For Buffalo Bills Days grand marshals, the beat goes on

The Nelsons’ 3-and-a-half-year-old grandson, Maverick, moves a calf through the sales process at a recent auction. Maverick loves the sales barn and the Nelsons hope the business becomes a multi-generation endeavor. SUBMITTED PHOTO
By : 
Dr. Jan Meyer
Bluff Country Reader

Fifteen years ago, this newspaper featured a story about the Lanesboro Sales Commission, better known as the “sales barn.” That article described the “beat” of the place, a cadence and rhythm not apparent until one steps inside to see what is going on. (Bluff Country Reader, 12/03/2003).

That steady beat over the years is just one of the many reasons why Barb and Joe Nelson were selected to be this year’s Lanesboro grand marshals. They will preside over the annual Buffalo Bill Days celebration running Aug. 3, 4 and 5, and the Nelsons will head up the parade beginning at 1:30 on Sunday, Aug. 5.

Selecting individuals for the honor of being grand marshal is never an easy task for the Buffalo Bill Days Committee. According to Chair Lori Bakke, community service ranks high on the list of criteria. Impact of that service also counts, and many times it is impact that goes beyond the obvious. And character is important! The decision is made more difficult because there is a lot of competition: Lanesboro has a wealth of people who contribute to the success of the community.

The Nelsons’ qualifications made them the obvious choice for this year’s honor. The longevity of their contributions to local development, community support, area agriculture, small farmers, and other local businesses stands out. All of those activities provide clear examples of quality and positive personal characteristics.

Longevity of service

The importance to the community of Lanesboro of the sales barn’s ongoing rhythm started with its origin in 1946. The Nelsons have owned the operation for almost half of its 71 years of existence, having purchased it from the original owners. The business itself has been in operation longer than any other in town. It employs more local people than any other business in the immediate area. The Nelsons are well-known and respected for having longtime employees.

That doesn’t happen by accident. The Nelsons have developed a leadership style that creates a culture of caring: employees care for each other and about the job. Joe and Barb’s leadership style is to “treat people the way you’d like to be treated.” Early on, they knew that “you surround yourself with good people who have the same values and work ethic that we have.”

Every Wednesday, the sales barn has a slaughter cattle auction, which is one of the largest finished-cattle auctions in the Midwest. On Fridays it holds the regular livestock auction, selling all classes of livestock. Special feeder cattle auctions are held on Mondays during fall and winter. The restaurant is open on sale days.

The only minor changes that have occurred are that the entire bid recording system is now computerized, making it even more user-friendly. Results are more quickly available. Combined with long-term employees, that creates a stable environment in these times when everything seems to be changing.

As Joe said, they “stay the course.”

Far-reaching impact

The success of the Lanesboro Sales Commission might be summed up in one word: reputation. Sellers have confidence that when they bring their livestock to Lanesboro, they will be treated well and will get top dollar. The buyers know they will find excellent livestock, and are there every week. Having multiple buyers on site increases competition, leading to better payback. And sellers know, after the sale, they can walk up to the counter and get their check for sales immediately.

In addition to being a major employer and taxpayer in Lanesboro, the sales barn aids in the development of area agriculture and small farmers. The site draws sellers and buyers from far and wide; doing business with the sales barn instills confidence and is a sort of safety net for sellers.

A less obvious impact is on local businesses. Not only does the sales barn have a reputation for being a good place to do business, that reputation has spread to include the Lanesboro community.

Spouses of farmers coming to Lanesboro now regularly come along and shop the local stores while awaiting the end of the day’s sale. That leads to trips to the area at other times and for other purposes, and increases both the visibility and economy of the local establishments.

Some sales barn clients regularly stay overnight before or after the sale, and have become regulars at the local hotels or inns and restaurants. And some tourists have discovered and regularly visit the barn’s restaurant and enjoy the fun of observing a sale.

According to Bakke, as far back as memory serves, the Nelsons have sponsored Buffalo Bill Days, including but not limited to fireworks, horse wagon rides, children’s games and pedal pulls during the annual celebration.


The far-flung reputation of the Nelsons’ Lanesboro Sales Commission is directly related to and an example of the characters of its owners. Barb and Joe seem to be “on the same page” about all of the important issues. When asked what has been the most challenging over the years, the visceral response from both was that of puzzlement. The question was reworded: what has been the biggest problem. That evoked from both the response that “we don’t really have problems. Maybe more like opportunities?”

That, in a nutshell, could sum up the basic character of the Nelsons. They are positive and optimistic people and bring that to the business to create what is obviously a team effort. And add integrity to the mix.

Obviously, background contributes to character. Both grew up in the area, she living near Newburg on a dairy farm and he on a beef/hog farm near Amherst. They married in 1984, and Barb is a registered nurse at Gundersen’s Spring Grove Clinic. Through a set of circumstances, in 1985 Joe and Barb had the opportunity to buy into Lanesboro’s sales barn, and have been there ever since.

They’ve lived on the same farm near Mabel since marrying, and recently celebrated 34 years of marriage. Over time, they’ve developed a partnership that works well for them and for the good of others.

When asked about almost anything, the responses have a similar undercurrent.

They said, “We are lucky to have good breeders so we have a consistent supply of super cattle. We are fortunate to have some of the best cattle in the country. We couldn’t do it without great employees and customers.”

When asked what has been most rewarding about these years, it again was a typical low-key Nelson response: it was about others. They feel rewarded when farmers and ranchers are successful with their livestock. They feel rewarded by their relationships with other people and with their employees.

What the future holds

The Nelsons are hopeful of continuing the legacy of the sales barn in this community far into the future.

They have two children. Their son, Matthew, and his wife, Jordan, have two children: son Maverick and daughter Quinn. Three-and-a-half-year-old Maverick loves the sales barn. He recently has been seen guiding calves through the sales process with his own paddle. The Nelsons’ daughter, Kayla, and husband, Gabe Chase, have a daughter, Claire. Kayla works at both Lanesboro Sales Commission and the Decorah Sales Commission.

Out of that start by the next generation, the Nelsons are optimistic the business will stay in the family, and their vision will live on.

The Nelsons expressed feeling very honored to have been selected as the 2018 Lanesboro Buffalo Bill Days Grand Marshals. Lanesboro, in turn, is lucky to have them as part of the community.

An unseen benefit of their selection is they are motivating to others: they are truly role models in many ways. In the meantime, the beat, cadence and rhythm quietly goes on in the background at the sales barn.