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Livestock auctioneer Tony Brazil a living link to Petaluma’s past

Every Monday - and every other Thursday - the Petaluma Livestock Auction opens for business. As he has for nearly sixty years, auctioneer Tony Brazil kisses his wife Theresa goodbye, drives into town from his nearby ranch, and briskly orchestrates the sale of pigs, goats and cattle.

He is 91 years old.

But it’s not longevity that sets Brazil apart. It is his steadfast commitment to supporting his community. First, there is volunteer auctioneering. For nearly seventy years he has donated his services to countless fundraisers and youth programs, including the Junior Livestock Auction of the Sonoma County Fair, helping it become one of the largest in the state. Second, he has sponsored Petaluma Little League for many years, fielding the Lucky 7 team that was named after his ranch.

Why so much volunteering for Little League?

“I was fortunate that I could afford it,” Brazil says. “A friend asked if I would sponsor a team, so I said sure.”

Many of Brazil’s stories begin with “A friend of mine….”

In the case of auctioneering, a friend needed help with an auction, so Brazil jumped in. He learned auctioneering on his own (yes, you can go to school to learn the skill) by attending auctions as a young man, shopping for livestock for his ranch.

In the family room, amidst hundreds of family photos and memorabilia, there hangs the enormous head of a bull buffalo.

“A friend had some buffalo and wanted to get rid of them,” Brazil says, beginning another story. In this one, Brazil recalls taking a buffalo cow, a calf and a bull. As he tells it, the cow fell and broke her neck, and the calf came down with pneumonia and died. As for the bull, he soon became a problem, jumping fences to mate with cows.

So Brazil had to put him down.

But he kept the head.

And there it is on the wall.

Tony Brazil was born in Sausalito in 1926 to Elias and Maria Brazil, immigrants from the Azores, a Portuguese archipelago of nine volcanic islands in the North Atlantic, about 850 miles west of Portugal. His wife Theresa’s parents were also from the Azores.

Arriving at Ellis Island in 1905, Tony’s father made his way to San Francisco and soon found work on a dairy in the South Bay. When the 1906 earthquake hit, Elias watched cattle disappear into cracks in the earth. After a stint building roads in San Mateo, he began dairy work near Muir Beach in Marin County. He went back to the Azores to marry Maria, but returned without her because she felt she should keep working to save for their future. In 1920 he went back again to bring her home to California.

They both found work at a dairy in Fort Cronkhite in Marin County. He milked cows by hand, she cooked without electricity. By the time Tony was born 1926, his father was a partner at the Bello Dairy in Muir Woods.

After graduating from Tamalpais Union High School in 1945, Brazil became a partner with his father in the dairy business. They built up a herd of about a hundred milking cows. Eventually they purchased an 800-acre ranch in Muir Woods-Franks Valley.

Here is Theresa’s explanation of how a poor dairy hand could improve his standing, taken from a book she wrote and published on Tony Brazil, so that future generations of their family would understand their roots.

“The larger dairies would [occasionally] sell to their workers 5% or 10% of the business … to encourage the workers to stay on. If in a few years the workers wanted out of this agreement, the owner would give them either cash or livestock … based on the equity they had earned. It was with this arrangement that many dairymen got started.”

Tony met Theresa at a social function of one of the many Portuguese societies in the region, some of which still function today. The couple married in 1950.

In 1955, the state bought the ranch, and in 1960, Tony and Theresa moved to Petaluma, where Brazil bought the livestock auction operation. Their fine home, on a low hill east of Petaluma, was built by the Brazil’s in 1966. The horseshoe-shaped pool is one of a kind. Tony and Theresa raised six children in Petaluma, and now enjoy ten grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Today, the auction operation is owned and managed by Brazil’s son Manuel.

“He’s a hard worker, gets up early,” says Brazil of his son. Manuel also has a slaughterhouse in Newman (Stanislaus County), where he processes about 1,500 calves a day.

As for Brazil, he and Theresa now have a modest cattle operation of about 15 head. They raise the calves to about 600 pounds, then sell them.

Brazil bemoans the rapid disappearance of animal husbandry programs like 4H for young people. He says the high cost of land here is the cause.

In terms of the area’s rich agricultural history, Brazil remains a valuable resource for any historian interested in this nearly vanished world - a world of ranchers, dairies, slaughterhouses, of Portuguese societies in many Northern California towns, a world where people worked the land, helped one another, and practiced self-sufficiency.

“I knew them all,” he says, speaking of the 18 or so auction yards that operated in Northern California in the 1930s and ’40s, and of the nearly thirty slaughterhouses started in the region in the 1920s and ’30s.

Very few such businesses remain.

“There were hundreds of small dairies in the region,” he recalls. “They’re all gone. It makes me sad.”

The sheep ranchers are gone, too. Brazil says that local predators (coyotes), protected by law, killed the sheep industry.

Was Brazil ever tempted to convert his 108 acres in Petaluma into vineyards?

Yes, briefly, he admits. He says he had the soil tested, and no surprise, it was excellent for grapes. But his heart and knowledge was always in animal husbandry.

Says Brazil, “I’m used to cows and sheep.”

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