Machinery and whole-herd dairy farm auctions, which were more common years ago, were well attended when auction notices were posted in the weekly newspaper and tacked up on store poster boards.
Crowds gathered to visit with neighbors and strangers, drink coffee and eat doughnuts and sandwiches. Bidding wars – both between friends and strangers – could be intense.
Leon, an older and wiser brother, was skilled at it. If a bidder was about take home a manure spreader at a too low price, he’d enter the bidding to drive it higher although even though he had no use for it. Others played the same game, which on occasion caused friction.
There were times, but not many, when Leon got stuck with something he didn’t want. It might be a junk pickup or a hay wagon with rotten boards. When it happened, the occurrence was laughed off as part of the game.
He freely offered advice when a neighbor auctioned his fine Guernsey herd. My billfold was fat with $1,000 that had been borrowed from the bank. Two cows with decent breeding might be purchased unless a mistake was made.
Leon was at my side when bidding commenced but said nothing until an older cow with a low udder and six months away from calving entered the ring. I had scribbled notes, but somehow hadn’t noticed she only had three working teats. Leon, as was his gruff habit, said only an idiot would want such a damaged cow.
The auction ended with a lighter wallet and a questionable cow to take home. The Guernsey produced a fine heifer calf that soon died and the cow, which was saddled with mastitis, was sent to slaughter for a considerable loss.
I’ve attended several auctions since, but mostly as an observer. During the height of the 1980s farm crisis, a community of friends in Iowa attempted to organize a penny auction for a family who had lost their machinery and cows to a lender. The goodwill idea was that all participants would agree beforehand to bid nothing more than a penny or not much more on any item. It was their way to help the family while getting even with the lender.
Penny auctions were held in Iowa and many other states during the Great Depression for the same reasons. The Farmers Holiday Association, which was among the most radical of farm organizations at the time, organized many of them.
The farm economy had tanked before the 1929 stock market crash because production continually outstripped demand. The Holiday Association and other groups marched on state capitols to demand an end to all farm foreclosures because most thought the Great Depression would soon end and farmers could quickly recoup their losses. Other protests involved blocking roads, killing piglets and dumping milk. Bankers were assaulted and police fought with farmer protesters.
The first recorded penny auction was held in Nebraska, where the association was strongest. A farmer’s entire machinery line was sold. The final bid on a fine piece of equipment was 5 cents and the entire auction netted the lender $5.35.
The penny auction planned in 1980s Iowa wasn’t successful. Farmers were not as radical as those in the Great Depression when borrowers had far fewer rights. However, sit-ins were held in Federal Land Bank offices and lenders were threatened. More than 30 percent of all Iowa farms were lost in the crisis and ended an era when bankers and borrowers made handshake agreements.
For my part, I’ll never forget the pain in the voices of the farmers who lost everything and the hurt in their children’s eyes. The world they had known – from the backyard swing sets and the sand box filled with toy tractors and equipment – would never be quite the same.