Retiring auctioneer looks back at life among the livestock

As the sound of cattle hooves rattled on the metal floor, Joe Foster watched Friday as a group of black and red calves stumbled into the auction area.

"Cut off the red-hided ones, we'll sell the black first," Foster commanded his two helpers, who were stationed at each end of the small fenced-in enclosure. The two were armed with plastic paddle sticks, shaking the gravel-filled sticks in front of the calves' faces.

"All right, what do I hear? One and twenty, one and twenty, one and twenty, one and twenty-five," Foster repeated. From his exalted height, he watches bidders with their paper bidding numbers clutched in one hand. When they're trying to buy, they flick their card to show their interest. The bids move up like stairsteps until a bidder, if he wants out, slightly shakes his head. The last man bidding takes home the calves.

Foster's chant, barely recognizable as the English language, went on until the four black calves were sold for $150 per hundredweight. The calves were run out of the pen, and the red calves took their place. This staccato litany would be repeated throughout the afternoon.

Foster has been auctioning off all types of livestock for almost 40 years, selling everything from goats to dairy cows. But this Friday afternoon would be the last day that Foster spent almost yodeling his ditty at Madera's B & B Livestock Auction. "This has been my whole life," Foster said in a gravelly voice while taking a lunch break. "I like the people and I like being around the cattle."

Foster retired after that Friday auction, planning to spend time with Cam, his wife of 18 years. But he isn't getting completely out of the business. "I might continue doing some volunteer auctioneering, if my voice holds up," Foster said.

The manure, hay and dust smells of auction yards are odors Foster grew up with. His father, the late Tom Foster, owned the Atwater Livestock Auction. The elder Foster bought the old dance hall in 1957, and Joe Foster started working with his dad in the summer of 1965.

But the younger Foster wasn't sure that he wanted to be in the auction business, so he spent some time getting a degree in organizational communication. "I had all intentions of going to work for Pacific Bell," said Foster. But the telephone giant wasn't interested in hiring Foster, so his dad offered him a job as a field man. "He sent me out to talk to customers, to get them to consign their cattle with us," said Foster.

The Merced native quickly realized that he had livestock in his blood. He was happy at what he was doing, and made the auction his livelihood. In 1968, while listening to the rhythmic auctioneering chant of his father, Joe Foster developed his own way of selling cattle. "Every auctioneer is different, they all have their own styles," Foster said.

For the next 40 years, Foster was the voice that sold the cattle at the Atwater Livestock Auction, which was a landmark along Highway 99 in Atwater.

Then, in 2004, disaster struck. The 70-year-old building, the structure that housed all of Foster's memories, burned to the ground. "The last auction at the yard was on Aug. 25. We sold dairy cattle on that Wednesday. Three hours later, I got a call that the place was burning," Foster said. "It was the worst day of my life."

Although a few items were salvaged, the yard was gone. Foster stood and watched the auction yard burn, and then he went home.

With a lot of time to think, he decided that it wouldn't be feasible to rebuild an auction on the old property. Too many houses were already crowding the land. Then he got a phone call. "The landlord at B & B Livestock Auction in Madera called me and told me he wanted me to come to Madera," Foster recalled.

Just five weeks after his old yard burned, Foster was back selling cattle in Madera, still known as Atwater Livestock Auction.

That first day in Madera, Colleen Trieweiler of the Philips Ranch in Merced brought a load of cattle for Foster to sell. The trim, gray-haired Trieweiler lives on the same ranch that her great-grandfather bought in 1860, and she has raised cattle her whole life. She knew both Tom and Joe Foster, and she wanted to make sure that she supported Joe after his heartbreaking loss. "I brought some cattle that probably could have waited a bit longer to sell, but I wanted to show my support to Joe," she explained.

And at this last auction, Trieweiler was back again, watching more of her cattle being run through the auction. "I wanted to send these cattle out with Joe," Trieweiler said. "He's been such a good friend. And most of all, he's honest."

That's a tough bid to top.

Reporter Carol Reiter

can be reached at 209-385-2486 or