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As the sun rises and the morning dew burns away, the clip-clop of horses hooves and the rumble of steel wheels on the road increases. Gathering from every direction, the buggy traffic is headed for one central location on the edge of town. Today is Sale Day!
More than 150 years ago, as the Amish Heartland was being settled, the farmer's auction served an essential function. It was the only way the homesteaders had to trade goods, sell surplus produce and buy new stock for their growing farms. Yet today, even with easy access to supermarkets and WalMart, the weekly auctions and flea markets scattered throughout Holmes County are flourishing. The sale barn is still an important gathering place for trade, the exchange of news, and even entertainment.
As the buggies roll into the vast gravel parking lot, they are joined by an assortment of motorized vehicles carrying every kind of load imaginable. Bawling cows peer out from the slats of a long, shiny livestock trailer being maneuvered into position at the loading dock by a gleaming dual-axle pick-up truck. At the next gate, a rusty old dump truck drops its tailgate, and helpers shoo squealing pigs from the truck into the cavernous entrance of the holding pens. One enormous sow makes her way majestically across the concrete apron, flicking an ear disdainfully at the shouts and prods of her owner. An Amish farmer reins in his horse at the dock, and a solitary calf is led away from the small cart attached to the back of his buggy. Nearby, auction workers set up a series of gates to form a walkway to the back of the barn, where a heavily reinforced pen is located. An enormous black bull is about to make his appearance, and judging by the snorts and thumps coming from the back of the stock truck, extra precautions are called for. A small flock of sheep step meekly from a farm wagon into an open pen, and settle down on the hay to await their turn in the auction ring. As the morning passes, the barn will fill up with beef and dairy cattle, sheep, goats, hogs, and even the occasional donkey or horse. In the back of the parking lot, dump trucks and hay wagons line up their loads of hay and straw bales.
At another, smaller barn, the farmers and their wives bring in crates of eggs and burlap bags filled with potatoes, carrots, onions and other produce they have raised in their truck patches. Rows of baker's racks fill up with fresh pies, cakes, cookies and bread. The clear plastic packaging cannot conceal the tantalizing aromas of fat cinnamon rolls and plump, cream-filled moon pies.
Sellers and buyers alike settle in their places on rows of benches. As they await the arrival of the auctioneer, the hum of conversations in Pennsylvania Dutch and English fills the room. The sale barn is one place where Amish and English mingle and interact freely, and many a mixed-language discussion attests to the common heritage of these people.
Over here, a sun-weathered farmer in a baseball cap gestures and his voice rises as he delivers his opinion on government price supports for grain crops. Over there, two Amish women lean together to exchange news of the latest births and deaths. A young woman in jeans and a sweatshirt discusses the merits of a Jersey heifer with a bearded Amish man.
The action generally begins around 10:00 a.m. as the auctioneer enters the sale ring and strikes his gavel on the counter top. The first order of business is usually hay and straw. Samples are brought in from the trucks outside, and prices are quickly established by the bids offered by a handful of dealers and individual farmers. By
11:00 the auctioneer's helpers begin driving in the first of the livestock that will be sold. The sale heats up when the dairy cows and calves begin to arrive in the ring. The auctioneer, who knows most of the regulars by first name, teases and cajoles the audience to get their bids higher.
Cmon, Fred! he addresses one reluctant bidder. What are you going to do with all that cash you've got hidden under your mattress?!
As a black and white Holstein is led into the ring, he announces, This one is a beauty, boys! She milks easy, and she produces nothing but heifers!
In the meantime, another member of the auctioneer's team is selling the produce and baked goods in the smaller side barn.
Eager buyers snap up cases of eggs to re-sell at outdoor markets, and homemakers whose own supplies are running low purchase 50-pound sacks of potatoes to feed their hungry families. Even tourists join in to buy bread and pies to take home, or a package of a half-dozen sweet rolls to munch as they walk around. A steaming pot dispenses foam cups of hot coffee. The customer is on his honor to deposit a quarter in the mug on the table, and very few fail to pay for their beverage.
While bounty from the farm is auctioned inside, vendors have gathered outside in the parking lot to display flea market wares.
From the backs of trucks, the insides of vans, or from card tables set up in rows, they hawk their merchandise. The stock ranges wildly from first-quality housewares and gift items to used tools, antiques and just plain junk. One enterprising salesman has packages of white tube socks under a hand-lettered sign pronouncing them to be the BEST SOX on the market. Another dealer has set out old light fixtures, stacks of eight-track tapes, and a baby's well-used high chair. A pick-up truck is loaded with cases of oranges, cauliflower and celery. A van door stands open to reveal genuine Indian jewelry and framed paintings on velvet. And everywhere there are people of all shapes, sizes and colors, bargaining with the vendors, examining goods, wheeling carts and baby strollers up and down the aisles, or just chatting with friends
The aroma of spicy steak sandwiches draws a crowd well before noon. Hungry customers gather around a trailer where the sliced
steak is fried on a grill with thick slices of onion and green peppers. The chef ladles meat and vegetables into fat buns, and men, women and children walk slowly away, biting blissfully into their sandwiches, one hand cupped under their mouths to catch the juices that run down their chins. Another trailer dispenses fresh doughnuts, lemonade and soft drinks.
The auction and flea markets go on all year round, in any kind of weather. In the winter, or on a stormy spring day, there may be fewer flea market vendors, and only the hardiest souls linger outside to shop or barter. Depending on the time of year, the competition in bidding, and the number of animals being sold, the auction is usually competed by early afternoon. In the summer, the flea marketers may still be doing business at 4:00. But farmers are early to bed and early to rise, and by late afternoon the parking lot has cleared, the cows and pigs have been transported to their new homes, and the office staff at the sale barn are locking the doors. But the place will spring to life again next week, as the locals gather to exchange livestock and gossip, carrying on the traditions of their forebears in the Amish Heartland.(March/April 2002 Edition)