LEBANON, Ore. — When Coy and Helen Cowart bought the Lebanon Auction Yard in 1987, it was one of the smallest of the 20 auction yards then operating in the state.
Today it remains one of the smallest of the eight auction yards still operating in Oregon, but it also one of the most profitable.
The Cowarts started in the livestock auction business when Coy decided to retire from his work as a manager of a general contractor. Cowart, then 52 years old, was slowing down, he said, and finding it difficult to work in construction.
“I realized I was too old for construction, so I retired,” Cowart said.
Being retired, however, didn’t fit Cowart’s personality.
“I dug every clam on the West Coast and fished in every hole and ran my hundred head of cows, and I was still bored,” he said. “So I told Helen that I’ve got to have a job.”
The Cowarts came close to buying a restaurant, Cowart said, but when the owner of the auction yard approached them about buying his operation, they opted for the livestock auction business.
Still, Cowart was bored. Running an operation that sold feeder cattle twice a year wasn’t what he had in mind. So they diversified.
The initial jumping off point involved selling dairy slaughter cows.
“They cull 52 weeks a year,” Cowart said. “So I said I’ve got to have that.”
Convincing dairy farmers to bring their culls to the auction yard involved a lot of driving around and knocking on doors, Cowart said. Many of the farmers turned him away the first time he approached, but Cowart kept after their business and eventually earned it.
“Now we have slaughter cows every week,” Cowart said. “They come from all over the country to be sold here.”
Next, the auction yard diversified into cattle-holding equipment.
Then, the Cowarts started contracting cattle from ranchers all over the country, and they purchased two trucks to move the cattle.
“We just went on and on and on and on with diversifying,” Cowart said.
Cowart, who is turning 80 May 18, grew up half-time on the Choctaw Indian Reservation in Oklahoma, where his mother lived, and half in Portland, where his father lived. It was in Oklahoma where he got his first taste of ranching.
“I was riding a horse in Oklahoma when I could barely get on the horse,” he said. “I’d wait until the horse would put his head down to eat grass, and I’d swing my leg over, and when he’d rise up, he’d slide me back to where I could ride.”
The Cowarts moved into the Lebanon area in 1960. Today the couple runs about 200 head of cattle on their ranch in partnership with their son, Terry Cowart.
While diversifying their operation, the Cowarts dramatically increased business at the auction yard.
“The first sale we had, we had 100 and some cattle,” said Terry Cowart, who now runs the yard. “Now we’ll sell between 20,000 and 25,000 a year.”
In addition to his work at the auction yard, Coy Cowart has a legacy of volunteer work that has aided Oregon agriculture. He served as president of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association in 2003 and 2004, and he served for many years on the board of the Agri-Business Council of Oregon.
While serving on the ABC board, Cowart became the original organizer of Denim and Diamonds, the organization’s annual fund-raising dinner. Money raised from the event helps fund programs that educate the public about agriculture.
When Cowart started working on organizing the event, it was little more than an idea in the mind of then-executive director Mary Stewart.
Cowart contacted several friends who are influential in Oregon agriculture, appointed them to different organizing committees and started soliciting donations for the event’s auction.
By the time the event rolled around, 20 corporations had agreed to sponsor a table for $1,000 each. The event was so crowded, he said, that they had to turn people away at the door.
“Mary (Stewart) told me that I have the uncanny ability to find the best person to do the job, and then con them into doing it for nothing,” Cowart said. “I said, God, I didn’t even know I had a talent. Thank you for telling me about it.”
Cowart, who is having an 80th birthday party at the Lebanon Auction Yard on May 18 beginning at 2 p.m., admitted he’s slowed down a little from the days he ran the auction yard and took care of his cattle on the side. But he doesn’t plan on changing his current routine.
“I just met with my doctor yesterday, and I said it is becoming a little more difficult to do things, to do my chores,” Cowart said. “My doctor said, ‘Don’t change a thing. You’re doing good.’”
Coy and Helen Cowart and Terry and Lezli Cowart are inviting their friends to an 80th birthday party for Coy, May 18, beginning at 2 p.m. at the Lebanon Auction Yard, 37087 Kgal Drive, Lebanon, Ore.