North Knoxville's Union Stockyards Offer a Slice of Agricultural Life in the 'Burbs

Part of a series: Scene & Heard: Doing Business

Slices of life from Knoxville's neighborhoods: north, south, east, and west.

What makes Knoxville unique? We often point to the cultural and entertainment offerings downtown, but most residents identify Knoxville with their own neighborhoods outside of the center city. In this third edition of our ongoing series, we visited unusual longtime businesses in Knoxville to simply record what we saw, profiling the scenes and lives that help define our city. These may be familiar places we've all heard about, or curious things that may surprise even their neighbors—but they're all Knoxville, and they're all worth getting to know better.

"Everybody ready to go, sale time!"

For the red-haired auctioneer, it's a rare statement in everyday English. For more than an hour after that, the round-faced fellow in a plaid short-sleeve shirt speaks only a pidgin chant of dolla-bill, 90-dolla, biddybiddybiddy, followed by a cascade of numbers comprehensible to some poker-faced men in the hot room.

His microphone is in a sort of interior balcony in a building unlike any other in Knox County. It's like a college lecture pit, except that at the bottom is a semicircular arena of dirt and mulch.

Two older men are down in the pit, standing alongside twin blue doors of heavily reinforced hardwood. Each holds a slender orange stick a little longer than a pool cue. One opens a door and into the pit lurches a wild-eyed bull. He dances around for a bit, not sure what to make of this scenario, as the two men poke and pop him with the sticks, and the auctioneer chants. Seconds after he entered, the bull tumbles toward the second blue door.

There are a couple dozen men in the room, and most who are within spitting distance of the pit take advantage of that opportunity. The auctioneer has an exalted position above the fray, but now and then he spits, too.

Barely a mile outside Knoxville's city limits, Maynardville Highway looks like any suburban strip in America—the Burger King, the Taco Bell, the Captain D's—but turn left at the Krystal on a summer afternoon and you'll soon find yourself in a flat, open, sun-bleached plain, like a little piece of Texas at the foot of Black Oak Ridge. Fronting a broad complex of low cinder-block buildings is a sign for the Stock Yard Cafe. Get out of your car, and you'll smell honest manure, and hear the plaintive groan of penned cattle. Adorning the lobby are ads for rabbits, stud horses, and a handsome bull, photographed showing both profiles, on sale for $1,600. A bumper sticker on the door advises, "Support Beef / Run Over a Chicken." Somebody crossed out Chicken and wrote "Dirty Pig."

The tables in the cafe have tablecloths and the windows have curtains. Specials today include the pork chop and mashed potatoes, chicken and dumplings, and a pork-barbecue sandwich. Cattlemen don't begrudge chicken and pork at lunchtime. There are also some orders for pinto beans and corn bread, with onions. The priciest thing on the menu is $3.75. Most of the half-dozen customers know the lady behind the counter, Sherry Jenkins, a pretty woman of middle age. The conversation on auction day is about the dental health of a temperamental horse and the advantages of pickled okra over all other varieties and of course the heat. Sherry has a reputation for taking care of small children. "I want to come back on Monday," says a little girl who's been helping swat flies. Sherry smiles and reminds her they're only open on Fridays.

The auction starts half an hour late, soon after they turn on the groaning industrial overhead air conditioner and the fluorescent lights.

Cows are different, one from another, a fact that can surprise only city people. Large and small, in dozens of patterns and hues. Some are young and strong, some old and bony. A few come with a bad eye or a limp. Some have horns, and an attitude. Some seem bored, some scared, some surly, some confused, some proud and disdainful of the bipedal races.

One large white bull enters regally, head high, as if expecting trumpets. One unusual tan-colored steer roams out, angry and defiant. He's not mooing, he's roaring. He dashes back and forth in the pit, as if he's going to scare his way out of here and become the king of the world. He gets a bid of $80, one of the highest offers today.

Above the auctioneer's balcony is a line of painted advertisements, ballpark style, posted in full view of the small audience. References to pagers and 423 area codes suggest they're not recent.

The arena provides comfortable seating for close to 200, but the only auction this week has attracted maybe 35 people, and several of them are kids. Most of the men wear truck caps and jeans, a few in overalls. They study the goings on with stone-faced inscrutability. Only three or four of them appear to be serious bidders. They respond to the auctioneer with simple hand gestures that wouldn't otherwise be distinguishable from a conversational flourish or a nervous tic.

One of the bidders is the man who's manning the exit door. He makes gestures like he's shooing flies. His name is Steve Myers, and as the colorfully painted sign outside indicates, he's the co-owner of Union Stockyards. A slim, rangy, weathered-looking man of unguessable age, he wields a broad toothy smile which seems more guarded than cordial, with a strong don't-mess-with-me message in it. He declines an interview. "I don't care about that," he says, when he hears for the first time in his life about a weekly paper in Knoxville. Hearing that some people in Knoxville don't know there's such a thing as the Union Stockyards, he seems to think that sounds pretty stupid. "We've been here since 1961," he says, grinning at the hopeless innocence of the folks over the ridge.

He does admit business isn't what it used to be, when they hosted several auctions here every week. "Hardly any cattle anymore in Knox County," he says. "Houses took over."

He also says this time of year is slow. For whatever reason, cattle prices go down in the summertime. A spectator remarks that today's offerings are mostly odds and ends, some of them at the end of their lives. In the arena, the air conditioning stirs the hot air.

One crazy bull comes barrelling out as if looking for a matador. The men in the pit need some of the nerves of a bullfighter, but they have one advantage. Beside each door is a stout blue post, like a tree trunk, and maybe three times today Myers is obliged to hoist himself up onto it to escape a charging bull. One time, when a black bull charges him, he pulls himself up onto the blue stump, but then vaults the railing into the seats, with no expression but a grim half-grin.

Several non-bidding spectators, including some old men, sit on the front row, inches away from the charging cattle, their boots on the rail. They have cultivated a lack of flinch. Sometimes they yell at insubordinate cattle, like hockey fans yell at fights.

After 50 or 60 head of cattle run through in a little over an hour, business is done for a Friday in 2010.

Most of the audience has left before the auctioneer speaks English one more time. "That's all of it," he says. "Thank you. See you next Friday at four."