BELLE FOURCHE | It was a small cattle sale Thursday that started with big news.
The auction began with the announcement that the landmark Belle Fourche Livestock Exchange had been sold to Philip Livestock Auction's Thor Roseth and Jeff Long.
Dean Strong, who owned the business with his wife, Eileen, took over the Belle Fourche sale barn in 1977 after moving from Union Center, where he grew up.
On Thursday morning before the announcement, the 73-year-old man said that "36 years is long enough" when talking about the sale barn.
The sale price was not disclosed.
Truckers and tourists on U.S. Highway 212 traveling west from Belle Fourche probably wouldn't recognize the importance of the barely-seen buildings and corrals that make up the sale yard.
But last year, nearly 160,000 cattle were sold there.
Five full-time and 25 to 40 part-time employees handle the cattle and paperwork for sales that auctioneer Lynn Weischaar of Reva estimated totaled $136 million in 2012.
Weischaar told the crowd Thursday that experts claim a dollar passes through different hands five to seven times in a community. At six times, he said, the auction barn sales are worth more than $800 million to the economy of Belle Fourche and the tri-state area of South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana.
"It's the best cow country in the world," Weischaar said.
Strong said the new owners plan to keep the operation running as it has been and retain current employees.
"I know they'll do a good job," he said. "They can give me a jingle if I can help with anything."
Belle Fourche traditionally has been one of America's largest cattle markets.
The town was established in the early 1890s as the meeting place for ranchers and the railroad. Buyers packed the Northern Plains cattle they'd bought into 2,500 rail cars a month to carry them east to market.
At one time, Belle Fourche was one of America's largest livestock shipping points.
As times changed, the auction method became an increasing part of cattle sales through the 20th century.
The current livestock exchange was built about 75 years ago. It operated much as today's auction house, but with far fewer electronic gadgets for buyers and sellers.
Bankers John Johnson of Sturgis and Clay Birkeland of Belle Fourche told Thursday's auction crowd that the new owners will continue the Belle Fourche auction tradition.
"It's a great location, a great community and a great business," Roseth said. "We plan on continuing to be members of the community."