Spotlight on Hunter’s Sale Barn
Jun 01, 2016 09:50AM
By Richard Gaw
Norman Hunter turned Hunter's Sale Barn into one of Cecil County's quintessential businesses over the last 41 years.
Norman Hunter remembers that frigid night in January of 1975 very well. He had just purchased his own business. It was his first Monday night—sale night—as the owner of Hunter’s Sale Barn, and the winter weather outside was brutal.
“It was just me and two Holstein cows,” Hunter recalled with a laugh. “The next week, it was me and five Holstein cows.”
Out of those humble beginnings, Hunter began to build what has become, over the course of four eventful decades, one of the quintessential Cecil County businesses. Several generations of local families have made Hunter’s Sale Barn a part of their lives. In 1975, the business consisted of a stockyard selling farm animals and an auction that sold poultry, eggs, and produce. Today, Hunter’s business is really four businesses in one—an auction service, a flea market, a salvage store, and a restaurant, and people throughout the region know Hunter’s Sale Barn for at least one of those offerings. The Holstein cows are gone, but Hunter is still here, presiding over all the activity. Stop by on a busy Monday night when crowds have gathered to bid on a wide variety of items, and you’ll find Hunter still immersed in the action. On a typical Monday night now, five hundred or more items will be sold in just a three-hour period in the auction room. In the early days, there would have been a handful of vendors at a sale on Monday night. These days, there could be as many as 150 vendors from Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, New Jersey, and New York at the flea market.
Hunter, a resident of Rising Sun, has made use of every work experience he has had—from the knowledge he gained growing up on a farm to what he learned delivering milk door-to-door in the 1960s to his 13 years spent selling cars to make his business a success.
When he first purchased the business in the mid-1970s, Hunter was not trained as an auctioneer, but he soon learned that he would need to add that to his list of duties. In those early days, he would hire people to serve as auctioneers, but they often did not know the products well enough to effectively auction them off. Hunter decided he would need to do the job himself, but he couldn’t spare the time or money needed for the training. So he borrowed some books from an auctioneer and started learning the basics of the craft that way.
“I really trained myself to be an auctioneer,” Hunter recalled, explaining that he read through the books and would practice the techniques of selling off items at a high rate of speed while hauling cattle to Philadelphia. He soon discovered that, with his outgoing personality and razor-sharp mind, he was a natural at handling auctions.
In the first years of its existence, Hunter’s Sale Barn was mostly a stockyard. But some of the older farmers in the area started to retire and sell off their lands to developers who were looking to build housing developments. Consequently, the number of farms began to dwindle. By the mid-1980s, Hunter closed the stockyard and the poultry, egg, and produce auction, focusing more of his energies on the auctioneering part of the business. “It has to come out of you—it has to flow, like playing a piano,” he explained. “And you really have to know the prices of things. An auctioneer is like an old country doctor who needs to know everything from the nose to the toes—as an auctioneer, you have to know all about the product.”
Being able to adapt to the changing business climate has been an important part of Hunter’s success. The consignment auction grew to be a big part of the business for a period of time, but when yard sales gained popularity and people were selling their items themselves, he had to replace the consignment business by starting a salvage operation.
“I really had to be flexible,” Hunter explained. “You have to keep up with changes. It’s a rapidly changing world.”
“These big box stores will get a package and if it’s even slightly damaged they will sell it,” Hunter explained. “Our main mission is to save the public money. I always say that the profit is in the buying, not the selling.” Hunter opened a grocery store that sells wholesale items at large discounts. He will purchase damaged items from big box stores by the truckload and sell them to the public at lower prices.
The retail store carries groceries, paper towels, cleaning supplies, clothing, toys, and patio furniture. In all, there are approximately 6,000 different items that the store will carry.
“I think one of the things that makes our store interesting is that it has a lot of variety,” Hunter explained. “You never know what’s going to be on a truck, but it’s all going to be brand name stuff. I always tell people to buy it when you see it, because you might only see it once.”
The arrival of eBay and the retail tsunami that is online shopping changed the course of his business, too—it had to. But, as always, Hunter found a way to carry on. He even started an online store and an online auction to keep up with the changing times.
“I grew up in the era of paper and pencils,” Hunter explained. “I had to change. If I hadn’t changed, I would be put out of business.”
After more than 40 years in a variety of businesses, he has experienced a lot of ups and downs.
His family has been with him the entire way. Several family members have played important roles in the business, including his wife, Carol, who is also trained as an auctioneer. Their daughter, Ronda Fabian, is very involved in the business, managing the retail part of the business and working in marketing. The family support has really helped when challenges occur, Hunter said.
“It seemed like the worst thing that ever happened that day,” Hunter explained. But in the place of the building that burned, he put up the 70-foot-by-250-foot structure to house items for the salvage business. The business has survived numerous economic downturns, societal changes, and more. On Easter Sunday in 1995, a fire destroyed the building that once housed the stockyard.
Through the years, Hunter has worked on some rather large auctions throughout the region. One of the biggest came in 1982 when he handled an auction at a 105-acre property in Perryville owned by Rodeo Earl Smith. Smith was a rodeo rider, stunt man, and a well-known promoter who lived in Cecil County for decades. Hunter remembers that the auction attracted between 2,000 and 2,500 people who were eager to bid on the treasure trove of items up for sale—including an Abraham Lincoln campaign button.
“That was the biggest auction we ever did, and I was honored to do it,” Hunter said, explaining that the auction was, in fact, one of the biggest ever held in the county.
When he’s asked what he likes best about the business, Hunter doesn’t hesitate—it’s the people.
“I love working with the public and meeting people, dealing with people, handling people’s estates,” Hunter said. “You’re dealing with everybody from professional people to the average blue collar worker, and I always try to treat everybody who walks through my door on the same level.”
He has met thousands of people through the years, and made plenty of friends along the way. About 25 years ago, he started selling permanent bidder numbers for some of the regular Monday night customers. Hunter has managed to memorize hundreds of his regular customers’ numbers.
If a winning bidder doesn’t know his own number, it’s not uncommon for the person to ask, “Where’s Norman? He knows what my number is.”
Hunter has learned a thing or two about business during his time. The importance of trust ranks near the top of the list. Back when he was handling a lot of auctions for farmers, Hunter would sometimes ask a farmer if he wanted a contract for the business they were about to conduct. Often, the farmer would just shake his head no and say, “I trust you, Norman.”
Hunter explained, “In order to build trust, I never try to put my wallet between me and the customer. Life is all about mutual trust. Your reputation will precede you wherever you go, and you’re really going to be known by your word and whether you keep it.”
Running Hunter’s Sale Barn has been very demanding, but rewarding work. Monday’s, in particular, are a challenge—Hunter will routinely work a 14-hour day that day. Even so, running the businesses has been a labor of love for him.
“The business has really been good to my family, and it has been helpful to the community,” he said. He knows of instances where people traveled to the Rising Sun area for the first time to attend a Monday night sale, and then later on they decide to move to the area because they liked it so much.
The business has allowed him to indulge in one of his favorite hobbies: collecting cars. He currently owns more than a dozen high-performance cars, including a Shelby Super Snake Mustang and a 1956 Thunderbird. Over the years, Hunter established a friendship with Carroll Shelby, who was a noted automotive designer, racing driver, and entrepreneur. Hunter even attended one of Shelby’s last birthdays before he passed away. Hunter owns a golf court, manufactured in 2010, that was made to resemble one of the Shelby Super Snake Mustangs. Only five of these golf carts were manufactured: four went to four people who served as presidents of Shelby’s automobile company, and Hunter owns the other one. On many Monday nights, Hunter can be seen zipping around on it in the midst of all the activity at Hunter’s Sale Barn, yet another illustration of just how far the business has come since that cold January night so long ago.
The salvage store is open on Monday from 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. The flea market is open each Monday from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. The auction room opens each Monday at 6 p.m.
To contact Staff Writer Steven Hoffman, email firstname.lastname@example.org.