When I was a child, Daddy would occasionally load up and haul a few weaner pigs or several skim milk calves to MacLean’s Auction Mart on a Saturday morning. I was always thrilled when he invited me to tag along as he transacted business at that time-honored institution in southeast Calgary, Alberta.
The nerve center of the weekly one-day buy-and-sell institution was a red, hip-roofed barn constructed as a livery stable in 1911. It was located in an old, somewhat seedy sector of the Stampede City several miles from downtown.
“What am I bid?”
Over time, several generations of the auctioneering MacLean family hosted those auction sales. Our family had attended the weekly gatherings all the way back to the 1930s, when Grandpa Taylor and Grandpa Wylie met there regularly.
No matter the weather or season, my grandfathers relished being part of the throng drawn like a magnet to the sound of the auctioneer’s singsong. They might have placed a bid on an item or two, but more often than not, their wallets likely contained more moths than money.
Week after week, year after year, the rhythm of the buy-and-sell at MacLean’s barely changed.
After buyers had been found for merchandise ranging from teapots to handsaws, the auctioneer would head indoors where the rabbits, chickens, sheep and goats were “knocked down” to the highest bidder. Later in the afternoon, the auctioneer would move on to sell the pigs, followed by the cows and horses.
In a swarm, the crowd would trail along after the auctioneer anticipating the next item put up for sale.
My window on the world
After he parked the truck and we got out, Daddy always warned me not to wander off. He didn’t have to worry. It would have taken a pry bar to loosen my grip on his hand.
Some people in the crowd that congregated at MacLean’s wore clothing styles and fabrics unlike anything I’d ever seen. I admired their clothes, hairstyles and skin tones, curious about their strange, exotic lives. When I heard people chatting in unexpected, unfamiliar languages I couldn’t stop myself from turning to gawk.
“Don’t stare,” Daddy would warn me. “It’s not polite.”
When we’d meet a neighbor, the men would lean up against a pen for a friendly visit. I, too, enjoyed this practically festive camaraderie.
However, I couldn’t help but notice that a few men sauntering out of the National Hotel next door to MacLean’s had a funny, unfamiliar smell on their breaths. They seemed to talk a little loud and their eyes were really big and bright.
I was only learning to read, so I struggled, slowly picking out the letters in the words “Tavern” and “Ladies Entrance.” When I asked Daddy what the unfamiliar words meant, he told me, “Nothing you need to know.”
(My family was a clan of teetotalers.)
With the anticipation of generating a little cash from the animals we’d brought to sell, Daddy and I would look over the milk cows and the workhorses waiting to go on the auction block. Since we didn’t raise sheep or goats, they were of great interest, as were the peacocks, colored hens and fancy roosters. It was as exciting as going to the Calgary Zoo, but we didn’t have to pay an admission charge!
Usually, Daddy was satisfied with bidding on something useful like a used pitchfork or grease gun that just needed a good cleaning.
Times change. A venerable Calgary institution, MacLean’s eventually closed, although the old barn has survived, as has the National Hotel next door.
However, related favorite family pastimes, farm auction sales, continue to flourish.
It’s like an itch
My eldest brother Bob scans the weekly newspapers for big ads listing machinery, tools and livestock well before the actual sale dates. Sometimes it takes several hours to reach the various destinations on sale day. He likes to arrive early to look over the advertised items, as well as size up the other bidders.
Pros like Bob keep their cool and relish the thrill of the hunt, while amateurs tend to gush over items they want before the gavel falls.
That enthusiasm can end up costing them extra money.
Sometimes when Bob buys a stack of small tools or miscellaneous shop goods, he is approached by people who want one item and one item only from his box or galvanized pail. It’s not uncommon for Bob to sell enough single items to pay for the entire lot he’s taking home.
Going once, going twice…
When the stakes get high at an auction, a hush is likely to fall over the crowd. People gaze around to see who is bidding. Some customers only raise a finger or barely nod to the auctioneer or his spotter.
Bob indicates his intention by a slight flick of the wrist.
My brother Arthur says the sure-fire way to control his urge to bid is to leave his checkbook at home. Keeping his hands in his pocket at auction sales just doesn’t work for him.
Over the years, my brothers and brother-in-law have built relationships with the auctioneers who work in their respective communities. This familiarity leads to some lively give-and-take patter between bids.
Once, many years ago when my sister Shirley got up the nerve to bid on some old 78-rpm records, the auctioneer looked across the crowd. He made eye contact with my brother-in-law and said, “Harvey, I think your wife is bidding against you!”
Shirley is petite so Harvey couldn’t see her standing behind other bidders.
Although she couldn’t attend as many auction sales as she wanted to, Shirley finds that listening to the auctioneer’s spiel and talking with friends and neighbors is a very satisfying form of entertainment.
Shirley inherited this predilection from Mom who loved nothing better than seeing her beef calves sell at auction in the fall at the Highwood Livestock Auction near High River, Alberta. In later years, Mom made a special effort to go, even when it meant she had to move slowly from the parking lot to the sales ring using her walker.
Vacation souvenirs Alberta-style
Some years ago while visiting Canada I rode with Bob and Arthur to a farm auction near Innisfail, Alberta. At the time, I lived in the heart of Houston, Texas, and worked on the 49th floor of a high-rise office building that resembled a sleek Bic lighter.
Shirley and Harvey arrived just in time to see me threading my way through the big crowd. I was heading back to the truck with an armful of well-used boards. They vaguely reminded Shirley of old wooden apple boxes, which is likely what they were in a previous life.
When Shirley and Harvey caught up to me at the auction sale, I proudly showed off my purchase. Shirley laughed and shook her head, but never said another word. Harvey just grinned. Bob and Arthur’s reasoning is if you see something you want at an auction sale and can afford, buy it. Don’t hesitate because you may never have another chance. You could suffer bidders’ remorse.
That is quite true about my boards.
Other auction-goers stopped to admire and inquire about my purchase. I even made one sideline sale just as Bob often does.
Is there something odd about having the urge to raise my hand to bid on antique, handcrafted boards made to stretch beaver pelts? Their shape reminded me of ceiling fan blades.
It’s certainly open to debate if you are a full-time resident of the fourth largest city in the United States.
That said, certainly no one I knew at my company returned from vacation that summer with a more interesting souvenir.
“Hey, where are you going?”
Back when I was collecting depression glass with a passion, Emil and I attended a Gilbert Stech auction at the Holman Parish Hall near our Texas home. After Gilbert sold a lot of furniture and smaller items, he moved over to the card tables. Stacked with glass and collectibles each one displayed a lot number.
With this smooth, professional style he had perfected through the decades, Gilbert offered buyers a deal he said they couldn’t refuse. A high bidder could take one item or more from the glass and collectibles displayed on card tables. They could pay a multiple of the winning bid price for all the pieces he or she wanted.
That did sound like a good deal.
It was late in the day and some buyers were beginning to disperse when we took our position beside a card table with a piece of glass I wanted to own. Gilbert was picking up speed to keep the crowd’s attention when he yanked the cord on his microphone and walked over to where we stood.
After a little brisk bidding, he shouted “Sold!”
“Your number?” he asked Emil, who dutifully produced his bidder’s card.
Our neighbor sidled up to us.
“You bought the whole table, you know,” Carol said.
We were shocked. Gilbert had changed the rules while we were standing out of range of his public address system to bring the auction to a quick close.
What did we just buy?
All this glass was ours for $20. Really? Hot dog!
Carol laughed. “I’ll help you box it up,” she added.
Just then, we got another surprise. Other bidders began helping themselves to pieces of glass on our table.
“Hey, where are you’re going with that?” Carol asked a woman.
“Well, I thought she just wanted the depression glass and was leaving the rest.”
“Not on your life,” Emil said.
The thwarted glass pickpocket put the plate back and then stomped away in a huff.
All these years later, most of that glass is still boxed in our storage shed where it thankfully doesn’t eat anything.
Things change over time
Thanks to computers, tablets and smartphones, you can buy almost anything your heart desires from the comfort of your armchair these days. There aren’t even as many garage sales as there once were. Online sales are absolutely thriving, driven by COVID-induced directions to self-isolate, self-distance and avoid crowds.
Shirley is currently ramrodding an online auction for the farm machinery and shop equipment belonging to her and her late husband, Harvey. It’s listed at https://www.auctionguy.com/estate-of-harvey-goerlitz-shirley-goerlitz-s-747275.html
The three-and-a-half-day sale will no doubt get the job done, but many auction-goers will miss the thrill of being there in person. I have a hunch, though, that a few pulses might quicken when the bidding on certain lots gets fast and furious.
Online buyers may not necessarily be immune to being bitten by the auction bug.
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Please tell me if there’s an online way of reading your Fayette Co., especially Schulenburg, articles.
Hello Jane! Thank you for your inquiry. I’m in the process of creating a series of Stories I’ve Been Told books featuring the features I’ve written for my column in The Fayette County Record (plus other profiles of Texans). The first one is scheduled to be published mid-year. In the meantime, subscribers can access the newspaper’s files through https://etypeservices.com/Fayette%20County%20RecordID96/default.aspx?PubID=148
Jane, I’d like to thank you again compiling and publishing the 100 years on the Road book on Schulenburg History.
Gary, how nice of you to recognize Jane’s efforts in compiling Schulenburg: 100 Years on the Road. It is a treasure! I’m glad I found a copy for my bookshelf.
I enjoyed the story today. The company my dad worked for made Depression Glass.
If you have not read this, you might enjoy it:
I imagine your Dad considered himself lucky to have a job at the glass company back in the day when Depression Glass was being produced in mass quantities. I have read about how pieces were put in cereal boxes as gifts, etc. Although Depression Glass isn’t considered a hot collectible right now, I’m still proud of my collection. Thanks for the link!
He was always amused when he saw their products in antique stores in the 1970s, promoted as antiques, but which he knew they had made a few weeks before. I have not been able to reconfirm, but he said that when they made the iridescent “goofus” glass in the depression, they had to lower the quality of the ingredients to make the cheap glass. But then later when they could again make better products, they lost the old formulas, and it took some work to try to emulate the old processes when demand for the look came back in the 1960s and 1970s.
I appreciate you sharing your Dad’s memories of making Depression Glass. Some years ago, there were knockoffs in a couple of popular patterns that were relatively easy to spot because the pattern was not as deep and if you ran your fingers over the finish it was often slick and your fingers smelled of vinegar.
My first memory of an auction was in late 50s, in Cartersville, Missouri. it was during Xmas or Tgiving, as that was when we drove up to visit relatives. It was COLD and the old shack the auction was held in was heated (yea right) by a coal stove, as was my gparents house. It was jammed with people, which sucked the oxygen and cold out of the air. My granddad was a “antique” dealer looking for merchandise. All I really remember was the noise and the smell of the stove mixed with the popcorn that was sold, which was good) and of course Dad telling me not to raise my hand, which I had no idea why I would do such a thing……
Gary, you made me laugh. I forgot to include that Daddy always gave me the same warning. DON’T RAISE YOUR HAND! Good memories arent they? Thanks for writing!
Elaine, Love this story. I, too, have wonderful memories of going to the auction sale in Buffalo, Texas with my dad. I still can’t understand how the auctioneers can talk so fast!
Glad to bring back some happy childhood memories, Bev! I don’t know how auctioneers learn to talk that fast either. They are fun to hear.
Yes, even as a kid I was fascinated by the fast talking of the auctioneers, usually at church picnics or feasts! It was hard NOT to raise my hand as an adult. I did once, for a wristwatch for my husband. I asked my friend standing with me, “Was that a good deat?” Politely she replied, “Sure!” I think she really didn’t know, except it did help the church charity fund.
Barbara, I can see you raising your hand and then wondering, “What have I done?” I’m sure your contribution to the church’s charity fund was well received and well invested! Maybe you’ll bid again once of these days!
I didn’t always have to rely on going with Dad – if it was a local auction, Mom’s church ladies group might be selling the lunch and I could go with her! My Dad was always most interested in the rack – the hayrack with all the boxes and pails of miscellaneous small items where treasures were just waiting to be found. It’s amazing how many times neighbours came to him looking for obscure or out-of-date parts and he was able to dig them up out of his stash of those items.
Oh, my goodness, Nancy, I bet your Mom’s church group ladies made pies and served them with coffee. Hamburgers too or sandwiches? Now that was good eating. Yes, those items on the rack were always interesting. I bet your Dad was proud when neighbors thought of him when they needed a part and he had just the thing. Good memories aren’t they? Thanks for writing.
Never did attend an auction with your folks . Love reading these old stories
Thanks, Dawn. You would have enjoyed the auctions with family members. Be sure to check back on Shirley’s farm machinery and equipment farm sale later this month. I am curious to see how this process unfolds. Take care!
When we lived in Georgia in the late 70’s they would have auctions in north Georgia in old barns, etc….. They had a lot of antiques in that area of the country. My heart would race at certain items, and my husband would have to hold my arm down as the bidding would get too steep. Oh the wonderful feeling though, when I did get something for the right price!
When we moved back to Texas in the early 80’s, we really enjoyed the estate sales, especially the ones way out in the country at old houses and barns! ! Unfortunately, now I have too many items and have slowly given a lot to Second Chance in LaGrange. Their proceeds go to charity and I feel that is a good way for someone else to enjoy the antiques and for charity to benefit..
Really enjoy your stories!
What great memories, Pat! I’m sure some of those purchases became darlings that you find hard to part with. It’s very good of you to share items with Second Chance in La Grange as you pare down your belongings so others can enjoy it. The circle of antique ownership and enjoyment continues! Thank you for writing.
Elaine, my husband and I attended Gilbert’s auctions in Weimar. One day Gilbert and I were talking and it seems his family helped out my family when they arrived from Germany to live in Texas.
After that, we were fast friends. I miss the “pile auctions”. We would buy an interesting pile and sell most of the stuff before the next auction item began.
We could, always, fine items for our house, windows, doors, sinks, dishes, furniture, etc.
Oh, for the good old days.
Thanks for sharing this heartwarming story about your family’s connection with Gilbert Stech’s family. I’m sure you and your husband enjoyed Gilbert’s auctions even more after that. We always enjoy coming across items that we can’t identify. Some of those were handmade. Yes, for the good old days!
Speaking of Second Chance Emporium in La Grange: I have taken so many items there, including furniture, dishes, etc. It was voted the best business in town a few years ago (and still is)! I went there last year looking for a small table, or something to place under my land line wall phone in the kitchen/den area. I went to the furniture section area and immediately saw a tall (about 4 ft. 9 ” tall) and 8 ” deep beautiful wooden “cabinet”? It had a glass door with wooden dividers and that was just what I needed. It had been donated the day before and I knew it was for me. It fits perfectly under the wall phone. Behind the two beautiful doors with the brass looking pulls, the first shelf has various phone books. The other shelves I have showcased colorful glassware that I inherited from my mom, aunts and my husband’s mother and aunts. If anyone reads this and recognizes the cabinet, thank you, thank you!
Barbara, whoever donated that wonderful little table would be thrilled that you appreciate it so much and value it not only for its beauty but practicality. How special that you are able to ‘personalize’ it by adding special glassware from family members. Don’t you wish that little table could tell its story?
Yes, I do Elaine. It is not really a table, but a cabinet, since it is almost as tall as I am and had doors to open, etc. My neighbor said that it is so well made that she thinks that it is an antique! It must be from an estate and some family member did not have a place to put it. But I am glad that I did have a place for it!!
Enjoy that cabinet! I know it is giving you a great deal of pleasure.
I’m late reading! Spent a week with my niece since I felt so “free” after my Covid shot! You never cease to amaze me, Elaine. Your stories are all so vivid and now even MORE-SO with the illustrations, Keep “Rabbit” around, please. My favorite part in this one is when “calm and cool” Emil asserted, “NOT ON YOUR LIFE!”
Brenda, thanks so much for the positive feedback. I’m delighted that you enjoyed the post and also the illustrations that Rabbit created just for this story. It’s always wonderful to know that I’ve made a reader like you smile!
Did you forget to mention the calves at Mclean’s that were tied to the rafters with just enough rope to lie down but when they got up for a run and reached the limit of the rope it would gently swing them right around? I hope it did not happen to your family, but the unfortunates who squeaked under that notorious low 9th Ave underpass but did not make it on the way back. The truck being higher without the cow.
Thanks for my morning chuckle, Peter! I don’t remember the calves on ropes, but I certainly do recall the 9th Ave. underpass. Wasn’t there one at 1st St. West and another at 1st St. East on 9th avenue? I think Daddy always turned off Macleod Trail at Burnsland Cemetery and followed that road to 9th Ave. What good memories!
I reread the whole article this morning and got such a chuckle out of your sister, Shirley, and her husband bidding against each other on some old ’78 records. Those were the best, weren’t they, Shirley.
Shirley was so timid that it was a big deal for her to bid and then to find out who her competition was! I wonder whatever happened to those 78s?