Country Auctions— Celebration or Farewell
“Going once, twice, sold!” patters the auctioneer as he transfers ownership of an old wedding ring quilt to a buyer. The crowd moves in unison from the flatbed display wagon to let the woman who purchased the heirloom retrieve it. As soon as she moves back into place, the curious mass realigns itself like a giant amoeba shifting and reforming. Many become one on a sunny prairie morning.
One of the pleasures of living a rural lifestyle is attending country auctions. Normally isolated lanes fill with more vehicles than that road has seen in years; neighbors meet neighbors they haven’t seen since church on Sunday or maybe the last auction. They catch one another up on the latest news while sorting through another friend’s collection of “life’s necessities.”
In the background, scents of French fries, grilled hamburgers, and hotdogs from a concession stand brought in for the day tease sensitive nostrils that work to ignore the pervasive smells of fresh mown grass, bug spray, and sun block. Attentive ears pick up sounds of laughter where children play at the auction’s edge, supervised and ignored by everyone there. Some folks bring 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 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, popular antique furniture awaits new homes. Potential bidders examine a lovely, ornate iron bed piled with odd pieces of metal atop an old flatbed truck. Nearby, distressed cupboards, dressers, and tables stand like soldiers at attention awaiting new homes. Furniture makers today spend a great deal of energy to create new products that as worn and well used as these pieces that have served 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 up and pause for a moment to either regret how cars have changed or to say thank goodness the automobile changed.
In addition to these collections of larger items, auctioneers piled four or five large flat beds with dishes, pottery, toys, pictures, tools, and assorted ephemera 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. This is hard to do with so many people crowd into such a small space.
On a personal level, these auctions are a chance for neighbors to gather, entrepreneurs to stock antique mall or e-bay shelves, collectors to find that piece to complete their collection. For a sociologist or historian, these country auctions are a textbook study of generations of life of the Plains. It’s easy to see the how farm and household equipment changed and how family members adapted outdated pieces to new roles.
The discerning eye can see where the family shopped and how they repurposed flour sacks and other textiles into beautiful quilts, tea towels, and pillows. Artful craftsmen turned old wood and other leftovers into clever doll furniture for lucky little girls. Pictures and other wall hangings reveal a family interest in Indians and the out of doors. Collections of calendars, equipment manuals, and grocery store giveaways record stories 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, country auctions offer closure to those either clinging to or saying goodbye to a well-loved past.