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Wooden Boxes are Auction Gold

The best piece of financial advice to come out of our barn auction is this: forget Wall Street – invest in old wooden boxes.

I knew that people would buy the grimy old wooden boxes that have been accumulating in the Miller barn for the past 171 years. I had no idea, however, how much people would pay to possess these treasures of the past, each bearing a rich patina of Miller dirt.

A sturdy box whose lettering identified it as having once contained “The Encyclopedia Britannic Standard of the World Thirteenth Edition New Form Cloth'” (1926) sold for $45 in fierce bidding. Three other old boxes sold for $45.

Apiece. Really.

A dozen other boxes sold for between $6 and $30 each.

I thought a box labeled “Hercules Powder” should have gone for more than $17.50, but an antiques dealer standing next to Honey confided that wooden dynamite boxes are not all that rare. This dealer also told her that the auction was going well for us, the sellers, because the dealers were not winning bids.

Honey stuck close to the auctioneer all day, making note of what certain items sold for because some belonged to individual families, not to the farm as a whole. She and I also watched to make sure the auctioneers didn’t sell things like tables that were in the barn, but not part of the sale. I admit that I was often distracted in conversation when called back to duty by yells of “Hey, Fred, are you selling this thing?”

I AM NOT BEING facetious when I state that the dirtier things were, the more they sold for.

For instance, I had laboriously scrubbed 50 or so barrel staves, thinking that crafters would buy them to paint on. The wood was beautiful and interestingly grained. Three bundles of these barrel staves sold in one lot for $10. Conversely, an old barrel that would have fallen apart if I tried to wash it sold for $45.

This disparity of apparent value was demonstrated over and over as bidders either fought over or showed no interest in things such as a “fainting couch” that was nothing but a frame and springs ($15), a treadmill-powered churn for dogs or goats ($135), a portable Remington typewriter ($60), an apartment refrigerator ($2), a Hoosier kitchen cabinet with zinc counter ($50), two wooden pulleys ($25), wooden Indian pins that the EL YMCA had thrown away ($22.50), and a four-foot-square feather tick mattress ($12.50) that Honey had told me to burn but I couldn’t bring myself to do it and hid it for the sale.

There were nearly 300 lots. A beautiful and unique antique rocking chair with a wooden face, a photo of which Baer Auctions featured online to promote this auction, sold for $45 – the same as the above-mentioned wooden box.

A simple produce scale – a metal tray hanging from a dial scale – went for $70. The husband of the woman who won the bid told Honey she had been looking for one for three years and would not be denied.

The largest bid ($375) was for a pair of large, iron-rimmed, wooden wagon wheels.

On the other hand, some items went for far less than we anticipated.

A church pew in good shape sold for $25, the same price fetched by another pew in pieces. Both came out of the old Fairview Presbyterian Church in Pughtown 40 years ago, and were probably 100 years old then.

A good Brunco wood stove that had been in Seed’s living room until recently sold for only $25 from a sole bidder. I expected it to bring at least $200 and wasn’t happy about that until I found that it was bought by our neighbors, Farin and Jason, a young couple who operate Green Valley Dairy just across the Pa. line.

“I was going to bid up to $400 on it,” Jason told me later.

AN UNEXPECTED JOY of holding our barn auction was that we got to see and visit with old friends and neighbors like Jason and Farin, as well as to become acquainted with many new friends. It was a Gas Valley party. Everyone seemed to have a good time.

I joked with neighbor Bob Bruce about his family members buying so much of our old stuff and hauling it over the hill to their homes.

“When I’m gone,” Bob replied, “they’ll have an auction and you can come haul some of it back.”

Over the last two days before the auction, our eldest son, Seed, helped me a lot with sorting through piles and boxes of tools and other small metal implements. Time and again he would call me to look at things he had found, and to puzzle over what they had been used for. Some gave us a hint of what life was like on the farm 100 years and more ago.

Seed told his mother that as glad as he was to get the barn cleaned out, he was a little sad to part with so many things that had been handed down over four past generations of Millers.

When the auction was over and people had hauled off their prized acquisitions, Honey and I gazed with wonder at the barn interior. It seemed so big and empty now.

“Well, I guess the last thing to do is sweep up,” I said.

“You can’t,” she replied. “When you weren’t paying attention they sold the brooms.”

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