Nothing about a conversation with Norma Sanders today — a soft-spoken woman who still drives the car she bought with cash in 1983 — would suggest she spent decades as a powerful voice that squeezed every nickel out of livestock customers at hundreds of auctions.
What’s left of Sanders’ career is in a few frame photos and her cowboy hat. She doesn’t even have a microphone anymore — she only owned one her entire career, and it’s now in the Cowgirl Hall of Fame, where she was inducted in 1989.
A 1952 graduate of the Missouri Auction School — she was No. 1 in her class of 40, the 39 others men — Sanders auctioned until the 1990s as “America’s Only Cowgirl Auctioneer,” and quit to take care of her mother.
The Texico native briefly came out of retirement earlier this month at the National Cutting Horse Association Summer Select Yearling Sale in Fort Worth, Texas.
How did you get into your field?
I was studying music from the time I wasn’t very big to when I got into college, and it got too expensive. My mother couldn’t afford to send me anymore.
I thought, “I’ve got to do something to make a living. What am I gonna do?” So I got into the horse business because a friend suggested I be an auctioneer. He said, “You’d be good because you know horses.”
Anyway, I was turned down by the three major schools. A friend came by to see us, and he said he bet he knew of an auction school that would take me. That was the Missouri Auction School in Kansas City. I contacted them, and they were delighted to have me.
What do you remember about being in Kansas City?
I know we went to the Kansas City (American) Royal. Then we went to several different auctions and practiced selling at those different auctions. I had to live in the hotel. The school was in the basement at the time, and we went to school day and night. I didn’t have a whole lot of time to see much of anything but auction rings, the hotel and the school
I hadn’t even thought of this for about 61 years, but the boys there kind of ganged up on me, and they told me I needed to go to a burlesque show. I had a good vocabulary, but I didn’t know what “burlesque” meant. I thought it was just a show. Then they started taking clothes off. I was too shy to just walk out, so I kept sliding down in my seat until you could just see my hat.
What is it like being an auctioneer?
It’s very stressful if you take your work seriously, because you’re dealing with the other guy’s income. I don’t care how big or little they are; the little man has to have the same attention as the big man. You’ve got to have a lot of weight on your shoulders, or at least I felt like I did, because I needed to get every nickel I could.
What determines how well a horse sells?
Do you have a favorite breed? Confirmation, blood lines and if they’re old enough to be trained. I was around quarterhorses. They were top of the line at the time. Then there were cutting horses, and thoroughbreds. But quarterhorses were my specialty.
What about a favorite place you sold at, or a favorite auction?
So many places, it’s very difficult for me to say a favorite. I was in Salt Lake City three times. I couldn’t get a sale bill because the bills and catalogs were gone. I was at Dominick’s Cow Palace three times in Baton Rouge, La.. One time was when TV was brand new. They brought their crew out there. I’m up there selling at night, and they turn the lights off because that’s how they had to do it00. I will never forget that — I’ve got to keep selling, but I can’t see anybody?
What do you remember about your last sale?
One of the last sales I did, I think, was a cattle auction. I was in Phoenix — I used to stop there when I was going through to California, and I went to California a lot. I’d stop, and a friend had a sale. He said I could pick up a little money, because they’d always put me to work. He put me up there for an awful long time. I had that market really going, and he said Norma, you can step into a sale cold and take it over better than anybody I ever did see.
You ran into sexism trying to get an education. How did you contend with it after graduation?
I did run into quite a bit of that. But the ones that had me, some of them didn’t want me but the owner of the livestock wanted me to sell them. They’d change their mind quick, and they wanted me to come back the next sale.
I had lots of obstacles, but I had to overcome it.
What was the experience like at Fort Worth, getting to auction again?
It was just fine, except I had to do somebody else’s sale and I’d never watched them work before. I had the weight of the world on my shoulders that time too.
You’re very soft-spoken with a slow pace. How much would it surprise somebody to see you auction?
I can be so quick you couldn’t believe it. Down there, they had the TV in there, and I believe it was aired on four different news channels in the area. A friend is supposed to be sending me a DVD. One of the writers interviewing me said, ‘When you started selling, you got everybody’s attention because you speak so softly nobody thought that could come out of you.”
I’ve trained myself to keep my voice down so I don’t blast somebody on the other end of the telephone.
What is it that you like about Texico?
You could have lived in California, Phoenix, anywhere in the Midwest. We lived in Texas for quite a while. We moved to Texico, then we moved to Portales when my mother bought a home. I told her, “If you want me to finish high school, you have to go back to Texico.” She moved there because she thought she could put me through college.
I liked the school in Texico. It’s always been a good school. I like it here, and I like it better than any place else. I’ve been here so long I really don’t know where else.
What advice do you have for people entering the auction business?
Work hard, try to be the best. That’s what I tried to do all the time. I had to be to even stay in the business.