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Thursday, October 5, 2017

Under the Auctioneer's Hammer

"Having Sold My Farm" was a normal message for farm auctions flyers.  In this 1908 case, the farm property and homestead was being offered under the auctioneer's hammer.

West Fairlee auctioneer Bill Godfrey was profiled in this 1953 magazine cover.  Godfrey spend nearly 60 years in the auction business. .

George Clement of Landaff conducted more than 3,000 auctions during his career. They were held under tents and in his own auction barn.  Auctioneer Archie Steenburgh began his auction career with Clement in 1971.

Since 1956, Herb Gray has continued the family auction tradition begun by his father Carlton. This 1960 photo shows Gray auctioning rabbits.  He is now best known for auctioning automobiles and machines.

During his 30-plus years as an auctioneer, Chuck Eaton of West Fairlee has help non-profits raise more than a half-million dollars at charity auctions.  Even in his retirement he continues this worthwhile practice. (Carolyn Coffin) 
As usual at this season of the year much property is changing hands under the hammer of the auctioneer. It is mostly personal property, however; but little real estate is being sold.” Bradford Opinion, October 21, 1876

 New Englanders have always used auctions to sell real estate, personal property, crops and other commodities. Auctions offer a quick way of transferring ownership and has been used as such since ancient times.

This column describes local auctions since the early 19th century. It includes stories from the careers of several famous local auctioneers. Katharine Blaisdell’s books, town histories, online sources, periodicals and interviews with local auctioneers are sources of information.

When property owners faced foreclosure, downsizing, retirement, the death of a spouse or the desire to move to better territory, they turned to the auctioneer to help dispense with their goods and property. Auctioneers distributed handbills and posters describing the contents of the sale.

Local communities also used auctions for other purposes. The auctioning of ferry rights and church pews were a common practice. In early Newbury, funds for a new townhouse came from the sale of the pews to the highest bidders. The new owners paid with 903 bushels of wheat, equal to $3,250. While these pews went to the highest bidder, sometimes the purchasers were those who offered the least amount in a descending reverse auction.

In several local communities prior to the establishment of town farms, the support of the homeless poor was offered at auction in town meeting and “struck off to the lowest bidder.” Well into the middle of the 19th century, some school districts auctioned off the board and room of the local teacher in the same manner.

The most frequent mention of auctions in Vermont newspapers prior to the Civil War was in articles condemning the sale of slaves in Southern auction houses. 

Early auctions were usually held in the owner’s yard, barn or home.  Until the 1930s, it was customary for owners to provide lunch. Traditionally, this was Vermont crackers, cheese and lots of hot coffee, served to a largely male crowd.

Earlier, refreshments might include liquor. A handbill for an 1832 Haverhill auction mentioned that “a barrel of choice whiskey would be opened for the benefit of the purchasers.” 

Auction offerings were sometimes not what they seemed. Although reputable auctioneers make every attempt to describe items accurately, older newspapers  have many stories of items sold otherwise.

After 1830, eastern cities were plagued by mock auctions, also known as Peter Funk auctions. The unsuspecting were lured into an auction in which shills placed in the audience bid up prices on counterfeit or defective items. When the victim made a bid, the fraudster would promptly close the sale.

In 1838, The Vermont Phoenix included an article entitled “Another Auction Shave.” John Barton of Strafford was the victim who lost $29.70 at a New York City mock auction. To reassure customers, several Vermont auction advertisements in the 1860s stated, “The public is assured there will be NO ‘Peter Funk’ operators at our Auction Sale.”      

Even legitimate auctions are staged events. The experienced auctioneer knows that everything from the introductions of the staff, the cadence or pace of the bidding and the use of stories and humor are techniques useful to the sale. As one experienced auctioneer put it, “A good story now and then helps keep the people in good humor and also keeps their minds on the sale.”

Each local town had at least one licensed auctioneer during the 19th century and into the early 20th. Advertisements and news items in local newspapers list some of them as follows. Bradford: Ellis Bliss, J. H. Gilman, John Peckett and C. F. Smith; Ryegate: J. D. McAllister and J. H. Moore; Newbury: John Bailey Jr; Corinth: E. Clough; Lyme D. R. Mativa; West Fairlee: C.O. Burnham, George W. Cook; and Fairlee: Charles Kemp. 

During the Civil War, colonels in Union regiments were in charge of selling confiscated property. It became the custom for post-war auctioneers to adopt the title of colonel. While there were New Hampshire and Vermont auctioneers who used this title, I could find only one local auctioneer who did. He was Col. Aaron P. Gould of Piermont who was active around 1872. Gould was listed as the colonel of the 13th New Hampshire Regiment in 1844.

There have been a number of local auctioneers whose careers spanned decades and whose reputation is still well-known.  

Beginning with his first auction in 1903, Dan Perry of Barre presided over close to 6,000 New England auctions during his 60-year career. As with many auctioneers, Perry used that skill to augment other businesses. His auctioneering was an outgrowth of a real estate business. For many years, he owned a Ford dealership in Barre.

Perry was known for his Yankee droll and ready wit. He knew how to work a  crowd and is quoted as saying that a good auctioneer “can see the bids coming many times before the bidder says a word.” In addition to home and farm auctions, Perry conducted many livestock auctions.

During the Great Depression, the number of auctions declined. Perry wrote “the few people who had the courage to put on sales were heartbroken at the prices their property would bring.”   

In the Midwest, neighbors would sometimes come to the rescue of a farmer facing foreclosure and enter a winning bid of only a penny for each item. The next day all the equipment would be returned to its owner.

The only example that I could find that came close to this “penny auction” practice was one conducted by Perry in Corinth in 1913. The local newspaper reported that the night before the auction the farmer’s barn burned to the ground. The auction was held and the remaining items brought “exceptionally high prices.”

Legendary local auctioneer Bill Godfrey of West Fairlee began working with Perry in Wells River in 1923 and continued conducting auctions until retiring in 1981.

Ron Strickland wrote about Godfrey in his 1986 book Vermonters: Oral Histories. He referred to Godfrey’s many talents as an “auctioneer, neighbor, farmer, funeral director, story-teller and humorist.”

Godfrey presided over as many as 60 auctions each year “attired in a straw hat; a bow tie; an impeccably starched button-down shirt; a vest, with pocket watch; black lace-up boots; and perhaps, as protection against manure, a pair of overalls.”

Strickland quoted one of Godfrey’s admirers: “Godfrey gives the crowd the feeling that he is a conspirator in the dangerous, daredevil process of bidding, whereas the no-nonsense commercial mood created by many younger auctioneers subtly alienates the audience.”

Another auctioneer who got his start with Dan Perry was Carlton Gray. In 1947, Gray founded the East Thetford Commission Sales and the Monday night livestock auctions were a local institution until the operation closed in 1992. He brought to the operation his experience as a farmer and trader of livestock. His wife Beulah was, in the words of their son Herb, “the backbone of the operation.”  

In 1956, Gray sent his two sons, Larry and Herb, to auction school in Iowa. The family conducted numerous farm auctions during the years of dairy farm decline in Vermont and New Hampshire. “Having Sold Our Farm” was the headline on many auction notices. Herb remembered that his father once told him “we are selling ourselves out of business.” Herb says there are few farm auctions any more.

Carlton retired in 1976.  About that time, the Grays began equipment sale at Gray’s Field in Fairlee, a practice that continues currently. For the past 23 years, Herb has been conducting the weekly Connecticut Valley Auto Auctions in Hartford.  Rather than going out of business, the Gray family continues the tradition to a third and fourth generation of auctioneers.

Around 1957, Peter Gallerani opened Gallerani’s Commission Sales in West Bradford and held Thursday livestock auctions year-round. In the early 1970’s his son Paul brought out his father. In a recent interview, Paul described the atmosphere of the auction. He said that the buyers were primarily men who knew each other and humor was part of the interplay. The only woman he recalled was Liva Sinclair who owned a large dairy farm in Bradford. Paul acted as ringmaster for the auctions and recalled how important it was for him to know the bidders and the value of the animals being sold. 

George Clement of Landaff was another local career auctioneer. His first auction was in 1933 and over his career he conducted as many as 3,000 sales. Some were held in tents, or later, in his own auction barn. His auctions included a number of hotels and businesses, the most famous being the contents sale of the Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods, NH.

In 1971, Archie Steenburgh began attending Clement’s auction and gradually became involved. He became a partner and then bought Clement out.  His wife Martha and his son Joshua are both important members of the team that conduct over 30 auctions annually.

One of the most important auctions is the Steenburghs’ Annual Labor Day sale held in East Haverhill.  The 2017 auction celebrated 45 years in business.  Hundreds bid for consignments of antiques, art work and other high-value items.  As with other auctions, handbills and posters have been replaced by online sites and cell phone bidding. 

Two other auctioneers who started at about the same time are Chuck Eaton and Ernie Stevens. Eaton went to auction school in 1983 and continued holding auctions until 2014. In the early years of his career, he and Ernie worked together at the Ely Commission Sales auction house.  Eaton then established his well-known auctions at his Elmwood Farm barn in West Fairlee. 

In a recent interview, Eaton talked about the auction experience.  He said auctions are “like a play, with two weeks of rehearsal.” Being familiar with the items allowed the auctioneer to carry out the performance with accuracy and  speed. At the end of the day all is gone.

Prices for items fall somewhere between wholesale and retail. While dealers have to consider potential resale prices, avid collectors sometimes bid prices for rare items above fair market. The uninitiated may fall victim to the “winner’s curse” and pay too much.

As with some other auctioneers, Eaton has conducted a number of charity auctions. Over his career he has helped various non-profits raise more than a half million dollars. 

His auction barn is quiet now, the business having been taken over by his associate Uriah Wallace. Wallace has held a number of auctions and estate sales at  Elmwood Farm, the Bradford Community Center and onsite at private homes. 

For the past 44 years, Ernie Stevens has been holding commission sales. Beginning in West Canaan, NH, he then began holding sales in Ely.  In 1992, he moved his Ely Commission Sales to Bradford. 

In a recent interview, Stevens recalled that he had no formal training as an auctioneer.  Sitting in his auction house surrounded by items collected in anticipation for one of his twice-weekly sales, Stevens said that his auctions attract about 160. He quipped that some come just for his wife Carol’s mac and cheese.  

Despite the title, very few items are sold on commission. Stevens has built his business around purchasing entire households and so most of the items sold are his own. He commented that the bottom has fallen out of the furniture market and what were once a family’s heirloom pieces are not getting the prices of yesteryear.

 While most local auctions are of the ordinary type, there have been several that lasted for more than one day, drew crowds from around the nation or even from foreign countries and offered very valuable and often extraordinary items. 

These include the 1970 sale of the purebred Holstein herd of the Mallary Farm that brought a crowd of 2,000 to Fairlee; the Gray’s auction of animals from Fairlee’s Rare Bird and Animal Farm also in 1970, the nine-day auction of the contents of Freddie Miller’s iconic store in East Topsham in 1990, the East Orange auction by Christie’s of New York of the gold bullion and vintage automobiles from the estate of A. K. Miller in 1996 and the two-day auction by Archie Steenburgh at the MacDonald farm in Topsham in 2004.

Auctioneers have been described as the “oldest recyclers in the world.” Attendees find them more  fascinating and entertaining than eBay or Craigslist. With a good auctioneer, they can also be a history lesson on personal possessions. With luck, you may find that one item you have been looking for to complete your collection, furnish your home or add to your livestock.


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