WILLCOX Cowboy Hall of Fame inductees
JACK NELSON (84)
2004 COWBOY HALL OF FAME INDUCTEE
Jack Nelson arrived in Willcox in 1960 as the new owner of the Willcox Livestock Auction. It is estimated during the next 18 years, over one million head of cattle passed through the auction ring under his watchful eye.
But first, we need to go back to the beginning, and for Jack it all started in 1929 in Broken Bow, Nebraska. Jack was born in Broken Bow, went to school in Broken Bow, and planned to live in Broken Bow forever. Jack grew up in the livestock auction business, as his Dad owned the auction barn in Broken Bow. Jack learned how to set the value of cattle as a teenager working in the ring of his Dad's auction barn. Jack talked to me about hearing some of the best auctioneers in the country. He saw how they handled a crowd and how fun it was to listen to them.
In high school he played football, basketball, and track. Jack said he wanted to be a better athlete than he ever was. After high school, he went to Hastings College which was about 100 miles from Broken Bow. Jack said, "The only thing I got out of College was my wife Joanie. (Her name was actually Joan, but everybody called her Joanie.)"
Jack and Joanie were married in 1949, and everything was going as planned until Joanie got polio. So, they built a special house to accommodate her wheelchair. And they built right there in Broken Bow, because as you heard before, this young couple planned to live in Broken Bow forever. But, Mother Nature played a role in sending the Nelson's to Arizona. The harsh and cold winters were very hard on Joanie. In 1957, the family loaded up and left the Nebraska winters behind, as they headed for the warmer climate of Arizona.
After a couple of years here in Arizona, Jack heard through a friend the livestock auction in Willcox was for sale. It was 1960 when Jack purchased the sale barn from Charlie Torpey. The knowledge he had gained from his days in the Broken Bow auction ring began to pay off. Jack knew the value of livestock, and he was about to become an auctioneer.
Jack said "I had sold a million telephone poles driving down the road." So he felt like he had enough blah, blah, blah to get started. He was not so concerned about the chant. It just had to be understandable. He also knew that a rough 74 cents is better than a smooth 71 cent sale. He was a cattle marketer first and an auctioneer second. Jack said, "A good auctioneer does not overshadow the cattle, and that a good auctioneer keeps his presence in the background." The best compliment to him as an auctioneer was for someone to say, "My, the cattle sold well today."
Jack said, "Ninety percent of the value of an auctioneer is his knowledge of the product he is selling. Which means you must know your cattle, which means you have to go home with a lot of manure on your boots."
There is a whole lot more to running an auction barn that just being the auctioneer. What happens outside in the yard is just as important as the few minutes the cattle are in the ring. How much old hay is in the water trough? Is the hay baled too tight? You have to sort value in a set of cattle. It is a seven-days a week job, just doing your homework. You spend all week on the phone trying to learn if the wheat fields in Kansas are ready or if the filaree is high enough. You must know what the other markets are doing. You are walking a fine line trying to satisfy two groups, the buyers and the sellers, who have direct opposite interests.
You can trace the success of Jack Nelson to a couple of character traits, trust and honesty. People trusted Jack Nelson. One of Jack's clients said it this say; "I've been doing business with Jack for 40 years. We've never had a misunderstanding. He always represented cattle as they were. If he said they were #2ís they were #2ís. He is from the generation where your word was your bond. His word was gold. He was one of the best market men I've ever known."
Another said, "He was as straight as a string. What Jack told ya, that's the way it was. And you can't ask anymore of a man."
It should be noted that while Jack owned the Willcox Livestock Auction, he also purchased the Tucson Sale Barn in 1966. In the early 1970's, Jack's two sale barns handled over 100,000 head of livestock per year. Jack sold the Willcox barn in 1977, and he focused his attention on the Tucson operation. He eventually sold the Tucson Sale Barn in 1980.
While living in Willcox, Jack and Joan raised three boys, Scott, Brad, and Mark. Today, Jack and Joan live in the Tucson area to be close to their grandkids. In the simplest terms, Jack said, "I owned my customers honesty, and I needed to keep my word and my checks good." It was honesty, that knowledge of cattle, and those endless hours on the telephone that made it possible for him to get the right people to the auction and then get them to come back every week.
But then remember, Jack Nelson's word was gold.