PETERSON:
But are you injecting little things as you go along. Can you give me an example?
G. SHERWOOD STEWART:
Oh yes, yeah. Well, I pick this from an auction. Like, I'll be saying, "Ninety-two something." I'll be trying to buy: "Dollar ninety-two, two, two, two, buckle my shoe, , you know, that's so nice." I'll say "Ninety-six pick up sticks" or something like that. I put something like that in sometimes. I like to give me a—. [unclear] . I do that. A lot of that is some of Billy Clarke. All those in my style are doing it, than his style.
SALLY PETERSON:
So there's endless variations. I think you're right, the more you put yourself into it, the more you own it, the more you can do with it.
G. SHERWOOD STEWART:
I had my style selling tobacco. I mean, my style is still there.
SALLY PETERSON:
You were quite young when you [figured out] what that style was going to be. Did you have fun when you were a kid and you were practicing on it, just sticking stuff in? When you were really young and you were working on that chant, did you play with words some?
G. SHERWOOD STEWART:
Yes, yeah. I tell you something, I did. Excuse me, I'm going to take a drink of water.
SALLY PETERSON:
Please.
G. SHERWOOD STEWART:
I tell you something, I did. Catching bids—. When a tobacco buyer bids, they're quick. Well, you try to make it bid catcher. That's what makes a good tobacco auctioneer. I would get in front of a mirror and bid for myself. I talked to this guy one day. He said, "How you practicing catching bids?" I said, "I get in front of the mirror and bid for myself." He said, "Don't do that." He said, "I know a guy who did that and the only way he could sell tobacco was he had to have a mirror to look at himself." I know he told me that as a joke, but I said, "Well ok, I'd better quit that then because I don't want no mirror there," You know, the basic thing is style. To be a good tobacco auctioneer, is your style and your chant, your voice. That's what makes good and settles disputes. When something happens on the sale, like, you know—.
SALLY PETERSON:
Can you give me an example?
G. SHERWOOD STEWART:
Well, sometimes a tobacco buyer along will say, "Hey, you missed me on that pile of tobacco." Could have happened. It could have not happened. He could have missed me, too. Sometimes, like they have it—. Like, the way to sell tobacco and something happened, well you say, "Now wait a minute, here." I told them one time, "The school I went to didn't teach it that way." So there was a lot of things that—. Sometimes I could be wrong, but when I was wrong, I corrected it. I would tell them, "Yeah, I make mistakes." I did tell a bunch of tobacco buyers one day, "You know I've been trying to—." It just hit me all at once. I said, in Wilson, North Carolina, "If you walk down these rows," I said, "I see tobacco buyers making mistakes all the time." I said, "Sometimes they buy tobacco wrong and I have to go over there and sell it over and give them a straight line." I said, "A ticket marker will mark one wrong." I said, "It's all right, you know, change it, everything's ok now." The sale's fine. I said, "The warehouseman started wrong and if I can't even sell tobacco for one hour and all at once I haven't made one mistake, the whole sale blows up."
SALLY PETERSON:
That's right, everyone comes down on you.
G. SHERWOOD STEWART:
I said, "Why? Why?" Everybody stood there and looked at me. Then they'll ask. So I went on and started selling tobacco. But things like, like getting along, and you know—.
SALLY PETERSON:
Yeah, well I guess the auctioneer is supposed to be kind of the ultimate in fairness.
G. SHERWOOD STEWART:
Yeah, right.
SALLY PETERSON:
So the expectation is that if you make a mistake, then you're not being fair.
G. SHERWOOD STEWART:
Right, well, you know sometimes if there are people there that's got just as much of an important job, like a ticket marker, as auctioneers. But he is the star of the sale and I don't say that because I was a tobacco auctioneer. If somebody come from California and never seen a tobacco auctioneer, their focus is always on the tobacco auctioneer. They didn't pay any mind to anybody else. Companies oversee that everything is bought by the buyer. The auction — sixty percent, I think — was entertainment. Another thing I did — always liked to use it — I liked singing. I sing with bands. My wife is sick right now. She told me one time—. Of course, I was an auctioneer when she met me and married me and when she found out I did a little singing with bands, she told me, "Well I can tell you something, if you just went out and put as much energy into being a country music singer as you have did a tobacco auctioneer, you'd be one of the best." I said, "Well, I'm glad you feel that way, but that ain't what I want to be." You want to be something. You know, some people wants to be a ball player. Some people wants to be a guitar player. Some people wants to be—. I want to be a tobacco auctioneer. I size it up. If you take a baseball and you lay it out there on the ball diamond, it's nothing but a baseball. It's just sitting there. If you line up the players, the first baseman, and the pitcher, and you put them all in there, you got a team. So, that little ball, it's nothing but a baseball.
SALLY PETERSON:
I think I understand. I think the role of the auctioneer, from what I've been able to gather from listening this morning and from things that I've read, is that the auctioneer, like you said, settles disputes, you know. You're the one that keeps it even.
G. SHERWOOD STEWART:
That's right.
SALLY PETERSON:
[Keeps it even] between the price the farmers can get and the price the buyers want, the amounts, and who's spent all this much already and deserves to, you know, who bought the bad stuff so now they deserve some good stuff. you got to keep all that balanced.
G. SHERWOOD STEWART:
Yes, you got to keep all that.