WE ARE AT one of the most formal restaurants in Battle Lake, a zero-stoplight town in northwestern Minnesota, so Bryan wore his “good” brass belt buckle. The five-inch-wide buckle says “NARC,” which stands for North American Rodeo Commission. Bryan Lonski was big in rodeo. He organized the NARC, got rodeo on the national TV networks, and generally spent a lot of time mucking about in horse doo. He is now in his sixties, and all his life—he grew up on a farm in North Dakota, worked as a college administrator in California, and currently operates the serene Xanadu Bed and Breakfast with his wife, Janet, in Battle Lake—he has also been big on auctions. Like, really big. Like, “everything in our house is from an auction” big. Brass belt buckle big.
Bryan is to be my guide as I learn about the cult and culture of auctions, the largely rural phenomenon that, unlike family farms and cow tipping, appears to be on the rise. Last year, according to the National Auctioneers Association, the value of goods and services sold at live auctions was a little more than $217 billion, a $14 billion increase from the year before. This figure includes art, antiques, cars, cattle, even homes. It does not include anything sold on eBay. This is a real live guy (or gal, though it’s mostly men) in a 10-gallon Stetson chanting I’vegot15who’llgiveme20doIhear20
For someone like myself—a hay feverish child of the suburbs who unwittingly used to pronounce heifer to rhyme with cipher—auctions can be intimidating, like moving to an African village where people speak only in clicks. Myths persist, such as the belief that you could scratch your nose and accidentally purchase a dinette set. Or that auction etiquette is more Byzantine than a Masons’ meeting. As I would discover, auctions are only slightly more arcane than supermarkets equipped with self-checkout machines, and any newcomer can quickly learn the ropes. But to bid smart, to be the guy who just needs to wink to get the item he wants, and to appreciate how auctions unite communities as well as buyers and sellers—well, that’s why I’m tearing into animal flesh with Bryan and Janet.
Plotting a weekend assault on the local auction scene, the Lonskis and I are at Elmer’s Bar-B-Que (“We love all animals. Some just taste better,” reads the sign). Bryan says that Battle Lake, which lies roughly between Alexandria and Fergus Falls about 25 miles north of Interstate 94, is better off than other Minnesota farm towns, owing to an abundance of nearby lakes that swells its population from a little more than 700 to about 6,000 in summer. The whole purpose of the land is changing here, as wealthy outsiders buy marginal farmland for hunting grounds or to build quarter-million-dollar second homes. Whenever a farmer sells out, there is a farm auction; whenever a small resort sells out to lake-home developers, there is a resort auction. Battle Lake is prime auction territory.
Bryan delineates the various types of auctions. Almost half of all auction receipts today are derived from automotive sales, from police auctions to classic-car auctions. The fastest-growing auction category is real estate. (Looking to skip town? Auction your house and all its contents in one day.) Yet the old standbys—household auctions, collectibles/antiques auctions, farm auctions—are still as common as horseflies. Hundreds of auctions are listed on a website called midwestauctions.com. And in northwestern Minnesota, Bryan jokes, the only reason some people subscribe to the Fargo Forum newspaper is to get the Friday “green section,” where the auction notices appear.
In the summer, the Lonskis try to hit several auctions a month. And yes, from bathroom fixtures to bedroom dressers to the antique diamond ring on Janet’s finger, the stuff of other people’s lives now figures prominently in their own. They tell auction stories the way others here boast of landing 50-pound muskies. For instance, there’s the one about the shabby-chic chest that graces their breakfast nook. It was the end of an auction, when stuff goes fast and cheap because the auctioneer wants to hit the fishing hole before dusk. “I’d give $150 for that,” Janet told Bryan when she spied the chest. Bryan bid so fast—and the auctioneer declared “Sold!” so quickly—that it was all over in a blink. “A woman whirled around and said, ‘Oh my gosh, I wanted that,’” recalls Bryan. But it was too late. The Lonskis got the chest for $1.
But auctions can also make a stoic Scandinavian farmer go to pieces. The Lonskis once bought an antique dresser at auction for $15 and discovered a hula dancer figurine and lei attached to it—souvenirs from the erstwhile owner’s honeymoon. Janet tried to return them to her, but the woman had Alzheimer’s disease and didn’t understand. The dresser itself, the Lonskis learned, was a wedding gift from 1910. “It’s really sort of intrusive,” Janet says. For unless someone has thoughtfully sifted through the estate beforehand, everything goes up for sale. “If the family isn’t interested,” Bryan says, “they could be auctioning off your underwear.”
Often, however, the owners are in the audience, watching as the possessions of a lifetime are sold off, one tchotchke at a time. Often, too, they are newly alone in the world: a husband has passed on, a wife has gone to the nursing home, a divorce has sent someone packing. “The end of somebody’s love story,” says Bryan, “is the beginning of the auction.”
THE NEXT MORNING, we drive in Bryan’s Cadillac (bought on eBay) to Fergus Falls, where one of his favorite auctioneers, Cary Aasness, is running a collectibles auction at the Elks Event Center. Aasness grew up a farm kid who practiced his “chant”—what auctioneers call their rapid-fire bid calling—while sitting on the family tractor. And in the truck he drove at college. And pretty much everywhere else. “Used to drive my family crazy,” he says. So much depends on a good chant; Aasness still practices his every day. “It’s a motivational tool, a communicating tool, and a sales tool all in one,” he says with a grin. “You kind of hypnotize them a little.”
Aasness is a past president of the Minnesota State Auctioneers Association and has won national bid-calling championships. I sense he is slowing down his speech to communicate with me. As is common among auctioneers, his promotional photo shows him in a cowboy hat and tie; today, though, he’s simply donned a white button-down “Aasness Auctioneers” shirt, straight-leg jeans, and cowboy boots. Unlike many auctioneers, he doesn’t call himself “Colonel.” (That tradition dates to Reconstruction, when, in order to sell off military surplus and Southern booty, the U.S. government required auctioneers to carry the colonel title. Today, auctioneers call themselves Colonel So-and-So even when they’ve no more claim to the rank than Colonel Sanders did.)
Thanks to Reconstruction carpetbaggers, and the slave traders before them, American auctioneers got a black eye that lasted into the early 20th century. A hundred years ago, some say, the local auctioneer was often the town drunk, a man who sold off junk no one else wanted for liquor money. In England, of course, there were art and book auctions by Sotheby’s and Christie’s (Sotheby’s didn’t open an American office until 1955; Christie’s came in ’77), which made for a more refined public image. It wasn’t until shortly after World War II, when U.S. auctioneers began marketing themselves in earnest to universities, city governments, charities, and other classy clientele, that auctions claimed their contemporary role in American civic life. Nowadays, an entire town will turn out for a large farm auction, and there may be two or even three auctioneers simultaneously working different bidding areas—“rings,” in auction parlance—as in, well, a three-ring circus.
Today’s auction is a one-ring affair. Upon entering, I get a numbered card from the cashier, which I’ll need to hold up if I’m the high bidder on a given item so the recording secretary can note my purchase. Her computer is linked to the laptop used by the cashier, who then knows instantly what everyone owes so we can cash out at any time.
A couple hours before showtime, men are setting out the merchandise on tables for browsing. These are the “ringmen”; once the auction is under way, they scan the crowd for bidders, which is why you don’t need to holler—if you blink, they’ll catch it and yell “Yep!” They’ll also keep coming back to you, to see if you want to continue bidding, until you win or bow out with a shake of your head. It’s also their job to pick items off the table and bring them to the auctioneer for sale. To keep people interested for hours, they’ll mix the van Goghs with the velvet Elvises and, like all good entertainers, save some of the best stuff for last.
I ponder the pickings: wildlife prints, vintage fishing lures, antique duck decoys, saddles, bayonets, several tables of Breyer collectible horses, and a minimalist charcoal drawing of a young Elvis, sans velvet. There is always at least one Elvis, says Bryan.
A retired farmer from North Dakota is inspecting the plastic horses. He says he likes Aasness’s style and keeps an eye out for his auctions. The man also says he’s collected more than 100 of these horses, as reminders of his rural youth during a quieter era long plowed under by progress. “City kids,” he declares, without particularly referring to my question about what one horse is pulling (a corn cultivator, it turns out), “wouldn’t know one end of a horse from another.”
When the auction begins, the first items up for sale are fishing lures, which attract the seemingly unlikely bid of a woman who looks like a soccer mom. Bryan suspects she’s an eBayer, someone who combs rural auctions for collectibles, only to sell them for more online. No one seems to mind her—but sometimes, Bryan says, if you don’t like the look in someone’s eye, you’ll purposely run him up. If you’re going to be outbid by someone who’s looking to make a quick buck—when you wanted that cuckoo clock because it sparks memories of that long-ago weekend in Vienna with Helmut—you might as well make ’em pay for it. (You can avoid revealing your intentions with practiced subtlety and a poker face. Bryan, sitting right next to me, bids so surreptitiously that he wins one item before I even realize he’s bidding.)
The eBay phenomenon didn’t create quick-buck opportunists; antiques dealers have long haunted auctions for bargains to mark up in their shops. But the best rural antiques dealers were grounded in their communities, not in cyberspace. Just the previous day, Bryan had introduced me to Ken and Leone Formo, who run F&F Antiques out of a big barn in the countryside near Underwood. The looming space is filled with rustic furniture and vintage radios and ancient farm implements (horse bridles, hog scrapers, sheep shears). It’s the kind of antique store I didn’t think existed anymore: a cheap one. Longtime merchants who are now getting up in years, the Formos never needed to price-gouge; they could survive on volume because they were acquiring so much paraphernalia, for so little, at auctions. Once, they got hold of 24 church pews, an entire country parish’s worth, and sold them before the church mice could even wonder where they went.
“Any time we could make a nickel on something, we’d pick it up [at auction],” says Leone. Now, she laments, the antique business is slowing, and eBay is partly to blame. Amateur dealers, such as the fishing-lure bidder mentioned above, are prowling auctions these days. And when people are looking to sell their valuables, many won’t approach antiques dealers anymore—they’ll sell for more on eBay to some sucker in New York. Still, antiques are relatively cheap in Minnesota; 75 percent of F&F’s business, Ken says, is to other dealers, such as the guy everyone calls the Brass Monkey, who’ll periodically drive in, buy up all the brass beds and fixtures Ken has gotten at local auctions, and truck them somewhere out west.
It’s not just great prices, though, that drive people to auctions. One auctioneer told me that doctors and lawyers go to his auctions because “they simply like getting stuff that doesn’t look like everybody else’s.” Some of this auction’s stuff—a chipped and cheerless ceramic bulldog, for instance—wouldn’t be found at a self-respecting rummage sale. But the presence of sheer junk answers the question of why people have auctions at all. It’s because everything, right down to the half-bag of dog food in the basement, will be sold. If no one wants the dog food, the auctioneer will add another item to the lot—maybe some dog leashes—and he’ll keep adding items until someone buys the whole kit and caboodle. Bryan and Janet once bought an entire trailer-load of stuff to get the few items they wanted, then immediately paid someone to haul the rest to the dump. At an auction, too, you might spend $2 to get a cool end table that would be marked $50 at an estate sale. You just never know, and it’s impossible to guess what anyone will want. In the end, the retired North Dakota farmer picks up the bulldog for a buck.
Between bids, people visit the snack stand or stretch their legs on the sidelines and chat. Auctions are the block parties of rural America. Some of the 200 people gathered here might not bid, Bryan says, but they’ll have a hot dog and catch up on gossip. “Farmers don’t get to socialize too much,” he says. “It’s an isolated existence.” One old guy told an auctioneer I met, “You’re more fun than the birds on my windowsill and the politicians on my TV.”
In the course of an auction, Aasness will often refer to familiar faces by name. I’m momentarily startled when, as the collectible horses are being sold off two by two, I hear “Igot10dollarsherewho’llsay15Timyougettin’intothis?” Aasness winks.
BRYAN WANTS TO introduce me to an auction-o-holic he knows. “Leroy’s always there, bidding 50 cents or a dollar,” Bryan says. “If it goes over a dollar, he won’t buy it.” When we arrive at Leroy’s place, which is tucked in the hills and fields outside town, he isn’t home—undoubtedly he’s at an auction. Bryan shows me the yard, or what you can see of it under all the auction finds Leroy hopes to one day recondition and sell: a dozen bicycles, buckets from old milking machines, tractor wheels that could be used for boat docks, and an old plow painted John Deere green and yellow, which Bryan figures Leroy could sell as a yard decoration for about $200.
“What does Leroy…do?” I ask.
Bryan considers. “Ohhh,” he says with a slow smile. “A little of this, a little of that.”
Having returned to rural life after several careers elsewhere, Bryan can speak on the area’s populace from the perspective of both an insider and outsider. For instance, there exists a certain type of subsistence-based country character that Bryan semi-jokingly calls “too lazy to work, too nervous to steal.” He once tried hiring a local man for off-season labor around the bed and breakfast, only to discover that, for many people here, all work is seasonal—the colder months are for hunting and fishing, and no paycheck is worth spoiling tradition.
Then there are the town fathers, men who couldn’t tell Beaujolais from Boone’s Farm but can explain how slight movements in the price of soybeans affect world economies. Bryan met a local guy, for example, who looked like the quintessential dirt farmer: disheveled overalls, long white beard, the works. He turned out to control a good portion of the world market in buckwheat.
There is another type, too: those who just never left the land. As we head deep into the countryside for a farm/household auction, the landscape becomes pockmarked with marshes and studded with hillocks, like a moguls ski course, and I understand why large-scale agribusiness has made little headway here. On the plains of nearby North Dakota, a half-dozen brontosaurus-sized combines can form a line across a field and sweep over hundreds of acres a day. Around Ottertail County, however, such machines have found the terrain less easily tamed, and for this reason the land hosts more small family farmers than are commonly found elsewhere these days. Not that they’re having an easy time of it.
“I think this is a pretty marginal existence,” Bryan murmurs as we pull into the auction site. As with all outdoor auctions, the goods for sale are set out on a flatbed trailer in cardboard boxes. There’s not much: a WIC cookbook sits in the same box as a hairbrush (with hair still in it) and a device that resembles a speculum. In fact, it’s a farm tool known as an elastrator. Bryan asks whether I’ve ever seen one before, then explains that it’s used to slip a rubber band over a bull calf’s testicles or a lamb’s tail, cutting off circulation; within a week, the body part(s) in question will fall off. Even the auctioneers seem depressed. “This’ll be over in an hour,” one declares. As they haul out the house’s kitchen cabinets, it begins to drizzle.
The auctioneers kill time with a tongue twister contest. One of the men is an affable ex-Marine who fought in Desert Storm; he’s perhaps 6-foot-3 and sports a cowboy hat and goatee. After several verbal parries, he loses to his boss. Then a truck pulls up bearing a Biffy porta-potty, and it’s showtime. “You wanna sing today or you wanna ring?” the boss asks the Marine, who chooses to take the microphone rather than round up the merchandise. The Marine clambers into the back of their pickup truck, which is outfitted, as all auctioneers’ trucks are, with a modified camper topper and speakers. He opens a window and leans out, expounding into the microphone as he’s driven around to different items in the yard.
About a dozen pickup trucks have pulled into the driveway, and four neighboring farmers have formed a klatch. They’re all in their sixties or thereabouts, sunburned, and wearing collared short-sleeve shirts tucked into jeans, a function-over-fashion look (don’t want sleeves or shirttails getting pulled into machinery) that only farmers can get away with. They are chatting and examining the merchandise. I’m clueless about most of it. “Hog feeder,” Bryan says helpfully, standing beside a metal contraption, and one of the farmers squints at me. “He’s never been to an auction before,” Bryan explains. The man takes a step back, pulls off his seed cap, and appears momentarily alarmed, as if Bryan had said, “He’s wearing women’s underwear.”
“Never been to an auction?” the man cries. “I don’t know if I believe that. Where you been livin’? Were you in the Army or somethin’?” Bryan intercedes: “In the Cities, it’s possible to grow up without going to an auction,” he tells the man. And then to me: “This guy’s probably never been more than 30 miles from home.” He may be right. The farmer says he lives on the neighboring farmstead, where he was born. “Lived there all my life,” he offers, warming up. “Maybe that was a mistake. Land’s not good for raising nothing but grass and grasshoppers.” Later, I overhear him telling his buddies, “That guy’s never been to an auction!” Suddenly, I feel like the only cowboy I could be is the one in the Village People.
The auctioneer is working hard to sell. “Who’s got a dollar for an ironing board? Take it home, make your wife happy,” he pleads. But no one wants it. “I guess no one irons anymore,” he says quietly. Three of the boxes go for a dollar altogether.
The discovery of pleasant surprises on the bottom of such boxes is an auction staple. Ken and Leone, the antique shop owners, recall someone buying a box for $5 and finding $225 worth of Rosemead pottery buried inside. Unsavory characters, they say, will take an item they like and bury it in a box of less interesting stuff before the lot goes up for sale, hoping the auctioneer doesn’t dig too deep and they can acquire the box cheap.
One of Bryan’s favorite auction stories is about the time he and Janet—on their honeymoon—bought three boxes of frog-related stuff (Janet collects all things frog), but only after a bidding war with another woman. When they got around to collecting their purchases, the frog boxes were gone. They talked to the auctioneer, who knew the woman bidding against them, and Bryan started calling her relatives. Seems the woman had skedaddled to Iowa with the frogs. They finally reached her there via phone and kindly suggested that she carted off the frog boxes “by mistake.” The woman drove back up and dropped off the frogs, no questions asked.
A bidding war is unlikely this afternoon. No one bids on three hogs, though Bryan says if he’d brought the pickup he’d have bought an oinker and slaughtered it right there. Two horses go for less than what you’d plunk down for a used moped. One of the tractors, a circa ’60s relic, runs out of gas while it’s being demonstrated (the owner doesn’t have any spare fuel) and consequently attracts even less attention than it might deserve. The one man bidding on it, though he’s standing just a few feet from its grim-faced owner, looks straight ahead, not making eye contact. Pointing out the poignancy, Bryan says bidders are often neighbors, “trying to bid as low as possible for your stuff.” Auctions are merciless mechanisms of immediate supply and demand, and the guy who helped you harvest last fall might get a steal on your tractor the next spring.
The property’s residents are a short, bearded man, in his mid-thirties perhaps, and his two small sons. One of the kids, in a dirty white T-shirt and ragged Indian headdress with a single feather, is crawling on a tractor as it’s being sold, trying to show the auctioneer his bucket full of crickets. “We’ve got crickets for sale here,” the auctioneer says kindly. How things came to this is somewhat unclear (there was a divorce, says one of the auctioneers). No banker is standing over the owner’s shoulder—as sometimes happens at auctions, Bryan says—whispering, “You’ve got to get at least $30,000 for that tractor.” However, there may be misplaced priorities. When a hunting bow comes up for sale, though it’s worth plenty, the owner stops the auctioneer—he can’t bring himself to part with it.
“Worst auction I’ve ever seen,” Bryan whispers. “Worst in 60 years.” At the end, I notice the neighbor farmer conferring with his friends, then looking my way. “You gettin’ an education?” he says, smiling. And I realize, as he does, that there will be other auctions. A farmer, better than anyone, understands the cycle of life; and now I understand that auctions are a ritual in that cycle, simply and socially converting us from one stage to another. I look around, at the meager farmstead, yes, but also at the auction-goers gaily stuffing their finds into their cars and trucks. The end of a love story, indeed—and perhaps the beginning of many others.
Tim Gihring is a senior writer for Minnesota Monthly.