“Going once, twice, sold!” patters the auctioneers as he transfers ownership of an old wedding ring quilt to a buyer as the crowd moves from the flatbed display wagon to let the woman who purchased the heirloom retrieve it. As soon as she moves back into her place, the crowd around the temporary sales booth realigns itself like some giant amoeba shifting and reforming. Many become one on a sunny morning on the prairie.
One of the pleasures of living a country life is attending country auctions. Normally isolated lanes fill with more vehicles than the road has seen in years; neighbors see neighbors they haven’t seen since church on Sunday or maybe the last auction, and they begin catching one another up on their latest news while they sort through another neighbor’s lifetime or multiple lifetime collections of “stuff.”
In the background, scents of French fries, grilled hamburgers, and hotdogs from a concession stand brought in for the day tease sensitive nostrils that can ignore the pervasive smells of fresh mown grass, bug spray, and sun block. Attentive ears pick up sounds of children’s laughter as they play at the auction’s edge supervised and ignored by everyone attending. Some folks bring their dogs either in large purses or on heavy chains depending on the beasts’ sizes. Fashion includes everything from country club golf wear to often-washed overalls with ball caps advertising everything from John Deere to the latest fishing equipment.
Once at the auction site, it’s like going to a three ring circus. The auctioneer created a perimeter of farm equipment that could be a museum in terms of showing the evolution of plows, planters, wagons, grinders, and other farm implements. Inside this show ring, another ring of popular distressed furniture waits for new homes. Folks stop to examine a lovely ornate iron bed piled with odd pieces of metal sitting atop an old flatbed truck. Nearby, distressed cupboards, dressers, and tables stand like soldiers at attention awaiting new homes. Some furniture makers today spend a great deal of energy to create new furniture that looks as worn and well used as these pieces that served multiple generations of this farm family. Included in this secondary ring of the auction circus is a row of wonderful old cars and parts that reveal the early evolution of the automobile. An old Model T catches everyone’s eye as they walk past and makes them pause for a moment to either regret how cars have changed or to make them say thank goodness the car changed.
Inside these rings of larger items, auctioneers piled four or five large flat beds with dishes, pottery, toys, pictures, tools, and assorted ephemera of decades such as calendars, advertising pens, and other collectibles. Some items are still in the boxes they came in and others have separated from some of their parts requiring buyers to pay close attention, which is hard to do when so many people crowd into such a small space.
On a personal level, these auctions are a chance for neighbors to gather, buyers to stock antique mall or e-bay shelves, collectors to find that perfect piece to add to their collection. For a sociologist or historian, these country auctions are a textbook study of generations of life of the Plains. It is easy to see the how farm and household equipment changed and how family members adapted outdated pieces to new roles.
The discerning can see where the family shopped and how they repurposed flour sacks and other textiles into beautiful quilts, tea towels, and pillows. Some artful craft man turned old wood and other items into clever doll furniture for a lucky little girl. Pictures and other wall hangings unveil the family interests in Indians and the out of doors. Collections of calendars, equipment manuals, and grocery store give-aways tell of years past.
What initially seems a festive occasion and still is in terms of friends gathering and reconnecting is actually a farewell to a changed way of life. Just as funerals offer closure to families and friends of deceased loved ones, these country auctions offer closure to those either clinging to or saying goodbye to a well-loved past.