Introduction to Delta Pieces: Northeast Louisiana Folklife
Map: Cultural Micro-Regions of the Delta, Northeast Louisiana
The Louisiana Delta: Land of Rivers
Working in the Delta
Homemaking in the Delta
Worshiping in the Delta
Making Music in the Delta
Playing in the Delta
Telling Stories in the Delta
Delta Archival Materials
Ike Hamilton: From Rodeo Clown to Auctioneer Colonel
By Susan Roach
With an "illustrious auctioneering career spanning 57 years and 42 states," Isaac Henry Hamilton, given the honorary title of Colonel Ike by the auction world, ranked among the top auctioneers in the nation (New Hall of Fame). A native and lifetime resident of West Monroe, Louisiana, Hamilton was born July 9, 1911 and died May 1, 1997. While he could have easily moved to Texas to be near the major livestock sales, he chose to remain in his beloved Ouachita Parish, on the margins of the Louisiana Delta. Coming to a traditional auctioneering career as a result of a rodeo accident, he would build his auctioneering reputation throughout ranching far beyond his home. In his home state, he was also an honored business man. To all, he was a man of his word and a man of words—ranging from the auctioneer's chant to jokes, stories, and his sound advice and philosophy.
When I met Ike Hamilton in 1992, he was semi-retired from a prestigious auction career. After our initial interview which led to his participation in the 1992 Louisiana Folklife Festival in Eunice, we decided to record his oral history to document his career with the intent of producing a book. Unfortunately, he died from complications of a brain tumor before the book was done. Based on our work together from 1992-97, this brief biography features a sampling of Colonel Ike's history and stories in his own words to provide the flavor of his cadence and conversational style.
Growing up in West Monroe
Hamilton's youth spent in West Monroe, just across the Ouachita River from the more urban Monroe, provided him with the foundation which would lead to his successful career. According to Hamilton, he and his brother Bud had a "normal small Southern town childhood," and were raised by parents, Isaac Henry Hamilton and Martha McClendon Hamilton, who were "loving and kind." His father worked in the mercantile business and with his brother Pat, who was Clerk of Court until his death in 1936. His mother had roomers and helped run a neighborhood flower shop. He recalls, "We didn't have much, but we made it and were happy. Our parents were kind but strict. They made us mind and taught us respect. We played sandlot baseball, volley ball, basketball, and football; shot a lot of marbles; spun tops; fished a little; and hunted a little." A family friend's loaning them a horse during Hamilton's teenage years contributed to his later interest in rodeo. He describes their experience with the horse: "Dad got a very cheap second hand saddle and a World War I surplus bridle. Being two of us, we rode double; one day I would sit in the saddle, and Bud would ride behind. The next day we would switch. We rode and had lots of fun playing cowboy. Later we started a small rodeo." The young Ike's first job was selling newspapers on the street, and he later delivered papers on horseback in West Monroe. In 1927 when he was a junior in high school, he and some friends would go hang out at the Marvin Owens sale barn on Fridays when mules would arrive from the Owen Brothers Horse and Mule Company in Kansas City. The boys could earn a dollar a day to lead the mules through for auctioning. After the auction they would sometimes ride the bucking mules and pass the hat to earn more. Then since it was before the heyday of trucks and trailers, the boys would make deals with the buyers to deliver the mules the next day for two or three dollars: "We'd take our horses, come there the next morning, get those mules with the halters on . . . and tie them together, maybe head and tail, and take the lead one, and we'd deliver those mules" (Hamilton 19 July 1996). Some deliveries were up to fifteen miles away which would require a half a day for the trip.
Other summer jobs were driving an ice wagon, driving a slip team when they were paving the street in West Monroe, and scaling logs one summer for George Glanton from Ferriday. Hamilton's hard work and charm inspired Glanton and a group of business men to pool their money (around $100) to buy Ike a black and white paint horse for a graduation gift. Hamilton explains the impetus for the gift: They weren't kin to me, just businessmen. . . . I hadn't done anything for them, just sat around visiting with them. They knew my father and mother and all, but I guess they just sort of liked me. They knew we were playing rodeo and that we didn't have a very good horse. . . . Then I really hadn't started rodeoing much, but I was going to two little country ones" (29 Dec. 1995).
Rodeoing and the Depression
The new horse and his work with livestock sales led to his growing rodeo interest, and in 1928 he began rodeo clowning for seven or eight years in the local area "pumpkin roller" rodeos. He explains how he began clowning:
The way I got into it was I wasn't a very good cowboy. . . . We were young teenage boys, and we went up there, and we were trying to rodeo. . . . I tried to ride bulls, but I couldn't find any I could ride. . . . At the rodeos in Fort Worth and all the rodeos around here, they had some clowns that did act sort of like the clowns at the circus. Someone told me I could be the clown, so I got some makeup, a false wig, a derby hat; my mom made me a little front tail coat. I started closing and burlesquing between acts [bull riding and bronc riding] (2 Oct. 1992; 29 Dec. 1995).
As is traditional, he picked up many rodeo tricks from observing others, and adapted them to suit himself. Hamilton recalls going to the Fort Worth stock shows and rodeos, courtesy of friends, and seeing Red Sublet, a noted rodeo clown, who was a role model for him. Hamilton's clowning really took off when he got his trick mule; he explains how he got the mule and some of the jokes they performed:
I finally got me that mule. I was really beginning to get some pretty nice contracts outside. . . . This mule came from his [renowned Mississippi auctioneer, Ray Lum's] brother. John Lum (who had the sale at Natchez) bought this mule in Ft. Worth and shipped it to Natchez. A friend of mine at Ferriday saw him, and said I needed that mule, and we bought that mule from John Lum. . . . He [the mule] could sit down and turn up on his back. He could walk just like a man, . . . but he could do several other things that I would make him do. . . . I saw a deal where an old boy had a bucket with a false bottom in it, and you could take it up. I got the idea and got me a bucket and did some little welding or solder or what to fix it. I would hang that bucket on that mule, right under his nose, I'd take the end and all of the water would be out of it [supposedly]. . . . I would keep him standing up. I would take his tail and pump it. It was funny. Then I would take it up front and pour that water out. Then pump it and pour that water out again. This is the truth if I ever told it.
So when we were up there at Florence. . . , well, we were showing on a grandstand in the racetrack. . . . Matter of fact, it was an American saddle horse [show]. All of those folks with fancy clothes with hats on and us cowboys; we were wanting to get on with the rodeo. We didn't want to mess with any of that, but anyhow we stayed out there, and they had three gaiting classes: walk, trot, and the canter. I said, "I going to tell you what I'm going to do: I'm going to burlesque this deal," because I knew this mule could walk. I'm telling you, I went out there and made all of them ride out there with me. . . .I just came at the end and rode that mule in. Their announcer said, "Walk your horses in there." I just dropped those reins over his head. "Trot your horses, trot you horses." I'd trot just like they did, and then he said, "Canter." He [Toby, the mule] had the best canter, so when they got ready to judge, they lined up. . . I made him sit down [on his haunches]. They had the horses stretch out. . . . I just kicked him, and he sat down, and those folks up in the stands [loved it]. That judge really scared me because he was putting on [joking] too. He looked and looked, and he would walk up and down those horses, and then he would come back and look at my mule. I said to myself, "My God, that man can't get me either." Well, in the meantime, somebody had seen all of the things I had been doing and give me that tin cup [as a joke award]. That judge gave me a tin cup, so that is my mule story. (Hamilton 2 Oct. 1992)
During the Depression, he and his family struggled along with the rest of the community. Hamilton's entrepreneurial drive helped him with the various jobs he held after graduating from high school. His jobs included working at a filling station, at the ice house for $1.50 a day, and at a two-lane bowling alley for $15 a week. He also worked out of town selling mules in Union County, Arkansas in 1928, and as night team foreman on a dirt job with 100 mules at Vicksburg, Mississippi, where he lived in a camp. He remembered another job where he carried five horses to the east Texas oil field with the intention to rent them. He pronounced the undertaking "a failure." After no luck in renting them he decided to return home: "I started riding one horse and leading four from Joinerville, Texas, to West Monroe. Had one dollar in my pocket. Rode all day to outside of Carthage, Texas. Put horses in a man's pasture and caught a ride home with Mr. Bob Benson. Later I borrowed a truck from Curtis Clark and went to get the horses. I promised myself that day while I was riding if I ever got home, I would never leave without a round trip ticket." Hamilton remained a dedicated citizen of West Monroe, always returning from his travels, no matter how far away.
With the help of Bob Benson and Bill Feazel, he opened a small recreation hall business named Ike's Place at the Benson Building at 217 Trenton in West Monroe:
We had six card tables. The card games were Pitch, Casino, Hearts, some Domino games. We charged a nickel per hour to play. [We] had cold drinks, cigars, and cigarettes, tobacco, candy, shoe shine, and baseball scores. By then I was clowning rodeos. Bud and I made it through the Depression, but it wasn't easy. We had some great times there. Ike's Place was the gathering place for most all of the town men. (Hamilton, "Memoir")
Ike and his friends were always on the lookout for ways to make money and to publicize the business. According to Hamilton's story, in May 1934, the death of the famed outlaws Bonnie and Clyde provided such an opportunity. After the outlaws' ambush in Bienville Parish, their death car was toured around the region; among the touring sites was Ouachita Parish Sheriff's office. While it was on display there, one of their friends "took a fishing pole with a hook on it some way, and went in there where the car was and fished out a whisk broom, a chamois, and a vest, and brought it back to show me." His friend Chili Pace, seeing the opportunity, said, "Boy, we got to get some advertisement." Hamilton recounts their strategy and its outcome:
So we had a window in front of Ike's Place on two sides. . . . We took some hay wire and hung that whisk broom and that chamois, and we claimed that some of the brains and things was on the chamois. . . , and Chili painted a sign, "Articles Out from Bonnie and Clyde's Car." Well, everybody was looking at it, and the dad blame paper over here got hold of it, and it got in the Dallas paper, see. So when the Parkers and their people came over to Arcadia to claim the bodies and all, one of them had read this thing. . . and said, "I understand that some of their personal things are in a place over in West Monroe, Louisiana". . . . So [the Bienville Parish sheriff's chief deputy] called over here to Clyde Mitchell and Frank Cline, who were the deputy sheriffs in Ouachita Parish, . . . and told them that Parker and them wanted the stuff. So Clyde and Frank Cline said let's have some fun out of Ike. They called me up and said, "Listen, boy, are we in trouble; . . . Parkers and them—Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow's parents are over yonder in Arcadia, and they're hot and they want all that stuff out of there." And boy, it scared me to death! It scared me. But we took it down [to the sheriff's office], and they come and got it. (19 July 1996)
Showman and entrepreneur that Hamilton was, he was always law abiding and never caused any trouble, so it is not surprising that he was afraid of both the law and the outlaws' families and readily complied with their request. While he continued to run Ike's Place, he also clowned rodeos; as he puts it, "I'd been into the rodeo deal, and I was more or less growing into it pretty deep, and I'll tell you, too, show business was getting into my blood pretty deep, pretty tough" (Hamilton 7 Aug. 1996).
By 1936, Hamilton was getting some good contracts to clown rodeos with his trick mule Toby. He recalled the fateful life-changing performance in Florence, Alabama, for a Fourth of July rodeo, when he was closing the show with his 'Break Away Britches act," which had gone well at the afternoon performance. He explains how the act was supposed to work:
Back then . . . ladies didn't have bikinis and things; y'all wore bloomers. I got me a pair of pink bloomers and put them on. I took a pair of jeans, and I put a hole here and a hole there, and I put some heavy cord in there. I split these jeans down the side and put holes here and there and put some sewing. I'd put on these bloomers; then I'd put these jeans on. I tied with that thread. Then I'd pick me an old steer I could ride. I'd ease down on that steer, and take these ties here and tie them into my loose rope. . . . The reason I said pick one you could ride is so that you could ride him back out in the middle of the arena. You could throw your leg [over the steer] to come down, and these threads would break, and the pants would stay on the loose rope. The deal was I had a little old derby of some kind. What I'd do — I would get off the ground, not thinking I had lost my pants or anything.. I'd have my little old hat there, and the cowboys would holler, "Hey, hey!" I would look down and I was in my bloomers, and I put that [hat] over my behind and run out of there. (2 Oct. 1992)
Actually, Hamilton was not supposed to perform the act that night, but the man running the rodeo, Cameron Nixon, asked him to repeat the act since it had been so popular in the afternoon. Hamilton explains what happened in the evening performance:
I asked this boy. . . . "Go cut me a steer out of those [bull]dogging sheds"; I wasn't riding those bulls that those cowboys , but I [usually] picked me a dogging steer. He picked the steer, and I didn't have nothing to do with it, and he and I didn't know it, but the steer was one-eyed. I got down on him and tied in and did the whole bit and came out. ''Bout the time . . . I wanted to come down, I threw my leg up there and the old steer shied, and this thing [the trick costume] didn't break for me; it just hung me on the side and put in a spin. When I hit the ground, I hit the ground standing up. My foot went into the track (we was on a racetrack then), and it suctioned and twisted that leg and broke that leg into five places. So that took care of the clowning. (2 Oct. 1992)
Hamilton's injury was made even more complicated because of the times and his distance from home. His story of the tortuous trip back to West Monroe illustrates his toughness and stamina:
[On July 7] I rode home from Florence, Alabama, in July; they couldn't put me in a Pullman [train car], so they put me on a ambulance cot and rolled me in a baggage car on the train. We left before daylight on that train from Florence and went to Memphis. My daddy and a boy named Snake Taylor from Ferriday was with me. We changed trains in Memphis, and they put me on these carts by the depot, and rolled me over to the next train to Little Rock. By the time I got to Little Rock, I was sick. When we got to Natchez, Dad went over to the Mississippi hospital and brought a doctor over with him. Of course, I was taking those pills. He then gave me a shot, and we went home and got back around nine. [With] . . . me in that baggage car. . . with chickens, dogs, and cats—[this was] before the day of even the sulfa drugs, much less the penicillin—I got an infection, and I had lots of problems for two or three years. I was in bed in a body cast for six months. Then I was up and around with a brace from hip down walking with crutches. It was hot that summer, no air conditioning. My mother, dad, and Bud took real good care of me. (Hamilton, "Memoir"; 2 Oct.1992)
By 1937, times were really hard, so they closed Ike's Place. Fortunately, around that time livestock market sales began to come to the region, so in spite of his crippling injury, Hamilton began frequenting these events, which enabled his learning the traditional art of auctioneering. Hamilton recounts the sequence of how he learned the craft:
I can tell you exactly how I learned it. . . . A friend of mine, Clifford Benson, was a farmer and a cowboy who had rodeoed and everything. He had done a little auctioning, and he auctioned up here in West Monroe when they started. I was really crippled on crutches. I begin to go around with him. Directly, another one [sale] started here after the first one started in West Monroe. Then maybe the one in Rayville, and he got that job. I would go over there. Back then you didn't have any Sonics and McDonald's or anything else to get your cokes and ice cream stuff. And I'd go in the summertime to buy the ice cream and cokes over there, and I'd buy me twelve dozen frozen bars and put them down in that dry ice, and we'd go to the auction sales. I'd peddle them, you see, and make $2.40 off the ice cream. It was a pretty good day's work, so I just got the part and practiced . . . up and down the road.
Finally, after a year or two, he let me sell; at this time we was selling everything—well, not everything—junk and chickens. Good God, we sold a lot of chickens, and I got to doing that and helping him at West Monroe. Finally, these sales began to spread out, and he had a full week's work. A man opened a sale at Minden—Henry Talbert, who lived in Arcadia. Later on, he had the Arcadia auction. He recommended this man at Minden to hire me, and he did. It was the first sale I ever did by myself in Minden. Then we come along and I got the Arcadia sale. Then I got to work with Clifford in West Monroe, Farmerville, and then went to Bossier then went to Mansfield. (Hamilton 2 Oct. 1992)
By 1938, Hamilton's leg was getting better although it was three inches shorter, and his knee was stiff, but he could walk with a brace and crutches or a stick. As he worked the local market sales, he would peddle or sell other things such as paint slickers and ball point pen sets (when they first came on the market). He also took advantage of the opportunities arising from the soldiers stationed at Selman Field during World Ward II. He would buy watches that the soldiers had pawned and take to the auctions, line them up on his arm, pull one off at a time, and sell them. He also purchased lariat ropes from Fort Worth at a cost of $12.00 sold them for $30.00 and good roughed out saddles from Texas at $50.00 and sold them for $75.00. He says, "I was known as peddling Pete, but that little extra money helped out" (Hamilton, "Memoir"). Given his affinity for performing in the rodeo and his love of talk, he naturally loved the performing required in hustling sales and auctions.
Living the Auction Life
Beginning in Ouachita and Bienville Parishes in north Louisiana, Hamilton increased his auctioning territory eventually from coast-to-coast, yet he never left his home town, where he met Shirley Brown in 1943 and married her in 1945. He jokes that she never forgave him for spending their honeymoon at L.S.U. Livestock show. When Hamilton went on the road for auctions, she would often travel with him for sales around the north Louisiana region and beyond in the following years when she was not at home with their three children: Sara, Hank, and Ginny. While his career frequently took him far away for a few days, he was devoted to his family. In fact, when their third child, Ginny was born in the 1950s with Down's syndrome, they did research to find the best ways to help their child. Partnering with other area families, they founded ARCO, a day school, and the G. B. Cooley School, a residential center to serve the mentally disabled in Ouachita Parish (Kidd).
Hamilton's out-of-state territory first expanded west to Texas, but he continued to work in north Louisiana as well. His first Texas sale in Fort Worth in the 1940s was for a mule man with W.R. Watt Horse and Mule, who hired him for a Hereford bull sale. He thought he "had died and gone to heaven." In 1944, he gave up his Minden sale job for an automobile auction opened by Curtis Nichols and Slim Scoggins in Monroe. In fact, he had so many sales that he developed polyps on his vocal cords in 1954, and had to have surgery at Ochsner Clinic in New Orleans; for the first 30 days of his recuperation, he was not allowed to speak, and for the next 60, he could only whisper. During this time, he gave up four of his sales until he was fully able to speak again (Hamilton, "Memoir").
At that time, he became more involved in pure breed cattle sales, predominantly Hereford and Brahmas. In the 1950s, he and Jim Stanley Jr., a farmer and cattleman, started trading bulls. They kept the bulls in a corral on Selman Field. Stanley would buy the bulls (mostly Hereford) in Texas. When he was allowed, he would stop at Bossier City on Thursdays when Hamilton was working the sale, and they would sell what they could there. Then they would send the rest to Selman field and sell them privately or take some to Bastrop on Monday. After Stanley's death in the 1960s, Hamilton started selling the bull sale at the C.K. Ranch in Brookville, Kansas, one of the largest Hereford ranches in the U.S. They would sell around 200 bulls each year. Sometimes they would run out of buyers, and they would stop the sale. He would buy the bulls left and sell them to a buyer in Bossier City, and they would split the profit if any (Hamilton, "Memoir").
He also began picking up a few horse sales—which would continue over the next 25 years. He explains how he developed his horse sales:
I was getting more purebred sale, traveling quite a bit. Also in 1954 the Louisiana Quarter Horse Association planned a sale during the L.S.U. Stock show. Dave Perkins and Lee Berwick asked me to sell it. I didn't know about horses, but during the sale Lee and Dave and Mr. Charlie Webb were behind me and they would whisper to me the good points and pedigree and I would repeat it over the mike. When the sale was over, the crowd thought I was an expert on horses. (Hamilton, "Memoir")
Also in the 1950s a friend from his rodeo clown days, George Tyler, helped him get a ring man job at B.F. Phillips Sale at Fort Worth and the Fort Worth Stock Show Sale, which led him to other Texas cattle sales and then to Texas selling horses by the early 1960s. With his wide network, expertise, and fame growing, it is not surprising that he was invited to partner with other traditional auctioneers to start an auctioneering school, the Superior School of Auctioning in Decatur, Illinois. Hugh James, an auctioneer from Decatur, called him with the invitation to partner with him and other top auctioneers from other states including Ray Sims (from Missouri), Ham James (from Indiana), Paul Good (from Ohio), Dale Hanna (from Nebraska), Leroy Van Dyke (co-author and performer of "The Auctioneer Song" from Tennessee via Missouri), and Dave Canning (from Virginia). He agreed to go with them. Hamilton describes how the school operated:
We had school in Decatur, Illinois, a two-week session, twice a year [January and July with the partner auctioneers coming to teach for two-three days of each session]. After the first year, Ham James, Lee Roy Van Dyke and Dave Canning dropped out. We ran the school for 17 years. We never made any money, but we didn't lose any. We swapped the school for some bank stock, and then the bank went broke, we lost it all, but we turned out some good auctioneers, to name a few, Roy Martin Anderson, Keith Babb, Mike McTurner, Jim Ware, Bill Bailey, Jay Brown—all from around here. . . . I met a lot of people at the school. (Hamilton, "Memoir")
During this time he began conducting farm sales all over the Delta region with Gordon Dement and Drew Lundy, from Indianola, Mississippi. They worked in all kinds of weather, snow, sleet, rain, and "a lot of mud." He was also associated with dairy sales in Louisiana, Texas, and Mississippi. In 1965 his friend Lee Berwick of St. Joseph put a quarter horse race track on his place, where he had races, which gave him the idea to build Delta Downs, a pari-mutuel track at Vinton, Louisiana, just east of the Sabine River and Texas. He formed a corporation and asked Hamilton to serve on its Board of Directors (Hamilton, "Memoir"). Highly regarded by the business community, Hamilton was invited to serve many years on this board as well as on boards for Ouachita banking institutions including the Ouachita Federal Savings and Loan and the First National Bank of West Monroe.
Dependent on the prosperity of the times since he worked in commodities, Hamilton watched the national economy. He recounts how the economy affected his interests in the late 1980s when the bubble burst:
In the late 1980s, the price of oil broke, and the savings and loans and banks went broke. Ouachita Federal Saving and Loan wasn't in trouble, but we saw it was going to get in trouble. So we merged with the Peoples Homestead, which later went broke. The First National Bank did okay. We sold it in 1994 to Hibernia in New Orleans. It was a good deal for the stockholders. The horse business went to hell. It was bad. A lot of people lost a lot of money. For instance, we sold a mare in a dispersal sale for $140,000; four years later we sold her at the Hilton Hotel in Ft. Worth for $27,000. Helen Groves bought a Doe Bar mare at Jim Ware's sale at Rayville, Louisiana, for $100,000; four years later (after she produced two foals), we sold her at Helen's sale in Virginia for $27,000. Another mare we sold for $90,000 and sold later for $5,000. I could go on, but you can see it was bad. It is better now. Horses are selling okay. (Hamilton, "Memoir")
By the 1990s Hamilton semi-retired from auctioneering, but he still conducted auctions for the Louisiana State Fair Junior Livestock Sale as well as a few larger auctions in the Fort Worth stockyards. It was in these years that he was awarded memberships in the Auctioneer Hall of Fame (1995), the National Cutting Horse Association Hall of Fame, and the Louisiana Auctioneers Association Hall of Fame (1994).
Using Auctioneering Psychology
To Colonel Ike Hamilton, a successful auctioneer has to be both a performer and an expert in psychology, who is able to size up his potential buyers, read their cues, and draw on a repertoire of jokes and stories to get through the confusion of a "storm" or a lull in the ring. Over the years of his career, Ike Hamilton learned and applied psychological strategies which made him an auctioneer in great demand. These techniques included his gestures, teamwork, highly developed people observation skills, and verbal arts, as well as his attention to his attire. Col. Ike believed that he needed to present a professional image that showed respect to the auction sellers who might have a whole year's or life's work riding on that auction. He preferred to wear "either a suit, or a sport coat, slacks and a shirt and tie. . . . I'll wear my coat; I don't care if it's a hundred and ten degrees, until I start the sale. And the first horse I sell, I'll wear my coat/jacket and then take it off. And I like my ring men to do the same thing; then after we get started, they can take their coats off and everything" (2 Oct. 1992). He used what he called "natural" gestures in the sale: "I swing my arms a lot. It's a lot of people don't even make any movement, I swing my arms and point my fingers, point them" (2 Oct. 1992) He usually uses a gavel, which he lowers and says the word, "Sold." He believed that the auction was a serious affair, and that people needed to be dealt with in a straightforward, relaxed manner:
We're there to tend to business. Of course, I think that a relaxed crowd is in a better humor, that you can get more done than if you're just talking. Don't never talk down to them. . . . One or two auctioneers [who] have been successes will talk down to people, but I don't believe in it. But if you can get them relaxed and get them with you, . . . but I don't think you should stop anything to tell a story. As long as you're getting bids and going along, don't you stop; forget the stories. (2 Oct 1992)
For Colonel Ike Hamilton, good auctioning requires action and teamwork. He emphasized the importance of good ring men, who each have a section of the crowd to watch. He says, "There's no way for me to be a bit better than my people that is in the ring taking my bids and working. We are a team. . . . What they are doing is that they got a section to watch these people for bids; he takes a bid and then turns them in to me. Then I advance them and turn them back again." According to Hamilton, "seasoned ring men are very jealous; if you put them over there [in one section], they're jealous of that [other] section" (2 October 1992). Ring men are close to the buyers and can even talk with them, while the auctioneer is too distant for such communication. Certain sales have the same ring men and repeat buyers who prefer to sit in the section with a particular ring man handling their bids. When the auctioneer and the ring men are working together, "you have a sale then. You have a sale because everybody's working and everybody's got that action going. You've got everybody excited. You try not to ever let that momentum die . . . the minute that I say, "Sold," . . . I want the next horse stepping in that ring right then" (2 Oct. 1992).
Hamilton uses humor and stories only when needed for the crowd: "You try to keep the people settled. If there's anything you don't want, if you've got people interested in buying, you don't want the sale to hold up—for them to get up, . . . go to the bathroom or get a cold drink or something because a lot of them will never get back" (2 Oct. 1992). Mild rural humor was his specialty; he preferred to run a clean auction; as he put it, "I want to conduct it where my momma and my wife, you, your children can go" (2 Oct. 1992). He used humor sparingly as needed in the event that the bid got confused in a "storm'":
If . . . something happens that gets us . . . in a storm, something mixed up and everything, I can say, "Well, aw, Lord, I'm as confused as a rooster in a rain." Say, "I don't know whether to run to the hen house or take a duck under the barn." Well, the folks then sort of go to grinning and laughing, and they forget about whatever. . . . And another thing used sometime . . . if you get ahead of somebody, and you [can] say, Lord have mercy, and you don't know where you are, talking about where your bid is. And [you can] say, "Well, maybe I was a little too fast, sort of like the two hens that were running across the barnyard. And the rooster right behind them, and so one of these hens turned to the other and says, "Wonder which one of us he's running after." And the other one turned back and said, "I don't know, but we're both running too fast." (2 Oct. 1992)
Or if there is a lull because of difficulties in getting an animal in the ring, he might use an old joke: "The mother bee is a busy soul, has no time for birth control. That's the reason at a time like that it is so many s.o.b's. If we get a laugh, we say, 'You're a crowd!' If they don't laugh, the auctioneer says, ''Don't try that one again.'" (2 Oct. 1992)
Hamilton was a great observer and reader of people. He rated fellow auctioneer Ray Sims as a "great auctioneer" of cattle because "He is all business; he knows his cattle, and he is fast. . . . Let's say there's a 150 bulls; he won't'' sell more than three bulls before he has that crowd figured. He knows who is going to be interested in buying, the way they look, the way they sit, and what they want to give." (29 Dec. 1995). Similarly, Hamilton liked to say that he could tell how long a couple had been married by just watching them a few minutes. He could pick out a "trophy wife" and learned he could make a sale if she wanted to buy something. He found that he might be able to get a bid from someone who had just lit a cigarette. Sometimes he had to give the buyer time to think or give a couple time to talk before he went back to them for a bid. Asking someone to bid and nodding his head would often bring results, as well. He had the ability to devote his full attention to someone—a characteristic that undoubtedly helped him in auctioning. He loved the thrill of the auction and the spike of adrenalin a big sale can make.
As Col. Ike conducted sales across the nation, he made close friends, who figure large in stories that he liked to tell when the occasion arose. Many of the stories feature the characters that Col. Ike encountered during his auction experiences. One old-time auctioneer that looms large in his memory of his early auctioning days is Ray Lum, the legendary mule trader and auctioneer from Vicksburg, Mississippi (see Ferris). Hamilton says he knew Lum "like cornbread" and had "lots and lots of dealings with him and his brothers" including John Lum, from who he got his trick mule. Hamilton calls Ray Lum "the greatest salesman I ever saw "because he could "just get her done" (2 Oct, 1992). Hamilton tells one of his "classic" Ray Lum stories in which Lum brings a trailer of horses to one of his sales:
We were at Bastrop; I was selling up there. Ray pulled up there with horses. Now Ray had this old Black man who always wore an Army overcoat. He led the horses in the rings; he could lead the wildest son of a gun in the world, and he [the horse] wouldn't buck or nothing. So anyhow, we were going along the same way; I was selling, and Ray was right behind me. Somebody up in the stands said, "Mr. Lum, will that horse ride?" He just stood up and grinned: "Ladies and gentlemen, the Lord made heaven and earth; he made man and beast. He made man master over beast. They'll all ride. Throw a leg over him, George." That's what he told that Black man, and that is what he told them. (2 Oct. 1992)
While Hamilton was awed by Lum's sales tactics, he did not follow the same practices; he admits that the horse that did not buck in the ring with George, would "kill you" when you got him home—an idea that certainly made Hamilton uncomfortable. In another Lum story, Hamilton tries to discourage Lum from selling bulls with pink eye he brought in from West Texas by telling him that it's not the season and the people won't buy them, but he tells Lum he can sell them himself, to which Lum replies, "Oh no, Colonel, I want you to sell them." When the first bull came in with his eyes running, and Hamilton said as someone pointed to the bull's eye, "Sir, that's bull's eye." Hamilton tells the rest of the story:
Ray just stepped up there and got everybody quiet, and said, "Ladies and Gentlemen, penicillin, the greatest thing that ever happened to man!" Said, "You could take 50 cents and get a shot of that penicillin and give that bull that shot of penicillin and it will ever go away. It's the greatest medicine ever made!" Said, "Sell the bull, Colonel." Then we sat there and sold every one of those bulls. Every one of them! (2 October 1992)
No doubt, Hamilton admired Lum for his ability to sway the audience make the sale in spite of the odds. Growing up in the Depression, Hamilton certainly knew how to hustle to make ends meet, so he could admire the fellow hustler and find his tactics and the buyers' gullibility amusing.
Many of Hamilton's stories typically reflected his sense of humor. For example, on one occasion, he was handling Dr. Don Wade's production sale and recalls the pre-sale ritual drink of Miss Polly's bull shots, which had a great impact on the sale:
We were at the North Wales farm in Warrington, Virginia, for Dr. Don Wade''s production sale (he is a great livestock man, horses or cattle). Everybody was there on the sale force—Zack Wood, John Carlile, Henry King, Jim Goodhave, and Hal Thompson. They had a party the night before the sale at the mansion on the farm with a nice sit down dinner. When we got back to the Howard Johnson Motel, Miss Polly (she was a McIlhenny of Tabasco Fame and lived on Avery Island. She had some good horses, and is a member of the American Quarter Horse Association Hall of Fame) said, "Everybody, come by my room in the morning for bull shots." She loved to make them. Bull shots are made of beef bullion, tomato juice, Vodka, Tabasco, lemon juice. The next morning I went out to North Wales early. Shirley and the others went to Miss Polly's room for bull shots. The working crew [including ring men], after a few bull shots, came on out to the farm. Miss Polly told Shirley and Maud, "Those boys are going to need some more bull shots." They made a gallon of them.
Well, when we started the sale, my ring men were aggravating to say the least. We had been going about an hour when a yearling colt by Three Bars came in. We had him at about $2500 bid on him. Louis Brooks of Sweetwater, Texas (World Champion Cowboy, member of the Hall of Fame and rancher) told Zack, who was working that section, "I will give fifteen thousand." Zack screamed the bid; it shocked me.
I said to him, "Did you say $15,000?"
He said, "You God-damn right!" That set the sale on fire, thanks to Miss Polly's bull shots. (Hamilton, "Memoir")
Rowdy ring men and profanity were not the norm in Hamilton's sales, but he looks back and laughs. Another story he found amusing because of inappropriate language spoken to a minister occurred during the auction opening ritual in Topeka, Kansas, for Steve and Wilma Flemming:
I remember we were having a sale for them in Topeka and had a big crowd. To start the sale he brought his two stallions in the ring with two beautiful flower arrangements around their neck. He had some music; as we were ready, the band played "God Bless America" Steve was nervous. He introduced his preacher to give the invocation. When the preacher finished, Steve turned to him and said, "Preacher, you did a hell of a job." (Hamilton, "Memoir")
While Ike Hamilton auctioned livestock all over the U. S., he received most acclaim for his auctioning of quarter horses. Given the fact that auctioneers are responsible for generating large amounts of money for sales, it is not surprising to hear tales about nerve-wracking sales involving big money. According to Hamilton, the highest auction price he ever got was for quarter horse champion Doc's Hickory. He met with the owners before the sale to determine the lowest price they would take: $225,000. Hamilton's account of the hype around the big sale and his own pre-sale nerves reveal the pressure he felt as the auctioneer:
It had been talk all over the country, and that day and the night before and that horse is going to bring from a hundred thousand to four hundred and fifty thousand, and of course, I stayed and didn't sleep a wink that night. Got up the next morning, went out there and after that meeting, went out back in the barn and threw up, and, and we got him [Doc's Hickory] in there, and [it was] the easiest horse sale I ever sold—sold him in three minutes. I said, "Yeah, you know here's number one in your catalog, Doc's Hickory, and you know his background," and I may have commented on, of course, what he'd sired, and what he'd done, and performance and all, but it took maybe thirty seconds to do that. And I said, "I'm ready to take bids on him," and I asked a million and dropped back and come down, and I think started maybe a hundred thousand, something like that. . . . We had four, five men [bidding] on him, but after we got up past three or four hundred thousand, it was narrowing down, and [the two men bidding]. . . wasn't sitting far away from each other. . . I was looking everywhere and my ring men was watching 'cause . . . there had been rumors that Bud Swayze would give a four hundred and fifty thousand; of course, Bud never got in. But we had one of them ring men watching Bud seeing, and then, it narrowed on down to just [the two men], and I was taking twenty-five thousand dollars a lick. And when we got to seven hundred thousand, . . . [one bidder] had his banker and everybody else all huddled around him, . . . and I said well let's narrow it down; I was hoping to get a million for him. . . . and they bid seven twenty-five. I said, "Oh-oh, this is about it," and then, of course [the other bidder] come right back in, just like that, "Seven fifty," and then they went back together and talked again, but then they said, "No.". . . I looked the crowd over, and I said, "Yeah," and I just like I do on them kind of horses, I said, "This is lot one; this is Doc's Hickory; the bid's seven hundred and fifty thousand. Get in; I'm getting ready to go." And I looked around the crowd about a second—out that gate [gestures sold and points the horse out the ring gate] (2 Oct. 1992).
As Hamilton describes it, his auction style is low key, calm, and efficient; however, when asked how he felt after that experience, Hamilton said he felt "drained," but he had to go ahead with the rest of the sale. Although he does not physically reveal the intensity of the moment, the adrenalin is there for the big sale, but he barely has enough energy left to make it through the rest of the sale.
An even more significant quarter horse sale for Hamilton was the sale of the champion mare, Poco Lena, in 1963 at the dispersal sale for the mare's owner, the late B. A. Skipper, who had died in a plane crash. At the sale, Poco Lena, as described by Hamilton in his account of the sale to writer Sally Harrison, was "crippled and stove up bad," having foundered with the extensive travel and then becoming worse when left without food or water in the trailer by the driver, who abandoned his job upon hearing about the death of his boss, Skipper. Hamilton sold her for $14,200 in spite of her laminitis; however, later, the buyer wasn't happy with the sale. Through the intervention of Hamilton and a group of horse people, she was resold to Dr. and Mrs. Stephen Jensen in California with the idea of breeding her to Doc Bar, another famous quarter horse. After Poco Lena improved, she eventually had two foals, Doc O'Lena and Dry Doc—champion quarter horses that would change the history of the breed (Harrison). Long time friend and former student of the Superior Auctioneering School, Jim Ware notes the parallel between Ike Hamilton and Poco Lena's plight: "He loved her and knew she was a great, great mare." According to Ware, Hamilton helped Poco Lena become a broodmare despite her limited ability to walk. "Ike didn't know what he was going to do with his life (after his injury at age 26). He turned out to be a great auctioneer. If he wouldn't have intervened, circumstances and the chain of events that allowed Poco Lena to go to California probably wouldn't have happened" (Thompson). >
For contributions such as this to the quarter horse business and his long notable auctioning career, Hamilton was inducted into the National Auctioneers Association Hall of Fame in 1995. Jack Dillard, a regional agricultural columnist, wrote of this accolade: "For this 84-year-old Louisiana native, whose career spans 57 years, it is a well-deserved recognition. I know of no one with a more humble and big heart, totally unselfish in both thought and action. Col. Ike has launched many a young auctioneer into the profession. He is a family man, business man, friend of those who have and those who have not and an auctioneer that gets the top dollar" (Dillard 6C).
Ike Hamilton was also a beloved West Monroe citizen who gave much to his town. In fact, West Monroe Mayor Dave Norris said of him, "He was probably more of a symbol of West Monroe than anyone ever. . . He went beyond telling stories about West Monroe. His story became West Monroe, the type of forward thinking that helped force the progress the city has made over the last 20-30 years" (Rainwater, "He was probably"). He was revered for his ethics, good will, caring, commonsense, and wise advice. Always a gentleman, Colonel Ike Hamilton charmed all he met with his friendliness, humor, and storytelling, whether it was about the history of West Monroe and its characters or his own fascinating auctioneering experiences.
In June 2000, to honor Colonel Ike Hamilton, West Monroe Mayor Dave Norris announced that a new $11 million equine facility being built in West Monroe would be known as the Ike Hamilton Exposition Center. To help tell his story, a bronze sculpture of Hamilton with a horse was planned with Weatherford, Texas, Western artist, Kelly Graham. Graham suggested that the sculpture to stand outside the building entrance depict Colonel Ike selling the famed mare Poco Lena (Rainwater "New Center," 1A). The grand opening held November 3, 2001 was a show Hamilton would have loved. It featured the Budweiser Clydesdales, trick riding and roping, barrel racing, clowns, cutting horse demonstrations, much more. The Ike, as the center is now known, is a state-of-the-art facility with a 2900-seat air-conditioned arena, outdoor arena, exercise areas, stall barn, and meeting rooms including the Hall of Fame room, which includes Hamilton memorabilia and is dedicated to him. Greeting visitors as they enter the coliseum, the near-life sized sculpture of Colonel Ike with gavel completing the sale of Poco Lena immortalizes one of the finest moments of the storied career of the legendary Colonel Ike Hamilton.
Dillard, Jack. "Auctioneer Earns Praise with 57-year Career. The Times. 20 Aug. 1995. 6C.
Ferris, William. "You Live and Learn. Then You Die and Forget It All: Ray Lum's Tales of Horses, Mules, and Men. New York: Doubleday/Anchor Books, 1992.
Hamilton, Ike. "Memoir" Unpublished manuscript of Timeline and Events Written for Susan Roach. 1995.
_____. Personal Interview. 2 Oct. 1992.
_____. Personal Interview. 29 Dec. 1995.
_____ Personal Interview. 19 July 1996.
_____ Personal Interview. 7 Aug. 1996.
Harrison, Sally. "Ike Hamilton and Poco Lena." Sallyharrison.com. Web. Dec. 26, 2012.
_____. "Giants of the Cutting World: Ike Hamilton and Poco Lena Have Been Commemorated in Bronze." The News-Star (Advertising Feature) 2 December 2001: 3.
Kidd, Roma. "Shirley Hamilton: Remembered." ARCO A Community Resource Newsletter, 1998: 5.
"New Hall of Fame Members Inducted." The Auctioneer. September 1995: 19.
Rainwater, Mark S. "He was Probably More of a Symbol of West Monroe Than Anyone." The News-Star 3 May 1997: 4.
_____. "New Center to Bring Recognition." The News-Star 17 June 2000: 1A +.
Reeves, Jarrett. "Ike Hamilton." The Ouachita Citizen. 19 Sept. 1996.
Thompson, Mark. "Late Auctioneer Ike Hamilton Admired For Attitude, Actions." Quarter Horse News.Com. Web. Dec. 26, 2012.