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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Elaine Thomas
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