Story and photographs by Michael Dreese
“A five, five. Will anybody give me five? I got five. Anybody give me ten, ten, ten?”
“I have ten, now fifteen, fifteen, looking for fifteen.”
“I have fifteen, anybody give me twenty, twenty, twenty – Thank you, sir.”
“I’m at twenty, twenty, looking for twenty-five, twenty-five … Last call … All in, all done …
Sold! The buyer is number 3276; 3276 is the buyer.”
And, with that announcement, I “broke the ice” at the semi-annual Beaver Run School Amish Auction outside of Washingtonville, Pennsylvania, last April. My efforts garnered me a sturdy iron and wood outdoor bench in need of a little TLC. Although my purchase would be one of thousands of successful bids that day, it felt gratifying that the proceeds would directly benefit the approximately 100 students, ages 6 to 15, that attend four local Amish schools that do not receive state funding.
Auction junkies unite
Hustling back to the antiques tent, I took a seat beside my new acquaintance, Doug Dyer. Doug and I had met in the makeshift parking lot in the pasture across the road earlier that morning. Doug and his wife Ann run the Irish Meadow Stable near Watsontown. A self-professed “auction junkie,” Dyer told me that the lure of hidden treasures, such as the professional horse racing memorabilia he once discovered inside the drawer of a piece of furniture, has an irresistible pull. Like me, he loves the camaraderie, the food, the competition and the intriguing cast of characters that seem to congregate at these events. “It's a slice of Americana,” he smiled.
While the popularity of hit TV shows like American Pickers, Storage Wars, and Pawn Stars has pushed collecting and hunting for “rusty gold” into the mainstream of American culture, the first documented auction occurred around 500 BC in Babylonia. Not only did the Babylonians parcel off to the highest bidder women eligible to be married, they also offered a money-back guarantee!
Yours for the right price
Although you cannot purchase a spouse at the Beaver Run Auction, just about any other imaginable item can be yours at the right price. The numerous categories include antiques, collectibles, lawn and garden, nursery stock, furniture, household, grocery, dry goods, building materials, handmade crafts, home décor, and a wide selection of pets, poultry, and horses. The majority of these treasures are donated by members of the community.
A team of auctioneers and assistants, both professional and volunteer, offer their services from early in the morning until late afternoon. Enos Hershberger, a 10-year veteran of the auction circuit, recalled attending public sales as a young boy. “It was natural for me to end up working as an auctioneer,” he said.
Hershberger and his colleagues adhere to the English-style, or ascending auction, where the bidding starts low and then increases. In this format, buyers hope to snatch up bargains—since prices are not fixed. On the other hand, sellers believe that a large pool of potential bidders will ultimately push prices beyond the retail value of their pieces. Both sides win or lose based on demand at that particular time and location.
Shortly after the start of the auction, Dyer purchased a sturdy iron horse figurine to display on his barn for $20. Minutes later, I snapped up a small nautical oil painting for $1! Other items touched off spirited bidding wars and commanded premium prices. The final price of an antique black cook stove heated up to $960 and a vintage oak icebox delivered a cool $400. The antiques tent witnessed a full crowd throughout much of the day. Other popular venues included the small animals and poultry section as well as the handmade crafts and furniture.
But if competition is not your thing, the numerous vendors positioned around the grounds offer a variety of household, home improvement, health and food products at set prices. The lines at the food stands can be quite long, particularly for the BBQ chicken and ice cream. I feasted on a juicy cheeseburger and a whoopie pie.
Strong societal pillars
For a glimpse into a slower and simpler time check out the traditional Beaver Run Schoolhouse. It will soon be evident even to the casual observer that the foundation of Amish society rests upon the strong pillars of family, community, faith and mutual cooperation. Children of all ages display a deep reverence for parents and elders.
Near the end of the day, teams of older children assisted visitors in the sometimes-challenging task of loading their vehicles. One of the boys that helped me playfully plopped down for a few seconds on the vintage office chair I had purchased. Another offered some helpful tips on fixing the garden bench.
A day spent at the semiannual Beaver Run School Auction offers a variety of rewards for the visitor—the opportunity to obtain one-of-a kind items, learn about new products, sample delicious homemade foods and develop new friendships. Just as importantly, it offers a glimpse inside an often mysterious society that has managed to retain its core values and identity in a rapidly changing world.
If you go
The next benefit auction at Beaver Run will be held Saturday, Sept. 6, 2014. Although the sale starts at 8:30 a.m., arrive early to park and preview the many items available for sale. Bring a comfortable lawn chair. Directions from Danville, PA: Follow Route 54 East to Arrowhead Road and turn right. At the next intersection, turn right on PP&L Road. The parking lot will be several hundred yards down on the right.