On Saturday morning, my Dad and my Boy and I went to TSC for some essential things like a front tractor tire, two tubes of horse de-wormer, and a new John Deere hat. We didn’t head back to the farm though, because on the other side of town there was a farm auction...and let me tell you if you don’t already know...it’s really hard to not go to a farm auction.
The land in this township is flat. We could see the vehicles lined up on the gravel shoulders from the next concession back. Every kind of pickup truck was there: shiny new ones, nasty beat up ones, a ‘55 Ford F100, a ‘59 Fargo, a few with trailers behind them, and a big 5ton truck from a scrap salvage company.
We picked our way onto the farm. I was just kicking myself for not bringing my camera. This is the kind of event that fires me up in many ways. I love all things rural, I love junk, I love old stuff, I love the stories, real or imagined, that come with it all. I was walking into a gold mine on this hot Saturday morning.
Along one edge of the farmyard was a row of implements. It was obvious that they’d been yanked out of their resting spot just for this occasion. They were all covered with last year’s long dried grass stalks. Five old haybalers in a row still had ancient crusts of hay leaves stuck to them; they’d never been cleaned off before they were left in a shed or out in a field. My Dad, being the kind of guy who’s willing to fix up a junker if he feels it’s worth it, just shook his head. “The scrap guys are gonna be on this stuff like flies.” And we kept on walking.
Over by a hay wagon full of tangled objects, an old buddy of my Dad’s caught up with us and filled us in on some juicy info.
Big Dan’s not well eh?
Josie came back. They’re together again.
Yeah, he says after that big hog barn got put up next door, his property value went down about $100,000.
You know Big Dan used to work for the government eh? This place never had to make a living for him.
I heard a few more stories about Big Dan that sounded pretty far fetched. I’d met Dan and Josie briefly years before, likely at my aunt’s farm, but I couldn’t say I knew them. I just knew who they were. I stood there listening to the gossip and thinking that either Big Dan was more interesting that I thought, or he was a heck of a story teller.
The auctioneer turned on his microphone just before 10 am, as the crowd grew and the heat of the day got heavier. “We’re gonnastartat five. Who’s gotta five, five, five, gotta five, fourfifty, fourfifty, who’s gottafourfifty, fourtwennyfive.”
Another interesting thing about auction sales is the crowd. Farmers of all shapes and sizes and ages; guys with pot bellies in suspenders; thin guys in T shirts, dudes in work boots; women in denim shorts and T shirts advertising the local feed mill; kids with filthy knees and big grins; and every different splinter group of Old Order Mennonite and Amish. Of course anybody there could be Mennonite too, around that neck of the woods. Including us.
There were two Old Order women helping each other out with their kids. They each had a very modern stroller, but they were wearing long dark dresses. They had the most beautiful purple bonnets on their heads. I would love to wear a purple bonnet like that.
When my son and I went into the wooden shed to buy a bottle of water, we handed over our dollar to a pretty young woman with a white apron over her blue plaid dress. She wore plain eyeglasses, had her hair centre parted and covered with a white net covering like the ones both my grandmothers wore. She was so friendly. Later I saw a newlywed Amish couple. How did I know they were newlyweds? His beard was short and fresh, and she wasn’t pregnant. Yet. At least visibly. Two strapping young Amish guys cruised around checking out sale items and likely, also checking out young Amish girls with the small head coverings, the kind without the strings that tuck into the dress.
Dad registered for a bid number, as the Boy and I looked at the rows and rows of furniture in the front lawn. There were about ten TV sets, four recliners, three couches, six dressers, two china cabinets and a church pulpit. I wanted that church pulpit.
Another buddy found my dad. I perked up my ears for more stories.
Big Dan’s dying. He’s only got one lung now.
He never threw anything out. Can ya tell?
Don’t know what this place’ll sell for but the new owner’ll have to spend a few thousand to get it cleaned up.
Yeah, Josie came back to him and they’re speaking to all of their kids again, and the grandkids. They’re making up for lost time before he’s gone.
We did a tour of the house. I was stunned. It’s not that big a house...and yet with all of that stuff on the front lawn, there was still a huge amount of stuff inside. Being a packrat myself, I’m always fascinated and repulsed by other people’s collections. I swear if I ever buy a farm- which I plan to do- I’ll hope they leave as much stuff behind as possible. I’ll spend months going through it and wondering about it. We checked out the addition that never got finished. As we came down the stairs, there she was, Josie herself, in her fuzzy terry cloth housecoat, telling us that all of the building materials to finish the addition were right there in the corner. She looked tired. She didn’t recognize my dad.
Behind the house, two sheds were caving in on themselves, and behind that, a crumbling stone foundation was all that was left of the original bank barn. A Dutch neighbour was discussing the difficulties of the property.
It’ll cost about five grrand to get a backhoe in herrrre and bury that foundation.
I think a bulldozerrrr would be the best way to get this place fixed up.
You knoooow, Big Dan yused to work forrrr the Mounties. He collected money frrrom people.
The Boy and I wandered down the bush lane a few feet. Inside a steel shed, the buggy horses were resting in the shade swishing their tails. The sweat was dripping down our faces by this time. There was absolutely no breeze.
We looked at two identical black buggies parked in the grass. They appeared to be a century old in style but they weren’t. In green pinstriping, one stated on the back axle “2006” while the other said “2003”. Each one had turn signals, and a Department of Transportation sticker. They even had lights. I want one.
I’ve been to quite a few auctions and one thing never fails to amaze me: Get a bunch of farmers together and let them wander over a place and listen to them talk. Everybody’s a critic and all are experts. It’s fascinating. It’s horribly uncomfortable actually. But it’s universal. Your average suburban housewife has nothing on these guys and I know that firsthand.
The Dutch neighbour pointed out to me where Big Dan’s 50acres started and ended. My covetous imagination went wild. I mentally stripped down the two steel sheds and sold them for scrap. I salvaged all the lumber planks from the two falling down sheds. I pictured how I’d finish the inside of that house, how I’d scrounge up glass door knobs and thin hardwood floor strips to match the original 1930’s part. There’d be an inflatable pool in the yard. I had the old stone foundation cleaned up, and all kinds of clay pots full of herbs and flowers and wooden chairs. I pictured the wooden shed all fixed up with my truck, the Jetta and a little John Deere parked in it. I had fences up from the shed to the highway and all the way over to the tree line. Where the steel sheds were disappearing in my mind I had a nice little four stall post and beam barn, with a sand ring in front of it.
The Dutch neighbour was tallying up how much it could sell for. The auctioneer was planning to sell the property at the end of the sale, about two hours on.
We were looking at the goats and chickens in the steel shed. The nannies all had numbered tags on their ears, while the goat kids snoozed in beds made out of plastic barrels. They were awesome goats; roman nosed, curving horns, and smart eyes. They were white with patches of colour.
“I want those goats,” I told Dutch. “I hate mowing lawn.”
“Jah, goats are good for grrazing weeds down.”
“They poop less than dogs.”
“Jah, that’s rrright.”
“I’ve got a good fence to keep them in,” I said.
“How much land do yoooou have?” he asked.
“Sixty feet by a hundred and twenty feet,” I said. “I live in a subdivision.”
“Oh,” he said, “you need to moooove.”
“Yes I do.”
My Boy stuck out his hand but the goats just looked at him. I looked at the two hens clucking around in there. They were pretty black and white chickens. I wondered if, after a life of scratching around in the dirt, they’d taste better than those pasty chickens on pink styrofoam trays in the grocery store. I figured I’d like knowing that they had a chance to be chickens before they became dinner.
“We’re gonnasell everythingonthewagon, and then we’re gonnasell thewagon. Gottanice rubberhose here, whoneeds a rubberhose. Gimme a dollah dollah gimme a dollah.”
It was all getting very overwhelming. The still air, the harsh sun, Josie not dressed for the day yet, the decrepitude of the buildings, all my covetous urges, the lack of camera, the sweat soaking through my son’s T shirt. Men were milling around, waiting beside the thing they wanted to buy until the auctioneer made his way there, still criticizing the farm’s faults, still sharing everything they knew about the circumstances that brought on the sale. My chest ached from the need for 50 acres of farmland, a purple bonnet, a church pulpit, a black buggy, some bandy hens and Boer goats. My writer’s brain was cataloguing all the details. There was so much to remember.
There is something sad for me about auctions. When I was sixteen, my mother’s parents sold their beautiful yellow brick Victorian house in town to move to the nursing home. It was 1987, and a year later my grandpa would be gone. At the sale, I tried not to cry as all the familiar things got carted away by people, some strangers, some we knew, who had converged on my second home and clucked over all the objects, muttered and whispered, and then stood there, faking out all the other bidders, careful not to run the bid too high on what they wanted. The house sold for $80,000. For a decade after that, I wondered what would have happened if I’d been a little older and had a good job...
It was time to go. We were hot and tired and Dad didn’t see anything he needed.
On the way out, we walked past Big Dan. I wouldn’t have recognized him if Dad hadn’t nudged me and quietly pointed him out. He was settled in a big wooden chair, and he was half the size I remembered him from the rare neighbourhood event. He had an oxygen tube in his nose, his black straw hat on his head. People were gathered around him and he nodded, and smiled weakly. Big Dan, local man of mystery, rumoured secret agent, non-discriminating collector of antiquities, gentleman farmer, held court under a shade tree while the auctioneer rattled on.
“Half a dollah, half a dollah if ya goddit, gimme half a dollah...”