Cars whiz by a small brick building on Ring Road in Elizabethtown. For anyone who wants to be an auctioneer in Kentucky, their fate lies inside that building. It’s a Thursday morning, and Lisa Decker, 55, anxiously awaits the results of her test.
Decker lives in Glasgow, Kentucky. She traveled to Elizabethtown, a little more than 50 miles away, to take the test to become an auctioneer.
She doesn’t fit the auctioneer stereotype. She’s short, she doesn’t have a booming voice and she doesn’t speak particularly fast. And Decker wants to enter a field that is still overwhelmingly male-dominated. Right now, there are about 1,900 auctioneers licensed in Kentucky, and more than 90 percent are men.
Kennith Hill, executive director of the Kentucky Board of Auctioneers, walks in with a piece of paper in his hand. He congratulates Decker: She passed.
“Hallelujah, I’ve been so worried about this test,” she says, clapping her hands.
Decker just became Kentucky’s 179th licensed female auctioneer. She’s now one step closer to her dream of opening an auction house in Glasgow. In a town where Decker says there’s not much going on except for one theater and a Walmart, she says she’s happy to offer an option for people in Glasgow to socialize — and offer herself a fun way to make money.
‘If It’s For Sale, I’ve Sold It’
Martha Kurtz Williams says she’s sold everything from live pigs to a county bridge. Williams lives in Sturgis, Kentucky. She and her family have three auction offices. While Lisa Decker is the commonwealth’s newest licensed female auctioneer, Williams was its first.
Kentucky began licensing auctioneers in 1962. The first person who got a license was her dad, George Kurtz.
There are many reasons why there are so few female auctioneers — not just in Kentucky, but nationwide. Hill says the history of auctioneering goes back thousands of years, and in America, several centuries.
“During the American Revolution, if our militia groups overtook a group of the natives, then they auctioned off whatever the natives left behind,” Hill says. “Pots, kettles, guns all of that was auctioned within the group.”
He says the close ties between auctioneering and the military continued into the 19th century.
“During the American Civil War the same thing happened, but at that time, those items had to be sold by someone by the rank of colonel,” says Hill. “No one less than the rank of colonel could auction items during the Civil War.”
From the auctioning of slaves to estates, the industry has long been completely male-dominated.
Even though it sided with the union in the Civil War, Kentucky was a slave state. Slaves were usually sold here by either a sheriff or private slave dealers.
“Slaves were sold in a number of ways.” says Patrick Lewis, a historian at the Kentucky Historical Society.
Lewis says even if women had been auctioneers during that time, it would have been socially unacceptable for a woman to be a slave dealer.
“There would be no woman involved in that because women obviously in the 19th century had to be very protective of reputation,” Lewis says. “And slave trading, being something that didn’t have a great reputation to begin with, no woman is going to be involved in this.”
Sheriffs handled estate auctions. When someone died, the debt of that estate would need to be settled, so the property would be auctioned off. Lewis says the sheriff overseeing the estate auction was always a man. He says women didn’t start showing up as sheriffs until the 1880s and 90s.
“We start to see some women step into that role as women in public life becomes more acceptable,” he says.
A Family Tradition
Today, auctioneering is often a family business. People usually get into it because their dads or granddads were auctioneers, and they’re keeping the family tradition.
Caitlin Wardlow Herrell lives in Louisville and grew up seeing her dad run auctions.
“Being an auctioneer is a very special career path,” says Wardlow Herrell. “It’s one of those jobs that you can’t look at it as your job, it’s a lifestyle.”
Bid calling is the part of the job that gets the most attention. But Wardlow Herrell says it’s just a tiny fraction of what’s involved in the job.
“You go in and someone has an estate,” she says. “Their husband or their uncle and their grandma passed away. And you go in there and you’re trying to sell their stuff for them to help them pay off things or settle the estate, but you’re going in there to solve a problem.”
Wardlow Herrell is now working on a specialization that will allow her to work with families and their estates.
“You’re going through pictures of loved ones with these people, and you’re discovering things about their family members that they may not even have known,” she says. “I don’t know, it’s just a really special, humbling, intimate job that you have to put your heart and soul into.”
Wardlow Herrell and other female auctioneers say they’ve been, well, called to the profession. And they’re happy to continue the tradition across gender lines.