St Croix River Road Ramblings

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Saturday, January 25, 2014

Auction at a County School


Red arrows tacked to trees point the way to the country school auction. Across Wood River bridge in Burnett County, northwestern Wisconsin, I turn right off the highway, drive two miles south and there the school sits on a shady, corner lot. The building is white clapboard with a belfry at the front.  It is surrounded by tall trees, and the playground is all green grass.

Just for today the school is no longer deserted; the rooms once again echo to the sound of voices, and there is activity and laughter, visiting among neighbors. Small children play in groups, sliding down the slides with shouts of, "We don‘t have these where we are now! and swinging on giant strides and pumping hands full of water for each other at the old pump near the door.

The antique hunters are here, mentally cataloging what to bid on and how high to go. The onlookers are here, too (like me) who came because an ad in the newspaper beckoned with its promise of rare treasures. It is an offer which describes not the bargains of the year but the bargains of yesteryear

The school itself is a big, two--room building with high ceilings and high windows. Although it was built in the late 1800‘s, there are signs that the people in the area have cared for and tried to maintain the property. The high ceilings are squared in embossed tin; the floors are completely tiled in red and gray vinyl, and there is a well-equipped kitchen for the hot lunch program. Two new furnaces provide heat, and each room has a piano to provide music.

Closer scrutiny however, reveals there is no running water in the building; outdoor buildings are the restroom facilities (boys in one direction, girls in another direction), old fashioned cloakrooms along one side with pipes for coat racks, and wooden steps resound to the stampede of feet.  Moss is growing on the roof, and the cedar shingles are warped and bulging.

It is no wonder that consolidation has come to a country school, and progress has moved the children to a new building on the highway, with much glass, brick and a brave display of primary colors.

But I can't help but wonder how many children have passed through grades here, how many school programs have been presented on the wooden platform erected at Christmas time, how many teachers have tried their wings teaching their children here. How many Friday nights have the lights burned for the old--time school meetings with parents making school decisions, visiting together and enjoying the lunch afterwards.

Now before the auction begins, crowds mill around as people inspect the furniture, pulling out drawers, slamming them shut, opening cupboards, peering and poking and asking themselves if this is something they could possibly use.

The auctioneer with his traditional cane (mark of his trade) taps the edge of the hay wagon and calls out, "All right, folks, let's start." He climbs up on the wagon bed and for this particular show, it becomes his sounding board, his stage. The people move closer as the auctioneer taps his cane again and they look appraisingly at the piles of articles already stacked on the platform.

Rows of teachers' desks stand to one side of the school grounds, old bookcases with the glass gone, marble topped home economics tables with little round swing out stools attached, coat racks, benches, tables; all the equipment which filled a schoolhouse in another era is out in the cool autumn light.

The auctioneer shares his platform with a clerk who writes down all purchases and names of buyers. The sale begins small, with stacks of utility dishes from the kitchen, odds and ends of silverware and glasses, dishpans, rolling pins and graters. A few people bid. Faces become more interested as Paul Bunyan--size kettles and pans are held up. They go high, we all agree.

Men who are helping at the sale carry out whole sections of blackboards and the auctioneer says, "Here you are, folks, real slate. Who'll say five dollars?" A voice in the crowd corrects, amends, names her own price and calls out, "Three!" From that bid the price goes steadily upward and stops around six. "How many do you want, lady, all of them?" She answers, "Just one." Piece after piece is sold and handed out to the buyer. A woman says, "Oh, this is heavy. Wait until I get my husband to help me." The auctioneer continues, "Just one left, folks. The best of the lot!" and he throws in a handful of felt erasers as a bonus to the buyer.

Water coolers are next.  Some are fat blue--gray cracks with bubbler attachments.  Others are enameled cabinets with a place for a pail underneath for waste water.  Several go to county historical societies.

World globes do a spinning business, and roll-up maps in their olive green cases sell well. Many who have never left their own communities take an interest in faraway places. One woman watches a man buy a whole bundle of maps for a dollar and then offers him $.50 for just the one map of South America. He sells it to her.

Folding chairs go quickly, as bidders purchase them for churches or clubs. Brown metal ones go for $2.25. "How many do you want?" The answer is "Twenty." "Give her twenty here. Still have fifteen. Who wants them at the same price?" asks the auctioneer.

The wooden folding chairs go for less.  "I should have waited and bid on them," grumbles a man who purchased twenty metal ones.

The sale progresses. Small student desks go sky high as parents buy them for their children.  The larger size student desks go begging.  Perhaps due to the deep carving and scratches on their lift--up lids, or perhaps older children wouldn't care for desks at home.

Lucky bidders carry their purchases to their cars.  Some items will have to be hauled later: the furnaces and parts, gas tanks, deep well pump, kitchen range, refrigerator and lumber.

A wall clock is held up by the sale clerk.  Set in a wooden frame of oak, no glass, a key for winding still stuck into its middle, the thin pendulum swinging back and forth in the man's hand, the clock speaks of another world.  It has a paper face glued onto the surface and there are more numbers on it than the usual twelve. Antique dealers close in as the auctioneer alerts them with the words, "This is a real old--timer, folks." They already know that fact and the bidding is brisk.

A second clock is held aloft with the remark, "This one still runs, folks.  Been running since 1895.  The date is on the back."  His stamp of approval sends the bids higher.

Assorted tables are carried out, bought and carried off.  Everything is to be sold and all sales are final.  The bell in the tower is the piece de resistance and is expensive.  "It's worth that in scrap iron," the buyer says.  How many reluctant pupils has it called to school, how many recesses has it given and then recalled in 15 minutes, how many echoes has it set up across the fields.  It was a privilege indeed if the teacher allowed one to pull the bell rope.  There is no rope attached to it now, and the bell has been silenced.  What a job it will be to remove it from the lofty height it has occupied all these years.

The teachers' desks are next in line.  Spectators, who have been sitting on the desks, now rise, and the auctioneer hops on the top of the first desk and says, "All right, folks. What'll you give for it?"  A farmer in bib overalls buys that one.

I find myself caught up in the mood of the crowd and what has been a vague longing to have a desk someday is now a compelling force.  When the auctioneer says, "Who'll give me five dollars?"  I answer, "Here."  Someone raises my timid bid.  "Say six dollars," the auctioneer urges me.  "Yes," I repeat in a voice growing stronger by the second. My competitor goes higher. "Say seven," pleads the auctioneer. "Don't lose out when you've gone this far."

I look at the sturdy oak desk; I note the deep drawers; I visualize it in my house. My heart is pounding.  The crowd is waiting and suddenly it seems like the most important thing in my life to possess that battered old desk, to claim it for my own. I can‘t speak, but I nod my head.  My opponent knows I mean to have it at any price.  He drops out of the bidding, and I am the owner.

The final sale is the flagpole, set in cement in the schoolyard. It will have a new life on somebody's lawn.

The crowd has thinned out.  Evening is coming on, and the auction is over. The auctioneer looks around and asks, "Is that it?," and his helpers answer, "Yep, that's it."  The clerk is busy totaling up what people owe him, making change, and I pay for my desk.  Cars pull away from the country crossroads.

I return home in my small car and tell my husband, "I bought a desk."  He's nice about it and says, "Let's go and get it then, will it fit in the station wagon?"

"I don't know," I answer and am suddenly struck by the enormity of my deed. We drive the fifteen miles back to the school.  By now the red eye of the sun is resting on the rim of the world, and the chill of evening has come.  My desk sits alone in the grassy yard.  We manage to wedge it into the back of the station wagon.

"Do you want to see the school?" I ask my husband, and we go inside, walk through the classrooms, snap the lights on and off, come out and shut the door. Someone will probably be back to lock up.

The ground near the pump is wet; the grass is crushed from the many feet standing there throughout the afternoon.  Blank windows stare back at us as we stand there. The schoolhouse, too is going, going, gone.

  Two Januaries ago, Bernice Abrahamzon, a friend and a writer from Lewis passed away from cancer.  I am re-publishing a book from 1996 from the Northwest Wisconsin Regional Writers for the club and decided to share one of the stories with you.  

  Bernice passed along the treasurer's job for the club to me.  She was a founding member back in 1966 and active until the month before she passed away.  We miss her very much, and her weekly column in the Inter-County Leader.    (The book will be out in February if all goes well).  

By the way do you know what schoolhouse this is?  "Across the Wood River Bridge in Burnett County turn right off the highway and then drive 2 miles south and the school sits on a corner lot -- white clapboards."