By Susan Hurt
Photos by Tony Hurt
The famous quote “behind every great man there stands a great woman” is a fitting description of Gene and Carolyn Sorrell. The Sorrells owned one of Kentucky’s largest cattle brokering companies, Fox Creek Cattle Co., selling up to 70,000 cattle a year and transporting 2,000 calves each week across the United States.
At only 5 feet 2 inches tall, Carolyn Sorrell was the woman standing behind the 6-foot-4 man that made it all happen.
Carolyn knows cattle, after all, she has been living among them all of her life. She grew up in the stockyard her father, Duard Bowles, built in Metcalfe County after World War II. You could say she learned the art of salesmanship before she learned her alphabet. She did all the jobs from writing scale tickets to washing ponies at daybreak, before riding them in the sale ring.
Her mother was one of the first women in Monroe County to earn a master’s degree in home economics from Western Kentucky University and later taught there, however, she died from leukemia when Carolyn was 3 years old, leaving her and her twin sisters to be raised by their father.
Carolyn followed in her mother’s footsteps by receiving scholarships to WKU for home economics. She worked her way through college by doing what she does best, working in a stockyard in Bowling Green, where she met her cowboy, Gene Sorrell.
It was there that Gene began observing more than the cattle. They married in 1968 and bought a farm in Bowling Green where they started their first cattle shipping business while still in college.
Her daddy thought the cattle business would be a good fit for her, she said, so “I married a man who loved the cattle business.”
In 1971 they left Bowling Green for a new opportunity in a new city. Joe Altsheler and Dill Payne owned King’s Livestock at the time and asked the Sorrells to move to Hopkinsville, where they shared their first barn on First Street, buying and selling cattle.
The business grew and in 1973 the Sorrells moved their cattle brokering business to the Pennyrile Stockyard on Princeton Road. The couple later bought the stockyard and property in 1982 and Fox Creek Cattle Co. was born.
Carolyn recalls they worked night and day.
“The hours were awful,” she said. “We would work all Friday and Saturday night and get home Sunday morning at 3 a.m.”
Juggling the cattle industry and three small daughters at the time was quite a challenge, Carolyn said. Many nights after dinner and putting the girls to bed, one of them would head back out to the barn to work.
In October 1987, on black Monday, the front barn burned to the ground. Despite the devastating loss, in 1988 Gene designed and built a new, state-of-the-art facility that is still used today.
“The object was to buy them, feed them, vet them and get them shipped,” Carolyn said. “The quicker you got them on the road and to their destination, the quicker you got your return.”
Their niche in the market was buying and selling lightweight calves.
“We shipped more 200-350 weight calves than anyone else in the country,” Carolyn recalled.
Clients could place custom orders right down to the size, color and sex of the calves and have them delivered right to their door.
“It was all about customer service, integrity and trust,” she said.
Gene was known for hitching a ride on the trucks heading out West with calves just to meet with customers or go knocking door to door for potential clients. Today it’s “cold calling,” but, for Gene, it was just plain visiting with folks.
In February 1998 at 50 years old, Gene passed away unexpectedly after heart surgery, leaving Carolyn at the helm. She never thought about selling out, she said, there were too many people depending on her so she told her clients, “I’ve got to continue, I’ve got to do this.”
As one of the first women in the cattle business, she felt a disadvantage early on in the industry because it was a men’s club.
Carolyn recalls, “I felt really shunned, the men were accepted much more than the women.”
She said it was difficult to get new customers after Gene died, and those that did come, came through word of mouth.
The cattle industry has seen many changes since its hay days of the 1980s and ’90s.
“When we first started there was an abundance of people,” Carolyn said. “They could afford the cattle and the cattle were making money.”
Since then, she said, “Your expenses went up, profits went down, and the younger generation did not want to follow in the family cattle business.”
According to Carolyn, stockyards were once the meet-and-greet place; however, today technology has infiltrated the business.
Cattle are being sold over the Internet, and the personalization has been taken out of the deal. She also feels the small farmer has been pushed out of the market.
“Today the big guys have taken over and have eliminated the little people,” she said. “My husband really liked the wheeling and dealing with the big guys — it was kind of like rolling dice most days.”
Carolyn is semi-retired now. She sold the property and barn in 2011 and works part time for the new owners, Fox Creek Cattle LLC. She still owns Fox Creek Cattle Inc., where she remains loyal to a few of her original customers, buying and selling cattle on a small scale, but leaving the day to day worries behind.
Carolyn admits their secret to success could not be replicated today. They were in the right place at the right time; however, it remains in her blood.
She visits the barn every morning for a few hours to look at the cattle and reminisce of days gone by. There is no longer the hustle and bustle and multitasking of buying and selling cattle over the phone lines — in fact, she is the only one left in the office overlooking the facility that was once her home away from home.
It seems her dad was right when he said the cattle business would be a good fit for her because she said, “I feel addicted to it after all of these years, I have to say, I just really enjoy it.”