The (Real) Most Interesting Man in the World: Remembering Bob Cage

 

Bob Cage. Photo by Morgan Miller/Virginia Folklife Program.
Bob Cage. Photo by Morgan Miller/Virginia Folklife Program. 

The sad news of the passing of our dear friend Bob Cage, at 91, brings me back to the first moment I pulled up to Bob’s property in South Boston, Virginia, and was absolutely astonished. This was not a unique response—Bob’s “Sculpture Farm,” I later learned, is a legendary destination for those hunting “outsider artists” and their “art environments.” Countless towering works of art, constructed mostly of steel and other scrap metals, dotted the green sprawling landscape. The grass was pristinely manicured by a family of goats, for whom Bob built a cascading stairway so that they can cross his small farm road. At first I mistakenly assumed that I must be taking in the work of many artists, as there appeared to be no particular style or pattern to them. But I soon learned that they were all Bob’s—each arising from the expansive imagination of an artist with no boundaries and no fear.

Bob Cage's Sculpture Farm
Bob Cage’s Sculpture Farm in South Boston. This Goat Bridge allows goats to cross the farm’s entrance road.
Bob Cage's Sculpture Farm in South Boston, VA . Photo coutesy Elvert Xavier Barnes Photography.
Bob Cage’s Sculpture Farm in South Boston, VA. Photo courtesy Elvert Xavier Barnes Photography.

While the sheer breadth of Bob’s work, in this most unique of galleries, routinely engenders in its viewer a sense of wonder and awe, my experience was particularly charged because I simply had no idea that Bob was a sculptor. I had come to see Bob because he was one of the world’s greatest and last remaining tobacco auctioneers.

I first learned of Bob through his appearance in a VFH-supported film by independent filmmaker Jim Crawford titled Down in the Old Belt: Voices from the Tobacco South. The film explored the all-encompassing institution of tobacco farming in Halifax and surrounding counties, just before its precipitous decline. While the film showcased many memorable folks involved in all aspects of tobacco, I was particularly drawn to the remarkable verbal art of the tobacco auctioneering chant, and of one auctioneer in particular. For as much as he had in so many aspects of his life, Bob Cage stole the show.

I contacted Bob shortly after viewing the film, asking if I could pay him a visit, and if he would be interested in taking on an apprentice in tobacco auctioneering. He regaled me with remarkable stories from the auction pits, and of the many colorful characters whom he met along the way. But then my heart sank a bit as he told me that he saw no purpose in apprenticing someone in the craft. For as the film reveals, the practice of selling tobacco through live auction ended in 2000, replaced by a system of direct contracts between growers and tobacco companies, thus rendering the tobacco auctioneer obsolete. “I’m a dinosaur now… Bones,” he said to me in a dry wit that I have cherished over the years. I finally convinced him to go through with it, apprenticing Crawford himself, explaining that the tobacco auctioneers’ chants were more than a means of commerce, but were an important vanishing verbal art. Jim’s apprenticeship with him would be unique, and would focus on recording the craft of the auctioneer and the stories around it. The apprenticeship resulted in critically important documentation such as this:

Bob was a native of Halifax, where “Bright Leaf” tobacco was king. It made Danville a bustling and prosperous city, with more than forty blocks dedicated to the industry with twist and plug manufacturers, pricing and brokers houses, stripping and stemming houses, and auction warehouses. Bob’s own personal connection to it began when his mother married a local tobacco warehouse owner. Danville is credited with creating its own unique method of selling tobacco, known as the “Danville System,” where fresh grown tobacco was auctioned off in small piles on the warehouse floor. Bob spent much time around tobacco auctions, and became enthralled with the auctioneers, studying them closely.

After serving in World War II, Bob returned home and taught himself the craft, soon becoming one of the most sought after tobacco auctioneers in the region. A good auctioneer was priceless to tobacco sellers and auction house owners, as their hypnotic rhythms managed to dictate the pace of the bids and drive up the sale. With the right auctioneer, literally hundreds of thousands of pounds of tobacco could be sold in several hours. Auctioneers of Bob’s caliber were able to enjoy lucrative careers, often working several hours a day, four days a week. Cage’s talents were unparalleled. He won multiple national tobacco auctioneering contests, and took his talents beyond the auction houses of Virginia, including for several years working as an auctioneer in Rhodesia (the region now known as Zimbabwe). “I absolutely loved the work,” Bob once told me, “It just came so easy for me. I’d go in, make my money, and get out. I’d sit out in my car, reading a book. And then when I said it was time to start, they knew they better be ready to dance or they’d go home empty handed.”

One thing I’ve come to learn in my work with gifted traditional artists over the years is that rarely are they defined by one single passion. To say that Bob used his leisure time wisely is beyond an understatement. Bob was always a standout athlete, and played tennis well into his eighties, achieving national ranking status. And while he had countless other passions, Bob’s work as an artist was astonishingly prolific, and his sculptures and paintings can be seen not only on his sprawling sculpture farm but all over downtown South Boston and the region, particularly at the Prizery, a vibrant community arts center in a renovated turn of the century tobacco warehouse.

Bob was a dedicated patron and advocate for the Prizery, which is home to the Robert F. Cage Gallery named in his honor. The Prizery was one of several projects and causes Bob championed, and he remained an active and vocal activist in local affairs, particularly those concerning the environment. He was one of the strongest voices in the local fight against uranium mining.

Bob was just shy of his eightieth birthday when I met him, and he was a tour de force—dashingly handsome, quick-witted, and comically-genius. He was to me the epitome of cool. He was like that guy in the commercials they call “the most interesting man in the world,” only Bob was real. I feel so blessed to have had the chance to spend time with Bob, and bring him to many festivals and showcases over the years. His demonstrations at these events, including the National Folk Festival in Richmond and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall, were incredibly profound to audiences and did much to educate the public about the history of tobacco and it’s dominant historical place in Virginia and the Carolinas.

His festival presentations were also first and foremost downright entertaining, though it was always a bit harrowing from my position as the presenter. First, Bob’s appearance often hinged on him losing in the semi-finals of some 75-and older national tennis tournament. Then once you had him there, you never knew quite where Bob was going once he got on stage. He seemed to always just appear right before it was time to go on, and then he’d often spend the first twenty minutes or so telling jokes. These often teetered right on that murky edge of decorum, only heightening my tension. Fortunately these were always funny enough that they would pierce through my anxiety about whether or not he was ever going to get around to talking about tobacco. One of my favorite jokes of his was the one about his friend who lost both his ears. Bob asked the guy what happened, and he explained that he had received a phone call in the middle of the night, and being that the room was dark and that he wasn’t quite awake, he mistakenly picked up a hot iron (that he also mistakenly left on) and burned his ear off.

“So I asked him what happened to his other ear,” Bob told the audience, which he now held completely in his hands, “and he said ‘Do you believe that son of a bitch called back?'”

As the thunderous laughter subsided Bob quickly transported the audience to a well worn wood warehouse floor. And when he at last started chanting, as well as mimicking the special individualized styles of many of his legendary contemporaries and predecessors, we were all—much like his long-ago buyers from RJ Reynolds, Phillip Morris, and others—completely entranced by his voice. Once again Bob got in there, did his thing and got out, and we all danced to the rhythm of his voice.

—Jon Lohman, December 2014

Bob Cage’s Sculpture Farm (photos by Elvert Barnes)

Bob Cage’s Paintings

The Dying Strains of a Song of the South  – St. Petersburg Times

Discussion

4 Comments on “The (Real) Most Interesting Man in the World: Remembering Bob Cage”

  1. Pamela Barefoot

    I got to know Bob Cage in 1977-1978 while photographing and interviewing for my book, Mules & Memories: A Photo Documentary of the Tobacco Farmer. There are a couple of photos of Bob in action in my book. He introduced me to a lot of tobacco farmers in the Danville VA and Upper Marlboro MD area. We remained friends through all these years, though I moved on to my new business, Blue Crab Bay Co., on Virginia’s Eastern Shore in 1985. Bob always told me, “You won’t go down in history for your business, you will go down in history for that tobacco book.” Who knows! I last visited Bob in November 2010 and enjoyed his sculpture studio and garden, he was on the verge of getting married! A true Renaissance man.

    1. Howard Talley

      I met Bob in the fall of 1981 in Maysville, Ky. Through a most fortuitous accident
      of timing and my 3rd-generation tobacco pedigree, I had landed a job marking tickets
      in the largest Burley tobacco market in the world after only 3 months marking in a
      backwater SC market under my belt.
      More serendipity occurred when I drew Cage as my auctioneer on that first day. It was
      customary for the 3 teams of autioneers and ticket markers to ride together so I rode
      with Bob since he knew his way around town. We arrived at the Home Warehouse about
      3 minutes before sale and lined up to start the sale. Off we go, until Bob knocked a
      pile to ‘Ron-John’ on the first row. I stopped the sale and said, ‘Who the hell is Ron-John?’
      Bob rolled his eyes and told me later that he thought, ‘it’s gonna be a long day with this kid’.
      ‘That would be Reynolds’, he said. The sale went smoothly after that.

      Driving down 2nd street on our way to the next warehouse , he suddenly stopped his car
      in the middle of the street, jumped out, leaving the car door open, and intercepted a nice-
      looking woman walking down the sidewalk. They huddled for a couple of minutes then
      Bob jumped back into the car. I asked him who that woman was. He said, ‘I don’t know.
      She just looked interesting to me! We’ve got a date tonight’.
      At lunch that day, I noticed that Bob brought several art magazines in with him. I asked
      him why he did that as he had not looked at any of them. He said, ‘in case you bore me’!
      And, thus a beautiful friendship was born.

      Some things you might not know about Bob that makes him the most intersting man in
      the world to me:

      After the War, he gave tennis lessons at the Beverly Hills Hotel Tennis Club. Among his
      pupils were Kate Hepburn, Douglas Fairbanks, W.C.Fields and sundry other Hollywood
      stars.

      Bob always had a ‘project’ going on. The first one I observed was the building of his lake
      with a little island at his farm. He so enjoyed creating things out of the land, tree stumps, and
      other ‘found’ objects. He mounted several of his sculptures on the island. I named it
      Easter Island. I also named many of his sculptures which annoyed him no end. He did
      not like to name his paintings or his sculptures. I gave names to all of the sculptures
      over the years. The Conquistadores, LEM (Lunar Excursion Module) and so on.

      Another project was his purchase of the house near South Boston that he called Glen Mary.
      The architect was one of Thomas Jefferon’s pupils.and Bob wanted to preserve and restore it,
      which he did. He also built a tennis backboard there so he could hit and give lessons to
      some lucky few.

      Another example of his love of ‘creating’ was the Goose Mountain project. One day, after
      sale in South Boston (where I also worked with Bob for several years), he said, ‘Come ride
      with me and help me look.’ ‘For what?’, I asked. Bob had bought a lot up on Goose
      Mountain which was mostly a sharp vertical drop of 50 feet or so down to the shores of
      the Staunton River. He already had a vision of an A-frame cabin whose foundation was
      the base of a semi-trailer, cantilevered out from the bluff. We were searching junk yards
      for the properly configured trailer. A couple of years later I spent a lovely weekend
      there as it had become reality.

      In his early years as an auctioneer, Bob worked for several seasons in Rhodesia
      (now Zimbabwe). While there, he met a local professional tennis player named Don
      Black. They liked to hit the local bars and, one night, Bob chatted up a woman who
      did not appeal to him, so he introduced her to Don. They hit it off and Don soon
      married her, producing 3 children who are playing professional tennis today:
      Byron, Wayne and Cara Black. Don was appreciative enough that he gave Bob a
      Wimbledon locker key (Don made Wimbledon’s third round a couple of times).
      It was one of Bob’s most prized possessions. You could say that Bob is indirectly
      responsible for 3 professional tennis players!

      Bob and I had several years-long running jokes. One involved his vanity license
      plate which was JCHMOM. I spent maybe 10 years trying to guess what it stood
      for until I finally admitted defeat….’Jesus Christ Have Mercy On Me’. I was stunned
      because I thought he was a devout Buddhist since he liked to spend the odd week,
      now and then, at monasteries near Conway, SC and Cincinnati, OH.
      Another one came about when I asked him to ‘paint me a painting’. I loved Bob’s
      abstract painting style…but not enough to buy one. Every year when I’d see him
      in Maysville, I would ask him how my painting is coming along. He’d always say,
      ‘I’m working on it. It’ll be done soon.’

      I’m so thankful that I got to see Bob one last time a month before he died. I had
      heard through the grapevine that he was ill with Parkinson’s and tracked him down
      at his wife’s home in Raleigh. I got a smile from him when I asked how my painting
      was coming along. He managed to get out, ‘Other room….Almost done.’

      Bob Cage taught me to live every day like it’s your last and to squeeze every last
      drop of joy out of life…as he certainly did!

  2. Amy Martin

    GETTING MARRIED?????????? AGAIN????????????
    A few family members and I visited his sculpture garden at xmas time several years ago. I see from the photos he has added many more works of art since then. One funny story he told us: One moonlit night he discovered a young couple on the edge of the lake in front of his house, without permission. They were in the middle of making whoopee. So Bob decided to scare them with a shot from his gun (over their heads of course). He reached into the drawer, pulled out a bullet, loaded the gun, pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. Upon closer inspection, he discovered he had inadvertently pulled out a tube of chapstick instead of a real bullet. He laughed at his mistake as heartily as the rest of us. His helper in the shop, Malcolm, was also an interesting person, and I believe Bob relied on him quite a bit. Bob had stacks and stacks of “paintings” in that shop which he had done as therapy after his daughter died. I have always regretted that I did not try to purchase one of those. requiescant in pace 12-13-2014

  3. Shannon Wilson

    I visited Bob’s farm with my family and he was most gracious and accommodating. Bob was definitely an iconoclast and certainly one of the most unique people to ever hail from Halifax, Va. I’m sorry to hear the news of his death and hope there’s some way to preserve his art farm for future generations to see.