'That Man Is Willis Hicks': The Abiding Memory Of A Vermont Auctioneer

May 4, 2015

Back in January, Vermont Edition aired an interview with the National Geographic photographer Nathan Benn, whose 1970s photographs of Vermont and beyond are on display at the Shelburne Museum in an exhibit called Kodachrome Memory: American Pictures, 1972-1990. One of the photos from the exhibition that we posted online showed a man that several people recognized, more than 40 years later.

The photograph in question has a simple title: “Eden, 1973.” (That would be the town of Eden, up in Lamoille County.) It’s of a man wearing muddy overalls in a muddy barnyard. There’s a crowd of people behind him – some standing, some sitting on the roof of a barn. And this guy, he’s got his hands all up in the face of a cow. One hand is pushing its nostrils back, and the other is pulling down its bottom lip, showing off a row of giant cow teeth.

“Baring the teeth like that, without an explanation, provides a level of ambiguity,” says Nathan Benn. “And I love ambiguity in my photographs. I like photographs that when you look at them, they don’t answer all the questions immediately."

I called Benn up at his home in Brooklyn, because I needed a lot of questions answered. I wanted to know why so many people had recognized the man in his photograph. “Isn’t that Willis Hicks?” one comment said. Someone else wrote: “That man is Willis Hicks who ran the auction at Cadys Falls. His motto was that Hicks Commission Sales was the ‘Home of the Square Deal.’” Somebody said they remembered the day Hicks came in and stopped the auction and announced that Marilyn Monroe had died and asked for a moment of silence.

Remember, this photo was taken in 1973, and there was no name in Benn’s caption. But in 2015, a bunch of people surfing around on Facebook recognized the auctioneer immediately. And seemed to have really vivid memories of him.

So, who was this guy?

There's no name in Nathan Benn's portrait of Willis Hicks, which is titled "Eden, 1973." But in 2015, several people who saw the picture on Facebook recognized the auctioneer and shared vivid memories of him.
Credit Nathan Benn / Shelburne Museum

My mission to find out started with an email to Jennifer Twombley Hicks, who had also commented on the story. I called her at work, at the Trapp Family Lodge in Stowe. She told me she was Willis’ daughter-in-law, and that he had died 10 years ago. Her memories of him were strong.

“My first job was at the Charlmont Restaurant in Morrisville,” she recalled. “And he used to come in every day, with these other old guys. And they’d sit at the counter … I was just a teenager but he’d say, ‘There’s that curly haired girl!’”

Jennifer was the first person to explain to me what exactly was going on in that photograph:

“People would ask Willis, when he brought a cow out, ‘How old is that heifer?’ People would holler that out, and he would open their mouth, and show their teeth, because you could tell from their teeth, their age,” she said.

This was kind of his trademark. As far as Vermont auctioneers went, Willis Hicks was a legend in his day. He didn’t just sell cows – he sold entire farms when the owners went under or wanted out. He sold tools and furniture. And people would come from all over to watch him call an auction, the way you’d go to a concert or a movie.

“We have a picture in our house, it’s a great big picture. It’s an overhead photograph of the Commission Sales. And there’s cars up and down both sides of the road, and the parking lot’s packed,” Jennifer said. “Lots of people knew who Willis Hicks was.”

Next I talked to Jennifer’s husband, Peter – Willis’ son.

“He quit school in eighth grade to go work on his farm with his mother, cause his father worked out,” Peter said. “And then, somehow, he got in with a guy that taught him how to auctioneer, and he started auctioneering, and did that for 21, 22 years.”

As far as Vermont auctioneers went, Willis Hicks was a legend in his day. People would come from all over to watch him call an auction, the way you'd go to a concert or a movie.
Credit Nathan Benn / National Geographic

Peter Hicks is actually in the background of the National Geographic photograph. He’s a kid of maybe 10 or 11. He said he watched a lot of auctions.  

“One time he grabbed a cow by the chain, and she went around a post and cut his finger off,” he recalled. “They sewed it back on, but he had to have it taken off later. But he was pretty rugged. There weren’t too many cows going to get away from him.”

Hicks said he was never tempted to follow his dad into the trade.

“I was more on the shy side … He was pretty outgoing. He got along good with people,” he said.

That story about Willis losing his finger checks out, by the way. The radio station WLVB 93.9-FM interviewed Willis in the 1990s, and he recounted the same story.

“Then another time, down at an Enosburg farm sale, I was selling a tractor. And they started it up, and I was standing up on the John Deere tractor, and the iron went right through my foot,” Willis said. “So it was a tough life, but somebody had to do it, so Willie did it.”

Despite how brisk business was, Peter Hicks says his dad never exactly got ahead: "He handled a lot of money, but with an eighth grade education, he didn't know how to invest it."
Credit Nathan Benn / National Geographic

I absolutely love the way he refers to himself in the third person, as Willie.

“Keep the farmers happy, keep Willie happy. We had auctions way from here to the Canadian border, New Hampshire lines,” he said. “Things have changed awful, but not for the good."

Despite how brisk business was, Peter Hicks says his dad never exactly got ahead.

“He handled a lot of money, but with an eighth grade education, he didn’t know how to invest it. And he was a born a poor man, he died a poor man, but he had a lot of fun doing it."

The Hicks farmed on the side, so Peter remembers working really hard as a kid – he’s proud of it, he appreciates the way his dad raised him. For the past 17 years, Peter’s worked as Clerk of the Works for the state of Vermont. We talked during his lunch break – in the basement of a state building in Montpelier, where he and a few guys were working on an elevator.

He says one day he was up working on the fifth floor of the state building where Governor Shumlin’s office is.

“I come around the corner, and there was a picture of my father on the governor’s floor … That was pretty neat.”

Peter Miller's photograph of Willis Hicks appears in Miller's book "Vermont People." Hicks once told Miller he guessed he'd auctioned off some 180,000 cows over the course of his career. "He saw many old timers with 25 to 35 cows cry when he sold their cows," Miller says.
Credit Peter Miller / Vermont People

This was actually a second photograph of Willis Hicks. Apparently Nathan Benn wasn’t the only artist to be seduced by Willis’s aesthetic. Peter Miller was, too.

“At the time I was living in Stowe … I knew about Willis. I had been up to Cady Falls, to his auction house,” Miller told me. “It drew people from all over the area. Backwoods people, people from local towns.”

Miller’s portrait of Willis is really similar to Benn’s. Once again, Willis is showing off a cow’s teeth. He’s wearing the same broken-in fedora and what look to be the same pair of overalls. But he looks older, maybe more tired. He once told Miller he guessed he’d auctioned off some 180,000 cows over the course of his career.

“And he saw many old timers with 25 to 35 cows cry when he sold their cows,” Miller said. “He knew that they were all done farming.”

The bulk of Willis Hicks' sales were at Vermont farms. Many were for farmers who were selling their land for development. "We had auctions way from here to the Canadian border, New Hampshire lines," Willis Hicks told WLVB in an interview in the 1990s.
Credit Nathan Benn / National Geographic

“I had one old farmer cry right in the ring. But I didn’t realize in another 25 or 30 years, I’d be as old as he was,” Willis says in his old radio interview, laughing. “It went fast!”

Peter Hicks says the bulk of his father’s sales were at Vermont farms. “Farmers that were selling their land for development. That was how they were making money,” he said. “Like, I remember on the Mountain Road in Stowe, we sold out the last farm there. Just, people that were worn out and were getting out of farming, and nobody to take it over … Some people couldn’t even stand to be there to see their cows sold, and other ones were saying, ‘Now we can have some time off.’”

I became really fixated on this idea that Willis was almost like a pivot point in Vermont’s history. He was an auctioneer at a time when small farms started to go down like dominos, just as the back-to-the-landers and the big money were arriving. And that exhibit Kodachrome Memory, where Willis’s picture is hanging, seems to show that time just before the state transformed.

The museum’s director, Tom Denenberg, told Vermont Edition in January that this was exactly what drew him to the images.

“What I so love about this project is that it captures a specific moment in time in Vermont before suburban sprawl, urban sprawl, before Pizza Hut and chain stores came here,” he said. “This sort of shows us the last of that moment of the invented ‘New England’ that is Vermont and the beginning of the Vermont of today.”

Which brings us back to Nathan Benn, the photographer from National Geographic. I wanted to know, did he mean to take a picture of a man who, regardless of his intentions, was basically facilitating the decline of the dairy industry?

“No,” he told me, and laughed. “I did not.”

Of course, it’s never that easy.

The Eden auction that Nathan Benn documented for National Geographic was on a farm belonging to a wealthy couple from Boston. They were "part-timers trying to maintain a dairy operation in Vermont, as a hobby," Benn recalls. "And it didn't work out for them."
Credit Nathan Benn / National Geographic

Benn said that he shot a lot of auctions while he was documenting Vermont for the magazine. Most of them involved local, longtime farmers getting out of the business. But this one, this one auction up in Eden, was different.

The sellers in this case were a couple whose name I think was Tabor,” he said. “One or both of them were Boston-based lawyers. And they had bought the farm as a weekend home, and probably a green acres kind of vision of pastoral life and Arcadia.

In other words, they were gentlemen farmers.

“Part-timers,” Benn continued. “Trying to maintain a dairy operation in Vermont, as a hobby. And it didn’t work out for them.”

Willis described the Eden auction this way to WLVB: “Said they couldn’t make money enough down in Boston to pay the expenses up here. So he decided to sell out, so I went up and sold the cattle for him.”

And Peter Hicks remembers that day well.

“The true Vermonters, you know, said, ‘Well, these people don’t know how to work seven days a week and how to do it, you know.’ Kind of like a joke for real Vermonters. So, that was about it,” he said. “I think they were glad to get out of it. They got into something that they didn’t understand.”

It's tempting to think of Willis Hicks' time as exceptional - a time when Vermont was more "real." But really, it was just a chapter in Vermont's history, like all the rest, when some things changed and others stayed the same.
Credit Nathan Benn / National Geographic

Benn says this renders the photograph as more of an image of “anti-gentrification” rather than gentrification.

It makes you look at the photograph in an entirely different way. Before, it looked like this timepiece, this relic of old Vermont days gone by. But knowing that the cows belonged to Boston lawyers makes everything infinitely more complicated. Vermont had already started to change, even in this vintage 1973 photograph.

“It wasn’t the end of an era. I think it’s a reach to try to think of it as an end of an era,” Benn said. “Many of the things I photographed are persistent to this day, and if you make some effort, you can find them.”

Really, it was just Willis Hicks’ era. A time when some things changed and others stayed the same. A day in Eden when the auction was perhaps just a bit more entertaining.

Willis Hicks died in 2005. When we look back on his time, it’s tempting to imagine that things were more “real.” And lament the loss of the “real Vermont.” I asked Peter Miller, who took that second photograph of Willis, if he thought that real Vermont had disappeared with Willis. “What is the real Vermont?” he said. “The real Vermont is what it’s turning into.”

Kodachrome Memory: American Pictures, 1972-1990 will be on view at the Shelburne Museum until May 25.