Eulogy for Farm Auctions
by Lynn R. Miller
Here we are at the unmarked grave in which, as so much trash, modern society has buried the smoking embers of live auctions. It deserves better. It was often good to me. So I’m here to say a few words in remembrance.
It was the early seventies. The display ad in the classified section of the regional farm newspaper read:
Liquidation Auction – 70 years Accumulation
It went on listing everything from dishware to horse drawn implements, antique furniture to hand tools, used fencing materials to two old trucks, tube crystal radios to sheep panels, pipe fittings to boxes of bolts.
All sales final. Everything goes.
It’ll be a long day, bring a coat, a way to haul your stuff
and a shoe box full of cash.
Come to the Scheldaw Century Farm on Chicken Road
3 miles this side of Dexter. Watch for sign.
I, a very young man and hungry to have a farm of my own, was managing a small goat dairy for an absentee owner. The farm paper was on the table at the neighbor’s house. I read the ad over five or six times and felt a terrible magnetic itch. I didn’t have any money to spare, a few bucks waiting to swell to enough to pay for a new coat and some groceries. I didn’t know anything about auctions except what I garnered from little snatches – don’t know where I saw them – here and there – of how a guy could get caught scratching his nose and end up buying something, slices of the singsong banter of the auctioneer pulling in people’s attention, the air filled with an urgency like a race underway, a woman walking around in front of a gathering of folks with a lamp held up high for viewing.
It couldn’t hurt…
I would go just for a few minutes to get an inside look at how a farm liquidation auction works. Just a few minutes… it couldn’t hurt…
Colonel John the auctioneer, fresh-shaved, fifty-something, round witch-hazel-scented face, blue eyes like propane flames, starched white shirt with glistening pearl snaps, string tie, stockman’s hat kicked back, microphone in one hand. He slammed the lectern a few times with his gavel/hammer and gave a preacher-like prelude, describing with barely sincere words the old couple who were moving to a nursing home and the “incredible” (his word) assortment of a lifetime of treasures they were now forced to part with and how today was my lucky day because I, yes he was talking straight at me, was going to be able to name my price and take them all home. “You’ll need to register for a bidder’s number, son, over at the table in back. We’re gonna get started in two flicks of Jaybird’s tail, don’t tarry and miss out. As ol’ Pappy used to say ‘Late to Bid and Sure to Cry.’ We start in five minutes sharp.” Rattatattat, went the hammer.
I was hooked and didn’t know it yet. Went to the table and got myself a bidder’s card with a number 37 on it. I then wandered in amongst the displayed items on tables and across the wide yard and barn lot. Right on time I could hear the small PA system and that tightly wound singsong voice.
“Three shovels, a sledge and all those handles for one money.” Hammer slam.
“Ayaaaaaaaaabidderbidderbidder-who’llbeadollarbillnowwho’llbeadollar bill, willyabeadolla-hookedonboys-dollahalf,dollahalf-onefiti,onefiti-thankyou- twodollanow,twodollabill-Annnnnnnnd-bidderbidderbidder-dollahalfonce, onefititwice, SOLD-dollafiti” Hammer slam. “To that man in the black hat, number 12.”
“Boysboysboys! Don’t dally. We got a lot a items to get through today. Put your hands in the air, yell out. You take too long, you lose. Next item?”
Three seconds, four tops, and something was already sold? It was too much to gather in, too fast, I needed to slow this train down somehow! Not wanting to lose out, I felt my feet pull me in closer and and my head swing right and left as I raced to understand what just happened. What sold for a dollar and a half? Then I started to feel it for the first time, the swirl. It was a carousel, everything a carousel, spinning. There were lights where there were none, sounds that morphed to musical notes, colors spinning together, and if there was ever a break in the banter, even for a half second, it was either confusion, laughter, or angry drama but none of those things could escape the movement, the spinning, the inertia, the trajectory. All these things need to sell and there is a limited time to get through it. Keep moving, keep moving. And the bidders, they were in on it, they all seem to understand the ins and outs, all but me.
“Heynowbidderbidderbidder – nowwho’llbetwenniedollabillnow – who’llbeatwenniedollabill – willyouabbeatwennie – hookedonboys — weain’tabackinupnow – twenniedollahalf, twenniehalf – thankyou-thirtytoyousir…”
“First time?” The old man leaned in to whisper into my ear.
“No, no… yes, well, I haven’t been to many.”
“You tell me the truth and I’ll do the same for you.”
Looking down at my shoes. “Yes, first time.”
“Okay, so listen up. You need to back away from the auction ring right now. Go walk around and look at the items out there in the yard. You needn’t bid on anything right here because you haven’t had the time to figure out whether or not it’s a good item or a bad one, whether or not you need it or don’t. Get that auctioneer’s voice off in the background. He’s a devil. You owe it to yourself to back away and listen from a distance. If you sneak a peek at what’s selling you are a goner. Go out there in the yard and look and poke at stuff. You see something you think you might want to bid on come find me. My name is Phil by the way, Phil Nichols.”
I tried to smile through my embarrassment as I walked away. Years later, decades in fact, I would understand that this moment, all of it, the tease of the auction show and the lesson-taunt of the new friend, the confusing swirl, all of it was a gift.
Time passed. Being both a quick study and a darned fool, I kinda figured things out those first years. I was most definitely becoming a big fan. Not addicted, nope. Well, maybe just a little. Anything there was about it seemed to get under my skin. As my farming adventures grew, I took advantage of livestock auction barns to both buy and sell. There, in that venue, it was all major league stuff. Mostly a man’s world. Lots of tobacco juice and chili-dog flatulence. Professionals with the subtlest moves and knowing postures, finger tip to the nose, tug of the ear, flip of the collar, tip of the cap. Buying twenty head or more at time, and buying for six or seven customers at the same time. Fist full of notated cards. “Put ‘em on Tom, number 3.” Stopping the flow, bending the chatter their own way with a quick slicing move, flat of the hand down, across the neck, which out west meant cut the asked bid in half…
“fortyfi-fortyfi-fortyfi- fortytwofity- thankyou nowfortyfi.”
Or the perfectly timed interruption, the cagey bidder hollering out “Where you at? I (pointing to himself) was forty-five.” Leaving the runaway auctioneer reaching for a new truth, untangling suspicions long as a Florida panhandle snake.
And then, cat of a different stripe, there were the farm liquidation auctions, brought on by debt or old age or change of life. It was to these I went in search of parts, pieces, implements, supplies. It was here I once bought a two hundred pound trunk full of cans of bolts, nuts, washers, pins, bushings – it was like the auctioneer took every single well-organized can off the old farmer’s work bench and stuck them in this wooden carpenter’s tool chest and put a auction tag in each can and one on the trunk itself. Late in the afternoon, with the antique buyers wandering off, there were a few guys and gals to bid on the scattered old junk in the yard, the tailings. Then the auctioneer, portable mic and pack, comes to the pallet on which sat fifteen different chain binders, each tagged, and that bolt trunk, the auctioneer was getting tired and cranky.
“On the binders, bidder take one or all, time’s the money – who’llbetwennie, twenniedollabill-ten? alright let’s move along now, who’llbefiteen,fiteen,fiteen? SOLDtendollabill, bidder number 16, what’s your pleasure ma’am? Believe I’d take ’em all at that money, believe I would, now.”
“I’ll take the red one.”
“Lady, lady, lady, they could all be red with a rattlecan.”
“Ok, fourteen binders left, take ‘em all times the money, no choosing. Who’llbea tendollabillnowbidderbidderbiddertendollabillnow, FIVE? neverwouldathoughtof that,fidollabill,once,twice,SOLD. That’s fourteen times the money, mark it to #43. Now, we got to move along, gonna speed this show up, selling the trunk and everything in it one money. Who’llbeatwennie?” My arm shot in the air.
“Who’llbetwenniefi.” Another bidder jumped.
“Thirty,thirty?” My turn again. My hand went up and my heart was racing as I tried to stay ahead of the river flow of the sale. But I didn’t need to worry, the auctioneer was set to make his point. We all had to get our hands in the air or miss out. His speeding up the auction ended up being my great reward.
“SOLD, thirtydolla to the young man.”
“Moving right along. We got a hundred or so broken gate hinges…”
Forty-eight years later, I’m still using nuts, washers and pins from that trunk I bought for thirty dollars. Last week at the hardware store one 1/2” x 5” bolt was priced at $1.49. Real time math.
I’ve been deep-rooted in the country auction world for 5 decades; as a rapt spectator, as a buyer, as an appraiser, as a seller, as a manager, as a long distance dealer, finally as a manager and facilitator. Starting in the early seventies, I retired hard and final back in 2013. Lots of good and painful reasons but perhaps most telling was that this age of the internet ‘changed’ auctions, stripped them of their immediacy, their live action drama, their truest sanctified value as a revivalesque theater of barter, their real-time service as appraisal, their critical place as moments of chase, maneuver, income and discovery. The way that repeated niche auctions, aimed square at a segment of the populace, had to armor and enliven possibilities for those people simply can’t be done otherwise.
The auctions I did for thirty-five years were all about horse drawn paraphernalia and the miscellany of small farms. Buyers and sellers came from all over North America with some from Europe and Oceana. Because we positioned it thus and because it was needed, our auction events became four dimensional theater with a strong dose of education. They, after a few years, grew to become an annual rendezvous. The events grew the community in very tangible ways… Until the acids of social networking and the internet shut them down.
The age of the internet has canceled so much of what it used to mean to be human. In rural parts of this country cultural centerpieces, such as live, in-person auctions, have been or are being killed off. When everybody with a smart phone became a instant expert appraiser, knowledgeable experienced and dedicated people found themselves ducking for cover.
To trust tangible rules of mastery, to be usefully reticent, to be sneaky-human in good ways, to be given a clear view of the edges of one’s own community, to ‘see’ value where others don’t, to orchestrate lives towards real signature, to people one’s own absurdities, to feel the pocket jingle of truest economies, that’s a partial listing of what country auctions have helped do for individuals and communities for hundreds of years. Out west the tradition was as new as the country, a work in progress. But back easterly, it was a whole different story.
I found myself drawn back to the North American Midwest, that cornerstone of farm auctions – not always good, not always constructive. They were the weapon of choice for banks, private lenders and landlords to quickly dispose of a pile of problem items, a way to turn the treasures of poor and hard luck people into ready cash for big shots. Nowhere more so than the heartland of the US and Canada. Thankfully not all auctions followed those curses. Many were consignment sales where a community knew they might trade up or make a few dollars off junk to help pay bills.
I had immersed myself in niche publications that went into some detail describing auctions in Iowa, Indiana and Ohio, events that offered draft horses and mules plus anything related to farming, all for sale to the highest bidders. I had met people in Oregon and Washington who made the trek annually bringing home animals and gear for a fraction of the cost they have in the West. I determined I had to go.
I’ve already written, in a recent editorial, about making a trek in the seventies to purchase Belgians and Percherons at an Iowa auction. At about that time draft horse and equipment auctions were starting to spring up all across the western states. Small affairs centered sometimes on the liquidation of one family’s animals and implements. Sometimes they were put together to help a draft horse club make some money. By the mid-seventies it was possible for a devotee/trader to travel from March through November and hit a different auction at least every two weeks, all across North America. And that was just draft horse related. If you included general farm auctions, antique tractors, breeders sales for livestock, and many other categories there could be hundreds of sales a year.
In 1978 Ray Drongesen and I put together our first draft horse and equipment auction at a small fairgrounds in Oregon. That began a 35-year run of conducting auctions. There were many good and outstanding years mixed in, a few big losers, none more so than the last. To this day there are fine folks and dear friends who honestly believe the auction would have continued except for the failings of I and my crew. When they hear me blame social change it angers them. They do not agree. I do not choose to argue the points other than to say what I have. I honestly believe that the loss of the live auction market is nearly complete and entirely regrettable. The complex human entanglement that is the auction world is, I believe, not available anywhere else in human experience.
One aspect of that entanglement is the world and mythology of auction dealers. Of the army of auction traders I was, for a few years, but a small player, yet one who kept several tally sheets. Yes, I was able to make good money buying low and selling higher. Yes, I had my share of mistakes. And yes I value the time as a best college of human nature and true economics. Now, now, I lament the vital community that has slipped from us.
If I have it in my power and time, I hope to chronicle the auction traders I knew and dealt with, but that is a book for another time.
Those were the hey days or hay days of live farm, and farm related auctions, from the seventies and into the first decade of the twenty-first century. They are gone now and much of the culture of the countryside is shallower and thinner for it.