Tobacco: End of an Era - The Story of Bob Cage

by George Whitehurst
Danville Register and Bee
Friday, October 3, 2003

DANVILLE, Va.  - Bob Cage's 45-plus year career as a tobacco auctioneer is built on two things ' stamina and practice.

He has no formal schooling in his art, merely years of practical experience.

In fact, he says, most good tobacco auctioneers didn't go to auctioneering school to learn their craft.

Real estate auctioneers go to school, and they have schools for auctioneers, generally in the mid-West for auctioning cattle,“ he said. “Tobacco is a little different animal. You learn mostly by doing.

“I know of maybe two who made it after going to some sort of auctioneering school. You'll go there for a few weeks, but in tobacco the bidding is different. It's a much faster chant. They get out, and if a warehouseman is kind enough to let you in to sell, the chant usually isn't fast enough to make tobacco sales.“

Cage, a South Boston resident, is presiding this year over one of the last two surviving traditional flue-cured tobacco auctions in the United States.

“I am doing the only true auction in Virginia,“ he said recently. “I've found out there's one other in Vidalia, Ga. I guess we're becoming dinosaurs.“

Cage, a World War II veteran, said he decided to become an auctioneering after trying his hand at several other professions, including life guarding, bar tending and working as an assistant manager in the Beverly Hills Hotel.

Cage's mother had married a tobacco warehouse owner, so Cage spent some time watching the auctions during a visit home from California.

When he returned to the West Coast, he took a record of an auctioneer with him, listening to it frequently.

Taking chalk, he wrote number scales on the floor of a room, along with the symbols for the various tobacco companies.

He would then walk down the line, practicing the rambling, sing-song chant that characterizes traditional tobacco auctions.

He continued practicing diligently when he returned to Southside Virginia.

“I just went out and chanted and chanted and chanted until I got pretty good at it,“ he recalled.

The key to successful auctioneering, he said, is learning to put on a show for buyers and spectators.

“The buyers have to really dance to your tune. They know about when you're going to knock a pile out,“ he said. “You walk on through it. You don't want to stop when you get a rhythm going. It's just a joy.“