Fair auctioneer Louie Ricci, one of Sonoma County’s agricultural icons, died in the last weeks of 2014, adding to last year’s loss of legendary leaders in farming, ranching and the Sonoma County Fair. Louie, a respected judge of man and beast, was a folk hero to those of us who grew up in Sonoma County and spent part of the summer learning lessons for life in the barns and show rings at the Sonoma County Fair.
2014 was indeed a year of sad goodbyes. Sonoma County’s close-knit farm community not only mourned Louie’s passing but also bid farewell to other ag greats like agriculture leader and philanthropist Saralee McClelland Kunde, Windsor rancher-goodwill ambassador Vic Pozzi, Petaluma ag teacher Bill King and Santa Rosa agricultural educator-horticulturist Jim King whose green thumb produced some of the world’s most stellar roses. Also leaving us way before their time were Healdsburg rancher and auctioneer Bruce Campbell, who was the charismatic proprietor of CK Lamb, Santa Rosa’s Tina Finali, the gentle ramrod at the fair’s Farmers Day and Bodega rancher Bruce Hagemann, an exhibitor of prized Herefords during his days as a 4-H and FFA member.
There may have been other years over the last 50 when a larger number of revered agriculture leaders and fair stalwarts died within a 365-day period but I can’t recall one. All of these departed leaders, who knew each other as part of the county’s farm and fair fraternity, were part of the intricately woven agricultural fabric of Sonoma County. Their passing puts a tear in that fabric while leaving us to wonder who will come forward to take their place.
Louie Ricci had the most longevity on the farm and fair scene, becoming a legend during his lifetime. Louie, who was 97 when he died Dec. 14, was a fixture at the Sonoma County Fair junior livestock auctions for 60 years, selling pigs, lambs and steers raised by three generations of Sonoma and Marin 4-H and FFA members. His face and voice were as familiar – and comforting – as the smell of fluffed straw in the cow barns.
Louie grew up on dairies in Bodega Bay and then set out on a career as cattle buyer with Chris Beck, a cattle dealer and cowboy active in the operation of the Sonoma County Fair. Louie learned auctioneering and eventually opened his own auction yard during the heyday of livestock ranching in California.
For nearly 40 years, Louie and his wife Claudia, who died two years ago, owned and operated the Santa Rosa Livestock Auction Yard, selling the business in 1984. The auction yard, located on Fresno Avenue in southwest Santa Rosa, was an agricultural institution where each Tuesday cows, sheep, horses and goats were bought and sold. It was the best show in town.
The Santa Rosa auction yard closed forever in 1985, a victim of the shift in agriculture production, consolidation of the livestock industry and urban development. The yard’s closing dispelled any lingering notion of Santa Rosa’s reputation as a dusty cow town.
The Santa Rosa Livestock Auction Yard’s buildings and corrals, abandoned and collapsing, are a reminder of the days when livestock, not wine grapes, was the leading agricultural industry in Sonoma County.
Louie received many honors and accolades for his dedication to agriculture and farm youth and his leadership in preserving Sonoma County’s rich farming heritage. In 2003, he was inducted into the Sonoma County Farm Bureau’s Hall of Fame for his contributions to the agricultural industry. He received awards from the Sonoma-Marin Cattlemen’s Association, the Sonoma County Fair, Harvest Fair and Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce in recognition of all he did for so many years.
Many of us thought Louie would be around forever. Even when he was in his early 90’s, Louie climbed on the stand to belt out his sing-song auctioneer’s chant to sell livestock at the fair. Up until old age and infirmity kept him away in recent years, Louie had not missed a fair auction since that day in 1947 when he jumped on a makeshift wooden platform and began taking bids for market animals entered in the fair. It marked the fair’s first junior livestock auction, something that would grow into one of California’s largest and most prestigious junior sales.
“Oh, there were only 12 or 15 lambs, a dozen hogs and six or seven steers at that first auction in 1947,” Louie recalled in an interview about the auction’s humble beginnings. Now the 4-H and FFA livestock, which includes poultry, rabbits and meat goats, is paraded into the Sonoma County Fair auction rings by the hundreds, bringing more than $1 million to the young ranchers.
Remarkably, towards the end of Louie’s days as a fair auctioneer, he was selling animals raised by the grandchildren of those 4-H and FFA members whose livestock he sold at the fair in the 40’s and 50’s. Louie loved the continuity of the ranching families who showed at the fair: they were maintaining a way-of-life he truly believed worth preserving. He always felt he was doing his small part to keep agriculture part of Sonoma County by encouraging kids in their ranching endeavors.
“I like to see the kids get as much money as they can. Some say its’ wrong to pay premium prices because it gives the kids the wrong idea but I say the extra money gives the kids a little go-get-em so they will work harder and do better,” Louie said. He was a Sonoma County Fair exhibitor himself in the 1930’s, showing a string of Jersey cattle as an award winning member of the Tomales FFA. Like many others, the fair was in his blood, part of who he was.
The Sonoma County Fair keeps going despite the passing of those who, for many of us, seemed to be the fair. When this year’s fair rolls around July 27 to Aug. 9, I will be looking, as usual, for all the familiar faces while remembering the faces from fairs past.