Monday, April 20, 2009

The Country Auction

Have you ever been to a country auction? The kind of auction where all manner of things are sold: from real estate to automobiles, farm equipment to rocking chairs, antiques to bubble gum card collections. Often they take place to settle an estate and you never know what might come up for bid, the items in the auction notices that are listed in the newspaper are scanty at best, as only the most valuable items are generally listed. They want to draw the biggest crowd in hopes of driving the bids as high as possible. Still, there are deals to be had at an auction; we bought our wood stove for $25 at a farm auction 4 years ago, for instance. When you arrive you can feel the carnival-like atmosphere as you thread your way through the throngs of people to look over the items and dig through the boxes in hopes that a treasure lies beneath the junk. There is almost always a food vendor or two in attendance selling the typical over-priced fare that one might indeed buy at a carnival. You will at some point wait in line to register for your bidder number, unless it's an Amish auction where they will sometimes just use your name instead of assigning a number. Some auctions take place in a tent where you need to furnish your own chair, at other times the auction crowd walks along with the auctioneer as the items go up for bid. As you look over the items you are careful not to seem overly interested in anything whilst keeping an eye on anyone else who takes too great an interest in the offerings that you've decided to bid on. If you are wise you will have decided what the maximum amount is that you're willing to spend on each piece, it's far too easy to get swept along in the excitement of the moment and overbid. I've observed people pay more at an auction than the item would have cost them brand new.

I've been going to auctions since I was a little girl, but I've never been to an auction quite like the one we attended Saturday, and I never expect to see another one like it in my lifetime. The newspaper listed a Copperclad wood cook stove and since this is one of the items that we need, we wanted to attend. I spoke with the auctioneer and he said that I could come look at the stove on Thursday forenoon. When I arrived, after traversing a mile long driveway that resembled a cowpath more than anything else, I looked the stove over and decided that so hideously ugly a contraption couldn't possibly reside with us. However, also listed were some cast iron cauldrons and a copper cauldron, so I went to look at those. The elderly lady then showed me through the house and that's when I learned the unique history of this farm. The farm has been in her husband's family since the first decade of the 1800's when Christian Zurcher immigrated from Switzerland. When he bought the farm the house was already standing, though it was only a log cabin then. Karl, who is 82, is one of 4 people who jointly own the farm today; he is only the third generation since the original Christian first bought it. That does work out, but only if fathers were still siring children when fairly old. ;-) So, the farm has been in the same family for 200 hundred years; apparently somewhere around 1940 the family decided that enough progress had come and they never updated the house afterwards. One of Karl's sisters had lived in the house until her death 2 years ago, she was still canning on a wood stove. By the way, these weren't Amish people or of any religious persuasion that might account for the details that I am going to relate.
the farmhouse

Now, for the most interesting part. I have never, ever, seen a farm with so many original tools and artifacts. When they quit farming with horses, they hung the harness in the tack room, and there it still was on sale day. When feed stopped arriving in burlap sacks with the elevator's name printed on the side, they bundled them together in the granary and there they still were on sale day. When they quit molding their own candles they put the candlemold safely away, along with crocks of all descriptions, cast iron, copper kettles, the original dry sink, Hoosier cupboard, wash stands.......... This family seemingly knew the value, not the cost but the value, that these items had. You've heard of people that know the cost of everything and the value of nothing, I presume? This family was the antithesis of that belief. They didn't hoard junk but only treasured artifacts. Now, if my possessions were to be auctioned there are a fair number of antiques, but only because they were acquired, they haven't been passed to me intact through 200 years of family history.

2 nail kegs- ignore the camera date ;-)

All of the original buildings were there: along with the bank barn, chicken house, pig barn, sheep barn, honey house, tool shed, harness room, and granary, were the smokehouse, icehouse and backhouse. There was farm machinery that hasn't been in common usage for a hundred years, tools that I've never seen outside of a museum.

3 cast iron kettles and a copper one on the left
You could have purchased the farm with all the furnishings and tools and opened a museum. However, the auction attracted a lot of antique dealers and that generally means high prices, there were very few deals to be found. The cast iron kettles went for $350 - $450 a piece, considerably more than we paid for ours that was in better condition. The copper one went for $285. Karl told me that when he was a boy the cast iron kettles were used for butchering and the copper kettle was used for apple butter. A sausage stuffer went for $200 with an Amish farmer finally outbidding an antique dealer. It adds an extra burden for people who will actually use the items to have to outbid a dealer with ready cash. I wanted one of the cauldrons but I just can't compete there.
80 gallon barrel with original red paint and lid
The Zurcher family had reserved seats in the front row of the tent to watch the items as they sold. Mrs. Zurcher (the one who showed me the house) cried as certain items were sold. When the wash stand and baby crib were carried away, she didn't look. 200 years of heritage gone in the space of 5 hours. Whatever history those pieces had is now forgotten, whatever stories could be told now won't be. The majority will sit in antique shops in anonymity, with nothing unique to distinguish them from anything else around it. Aleks said it's one of the saddest things he has ever seen. It reminds me of one of the final stanzas in the poem The House With Nobody In It.
Now a new house standing empty,
with staring window and door,
Looks idle perhaps and foolish,
like a hat in its block in the store.
There's nothing mournful about it,
it cannot be sad and lone,
For the lack of something in it,
that it has never known.
But a house that has done what a house should do,
a house that has sheltered life,
That's put it's loving wooden arms
around a Man and his Wife.
A house that has echoed a baby's laugh
and held up his stumbling feet,
Is the saddest sight when it's left alone
that ever your eyes could meet.


  1. Oh Mrs. G. - a house standing alone without possessions, is just that a house.

    I believe that what that gentle woman was remembering was the memories that went with each item.

    Seeing it go to a total stranger is very sad, but once they are gone, you are left with the fondest of memories. I know this first hand.

    We also sold most of our antiques that we owned in an auction. It was a very sad day when I saw those items leave our home...but I remember them with fondness because I kept pictures of the items.

    Thank you for sharing such wonderful pictures.


    Lady M

  2. How anyone could get rid of their family history treasures is beyond me. Weren't there any descendants that were interested in owning a part of their own history?
    How sad.
    You write wonderfully, by the way. I thoroughly enjoyed it and passed this story on to a few friends that I think will enjoy reading it also.

  3. It saddens me to see a home and history broken up. Especially one that is 200 years old!

    My father owns about 1/6 of his family's original grant property (from 1903) and we're striving to save at least that from being sold off. There is the old homestead, owned by my father's cousins, which they're letting fall apart bit by bit. We can do nothing about it, save look upon it and mourn for what once was and could have been. But the portion of land his parents owned at least has little pieces of history lying about that my father has snapped up to preserve.

    When my father goes to Glory, I will work to continue the preservation. It might not be much but brush and cedar trees and rocky soil, but it was an original land grant -- and you can't just give that up.

  4. Oh my goodness, Paris. That’s about the saddest story that could be told, as is the poem. No wonder the poor woman cried. Why, I wonder, did they have to sell their belongings? My great aunt, who is now 90, went through a similar ordeal when she had to move into town just a few years ago—very sad; very sad, indeed.

    Thank you for the post along with the lovely pictures.

  5. Thank you Lady M for your comments, I think would find it too heartbreaking to part with my well loved antiques. ;-) I wouldn't want to pry as to your reasons though, I'm sure it was necessary or you wouldn't have done it.

    Ken, some of the relatives did buy certain things as they came up for auction. Karl bought a completely ancient combine, a tiny little miniature thing that they could hardly get a bid on. He bought it because he was ticked off that nobody wanted it though, not for sentimental reasons. Thanks for your compliments, they brightened my morning!

    Oh Amy, what a legacy! My Father was offered the family farm but he turned it down (this was a long long time ago) because he had no interest in farming. He obviously never dreamed he'd have a daughter like me. ;-)

    Zebu, I think because the estate was owned 4 ways maybe they couldn't work it out otherwise than to sell. But I don't know. In my brief conversations with Karl it seemed to be way more about the money than anything else. Which is saddest of all.

  6. I never been to an auction, but it does sound like quite an experience! I can't imagine all those antiques going away! I wish that they could have found some way to donate them to museums so that the public could enjoy them. I'm worried that's what will happen to my parent's house someday. I know my brother will want to split the inheritance and he places no value on all my mom's antiques. She's been writing on the backs of things for years which ones are not allowed to be sold :).