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TRADE DAYS

In the early twentieth century, merchants across Oklahoma sponsored a special day to attract rural families to their town's businesses. "Trade day" often occurred on the first Monday of the month. Retailers gave away prizes, scheduled speakers, showcased performers, offered free movies in airdomes, produced livestock and poultry shows, and held games, including various races and greased-pole climbing, for awards. The first Monday tradition stemmed from the fact that county court sessions, usually held on the first Monday of the month, brought people to town. Even in the mid-nineteenth century, for instance, in the Choctaw Nation each county held its court session on the first Monday, which attracted large crowds to trade livestock and sell their farm produce. Events associated with later trade days continued to be held in the courthouse square. Chambers of commerce, business clubs, and civic clubs usually sponsored these proceedings. The importance of the day for city and county government and politicians was humorously depicted by a town newspaper editor when he revealed, "as chamber of commerce secretary I promote trades day, then as a publisher I sell advertising for trades day, and as a politician I go out and shake hands with everyone that comes to town."

As good roads were built in the state, the merchants lured folks from further away, sometimes by advertising in newspapers in adjacent towns and counties. These trade or sales day events were held throughout Oklahoma in the first twenty-five years of the twentieth century, from Elk City in the west to Ada in the southeast. In the mid-1920s livestock reportedly became a commodity at sales days, beginning a trend that replaced the custom of selling cattle to agents who visited each farm in person. After the Great Depression struck, newspapers no longer carried advertising for these trade days. A different phenomenon, the community sale, seems to have taken its place.

Community sales differed in many ways from the retail-oriented trade days. Community sales concentrated on selling local livestock by auction, but local farmers could bring any item to sell in the ring. Objects as diverse as men's hats or women's shoes, in addition to farm equipment and seed, were sold at these events. By the 1950s an auctioneer or company would receive a commission of 3 percent of a livestock sale and 8 percent of any other products sold. Also unlike the trade day, many community sales were often produced by private organizers, although some were held by chambers of commerce or civic clubs. A 1937 survey of community sales by the Oklahoma Federal Writers' Project revealed that a majority of these auctions were held on Wednesdays, with Tuesdays the next-most-popular, breaking with the first Monday pattern and the traditional Saturday as the time when farmers and their families bought supplies in town. Often a county farm demonstration agent involved himself in the community sale, as it afforded an opportunity to teach or introduce new farming techniques to the gathered agriculturalists.

The genesis of these community sales is still debatable. A 1936 report prepared for the Kansas Legislature on the community sale movement claims that in 1877 Tennessee farmers had organized the Goodletsville Lamb Club to obtain better prices, and that from this organization, cooperative and private auctions had spread into Kentucky, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. James Lawrence, a county farm agent, claimed to have originated the community sale in Oklahoma in 1920, when he initiated one in front of Miami's courthouse, having modeled the event after a community sales day in Neosho, Missouri. However, earlier reports of livestock and community sales in western Oklahoma may refute this claim.

By the mid-1930s community sales generated income for an impoverished state government. In 1935 the newly organized Oklahoma Tax Commission collected $20,759.94 in sales tax labeled as "auction and casual sales," and by 1944-45 that category accrued $105,278.32. In 1955-56 the sales tax fell to $66,621.26 but by the next decade, the year of 1965-66, it rose to $126,894.10. As early as the mid-1930s lawmakers raised concerns about the lack of accountability at these livestock sales, alleging that thieves would steal cattle in western Oklahoma and sell them at a community sale in eastern Oklahoma that same day.

In 1945 the Oklahoma Senate pushed for regulations to curb such illicit activity. In 1953 Oklahoma solons did pass a law requiring community sale operators to obtain a license from the State Board of Agriculture, and a subsequent measure forced these managers to keep a record of all sales for one year, mandated periodic state inspection of scales, and made it unlawful to sell livestock on the premises before consignment. Gradually, these sales became exclusively for farm stock, and in 1961 the state legislature amended the agricultural code and changed the term from community sales to "livestock auction markets."

The impulse that created such events continued into the twenty-first century. In 2002 Chandler inaugurated its third-Monday Lincoln County trade days, inspired by the long-running Canton First Monday Trade Days in northern Texas. Weekend flea markets and swap meets that abound in the Sooner State can trace their roots to these early manifestations. The term "trade days" can be confusing. Early twentieth merchants used the term to bring rural residents in to shop, and, especially during times of economic depression, the expression defined the occasion when folks had to barter, sell, and buy second-hand possessions. Either way, these flea markets, auctions, swap meets, and business extravaganzas usually held a more social undertone, bringing together farmers and urban dwellers in a setting other than religious revivals or church attendance.

SEE ALSO: CATTLE INDUSTRY, FARMERS' MARKETS, GREAT DEPRESSION, OKLAHOMA ECONOMY.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City), 19 June 1921, 24 September 1922, and 21 March 1948. Federal Writers' Project, A Survey of Community Sales in Oklahoma (Oklahoma City, Okla.: Works Progress Administration, 1937). M. B. Newton, Jr., "First Monday Trades Day," in Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, ed. Charles Reagan Wilson and William R. Ferris (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989).

Larry O'Dell

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