Ray Lum was born on 25 June 1891 in Rocky Springs, Mississippi, a rural community of about seventy-five people located on the Natchez Trace. His grandmother reared him, and during childhood he milked cows, herded cattle and goats, and trained horses. At the age of twelve he moved to Vicksburg and spent two years as a delivery boy for local stores. His trading career began at fourteen, when he bought a horse for $12.50 and sold it for $25.00. However, in another of his earliest transactions, he sold his wagon and team of goats in Port Gibson for $20 after being promised $25. He later recalled, “That was one of the best lessons I ever got. That was the best five dollars ever I earned.” He was beaten in this trade but afterwards was “awake.” He learned from his mistakes and quickly became a shrewd judge of animals and people, embarking on a career during which he bought and sold livestock in every area of the United States. His base of operations was Vicksburg, where at one time he owned five stables and hundreds of horses and mules.
As a young man, Lum traded with gypsies who were said to “hoodoo” horses, making plugs look like fine animals. From Vicksburg he traveled up the Sunflower River into the Mississippi Delta to sell horses and mules to farmers. Shortly thereafter he began making regular trips to Texas to acquire the trainloads of stock that he auctioned at his three barns in Vicksburg.
Lum moved to Texas in 1922 and established a central sale barn in Fort Worth that was managed by his partner and ring man, Harry Barnett. Lum then set up local sales throughout West Texas. He shipped stock to every barn in the region and personally auctioned the animals on a partnership basis with his local managers. During this time he introduced night sales, where both buyers and stock could escape the Texas heat. In 1937 Lum returned to live in Vicksburg and introduced registered Hereford cattle into the Deep South to upgrade the quality of beef.
As late as 1967 he auctioned uninterrupted for hours at large sales in Atlanta and Birmingham. Failing eyesight eventually forced him to withdraw from the extended auctions of his earlier years because he could no longer see bids. Until just prior to his death, Lum drove each week to sales in Lorman, Vicksburg, Port Gibson, Natchez, and Hazlehurst, filling his large car with “everything pertaining to a horse.” Bridles, bits, and currycombs were piled on the dashboard; boxes of hats and boots covered the backseat; saddles filled the trunk; and cans of ribbon cane syrup lined the back floor.
As a trader, Lum was adept at both humor and deception. At times he offered customers veiled truths that only seasoned traders would understand. He defined a trader as “a man that trades in everything. A real trader don’t never find nothing that he can’t use. If he is a trader—and you’re looking at one right now—he will trade you for anything you have got. If he can’t use it, he’ll find someone else that can. There is lots of people that can take a pocketknife and run it into a barrel of money, and there are a lot of people that you can give a barrel of money and won’t be long until they won’t even have the pocketknife. It’s all in who it is trading. Yes sir, I think traders are born.” Lum preserved his world through tales of men and animals he knew: “When you get eighty-five years old, you outlive all your friends. That’s the bad part of being old; you can’t find nobody to talk to about things that happened back there. They’re all gone. You live and learn. And then you die and forget it all.”
- William Ferris, You Live and Learn. Then You Die and Forget It All: Ray Lum’s Tales of Horses, Mules, and Men (1992)
- Ben Green, Some More Horse Tradin’ (1972)
- Edward Mayhew, Illustrated Horse Management, Containing Descriptive Remarks upon Anatomy, Medicine, Shoeing, Teeth, Food, Vices, Stables (1864)