Sunday, January 14, 2001

The new kid on the bloc


Carrollton growers praise style of recent arrival

By Susan Vela
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        CARROLLTON — Tobacco auctioneer Dale Shelley walks down long rows of baled tobacco, rattling off a mix of phrases, pet names and tobacco bids as the tobacco buyers walk with him.

        They walk down row upon row, one warehouse after another - the buyers using balled-up fists or fingers to indicate what they're willing to pay and Mr. Shelley, 50, of Green Sea, S.C., chanting along in a rhythmic, sing-song way.

        His pace is quick. Only those familiar with the tobacco industry can discern what he's accomplishing while peppering his cadence with “hey, hey,” “takes it all,” “cowboy” and “diamond ring.”

[photo] Auctioneer Dale Shelley of Green Sea, S.C., recently replaced the late Robert E. Lee as tobacco auctioneer in Carrollton.
(Patrick Reddy photo)
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        Mr. Shelley, who has auctioned tobacco in five states in 20 years, admits he says “whatever comes out, basically.”

        “You just listen without stopping in between. Your voice is your livelihood,” he said.

        Mr. Shelley's job is more than meets the eye. He works for the five tobacco warehouses in Carrollton, an Ohio River city about halfway between Cincinnati and Louisville.

        As their auctioneer, he takes his cues from warehouse owners, trailing them as they walk by tobacco bales and suggest opening bid prices. Mr. Shelley must try to negotiate the best selling price for the tobacco growers, who usually hover nearby.

        This is Mr. Shelley's first year in Carrollton. The gig, which began in November, is tougher than most because he is replacing Robert E. Lee, a North Carolina man who served as Carrollton's auctioneer for 11 years before his death.

        Local growers say Mr. Shelley knows his job: Chanting his sing-song cadence while tuning in to the needs of tobacco growers, buyers and warehouses.

        “He's all right,” said tobacco grower Bob Flaig, 82, of Union. “We're 99 percent satisfied with what we're getting.”

        Melvin Lyons of the Kentuckiana Tobacco Warehouse said it took a week before he and Mr. Shelley established a groove. Now, they are capable of selling 200,000 pounds of tobacco within an hour.

        “He moves it along. You can't fool around there all day,” he said. Plus, “he made a good point to know everybody. He's friendly with everybody.”

        Billy Davis, a buyer for Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. in Louisville, has known Mr. Shelley for five years. He commends his friend and colleague for being a good auctioneer and “carrying on the sale with a good rhythm and good sound.”

        Mr. Shelley was a young boy when he first became smitten with the sounds of the auctioneer. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather grew tobacco. The young boy often accompanied his relatives when they visited the auction warehouses to sell their crops.

        “I was amazed and enchanted,” Mr. Shelley said. “Every auctioneer is completely different. Very few are alike in their chants or rhythms.”

        He left Green Sea, a rural community in South Carolina's northeast pocket, to attend Clemson University in Clemson, S.C. He received a degree in agricultural education before he returned to Green Sea and began growing tobacco in earnest.

        His dream of becoming an auctioneer never died. In 1979, a tobacco auctioneer in nearby Tabor City, N.C., gave Mr. Shelley his big break. He knew that Mr. Shelley wanted to learn the trade and agreed to take him under his wing.

        He provided on-the-job training that had Mr. Shelley marking tickets while trailing the auctioneer. The auctioneer soon showed him a small row of tobacco and told him to auction it off.

        “I was as nervous as a tom cat in a room full of rocking chairs,” Mr. Shelley recalled. But, “it just grew from there.”

        He was assigned to auction off more tobacco each day, and, in 1980, was employed as a tobacco auctioneer in Mountain City, Tenn.

        Mr. Shelley now auctions flue-cured tobacco, which is cured by a propane heating system, during the summer and fall months. From November through February, he auctions burley tobacco, which is air-cured and often seen hanging in barns throughout Kentucky.

        He has developed special names for the buyers. He dubs the buyer from Dimon Inc., which processes tobacco for cigarette manufacturers, “Diamond Ring,” and calls the Philip Morris Cos. buyer “Cowboy” because of the company's leading cigarette brand, Marlboro.

        He will work in Carrollton through the bulk of February before returning to Green Sea, where he grows corn and soybean crops and practices his auctioneering chants while riding a tractor or driving his car.

        Mr. Shelley knows the tobacco industry has fallen on some tough times but said that he'll continue auctioneering as long as tobacco warehouses keep inviting him back.

        “I can relate to” the growers, he said. “I'm afraid there's handwriting on the wall. (But) as long as we sell tobacco. I'll be there. My plan is to go down with the ship.”
       



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- The new kid on the bloc
Tristate A.M. Report