The following article from The Packer's “A Century of Produce,” was published in 1993.
As The Packer prepares to publish our 125th-anniversary edition later this year, we are posting some of the writing from previous anniversary publications.
Here, writer Andrea Box recalls the time auctions were key elements in produce distribution in large markets.
Sold at the Clack of a Gavel
By Andrea Box
“The carefully tuned ears of buyers pick up every phrase, every word and syllable ... He rises in his seat or in the aisle (when the sales grow tense there is little sitting), he puts up hands and multiples of fingers in meaningful code ... Before noon, it will be over ... They are scrubbing the floor and getting ready for the next day’s onrush. Ebb tide after flow.”
-- Edward Hungerford in “Men of Erie”
They sat poised and waiting anxiously in their cushioned flip-up seats set on the sloping floor. Their backgrounds varied, but their mission was the same -- to buy the best produce at the best price at the local auction house.
Many a day in the early 20th century found old auction rooms filled to the point of suffocation with eager buyers.
The auction method of selling fruit was essential in the distribution process in large markets in the 1920s and 1930s. Auction companies operated in 13 large markets, moving 159,000 cars of fruits and vegetables, domestic and foreign, annually. The auction era peaked in 1930, when 84 percent of the citrus volume was sold at the clack of a gavel.
With the onslaught of technology and the trucking industry, the significance of the auctions decreased. More efficient methods of business communication and transportation led to the gradual abandonment of the auction. But if their walls could talk, the old auction rooms would be sure to tell a wealth of stories.
Free of the ebb and flow of anxious buyers, in 1993 many of the rooms lay vacant. Others were filled with a new history of business transactions in the making. Described as great theater-like rooms with sloping floors and seating, the auctions were more like lecture halls than opera houses. Many auctions were set on piers in the coastal markets.
“In a single morning on the great Erie freight pier at the foot of Duane Street, New York, more than a quarter of a million dollars’ worth of oranges alone have been sold in the passing of but a few hours,” Hungerford wrote.
New York City was the leading market, selling half of the nation’s auction volume in 1930. The New York auction was conducted off of piers 27, 28 and 29 along the Hudson River. In 1993, Steve D’Arrigo, board chairman of D’Arrigo Bros. Co. of New York Inc., said the pier area was in a state of rehabilitation.
Unlike the vanished New York auction, the old Cleveland auction room still was being used by a member of the produce industry in 1993. The Sanson Co. bought the old auction house from the Norfolk and Southern Railroad Co. in the mid-1970s. The auction’s auditorium was converted to a meeting room for produce seminars and company meetings; the remainder of the 85,000-square-foot building was turned into a shipping and distribution warehouse.
The old Baltimore auction house may not be standing anymore, but it’s a great place to listen to baseball games. By 1993, the building had been torn down to make way for a parking lot in the shadow of the new Orioles stadium.
Similarly, in Philadelphia the auction house was torn down after standing empty for years. Joe Procacci of Procacci Bros. Sales Corp. said the house was destroyed in the mid- to late 1980s and by 1993 was the site of a piggyback trailer terminal for the railroad.
Charles Gallagher Sr., president of United Fruit & Produce Co. Inc., said the old St. Louis auction house stood proudly on the banks of the riverfront until 1986. He has a brick to prove it.
“It was a grand building in its day with two enormous auction rooms,” Gallagher said. In 1993, the large vacant lot where the building once stood was being contemplated as a site for a local gambling hall.
Elmer Schroer, owner of Schroer Brokerage Co., said the United Fruit Auction in Cincinnati closed in 1959. The auction building was located on the Southern Railway property and in 1993 was being leased to Sanzone-Palmisano Co., Schroer said. The auction room lies alone on the far end of the building, unopened since its 1959 closing.
From his office window, Alan Siger, president in 1993 of Consumers Produce Co. Inc. of Pittsburgh, could see the only evidence of the old Pittsburgh auction building’s original purpose. The words “Pennsylvania Railroad Fruit Auction and Sales Building” still appear on its side in 1993. Siger said the Pittsburgh auction hall was in the second floor of the produce terminal building. Fruit was displayed on the warehouse floor below the bellowing auction hall.
In 1981, the produce terminal was sold to Pittsburgh’s Urban Redevelopment Authority. The city renovated the building, replacing the auction room -- sloped floors and all -- with office space.
One of the last auction houses to close, Chicago’s produce auction and its 60 surrounding acres were purchased by Sears Roebuck & Co. In 1993, Bob Strube, president of Strube Celery and Vegetable Co., said the plot was for sale.
The halls of the Detroit auction house echoed with the call of the auctioneer as late as 1990. The auction era officially came to a close in January 1990, when the gavel was raised and made its final sale in Detroit.