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3-D Auction

by Dave Yanko

NEAR WINDTHORST, SASKATCHEWAN - There are at least three ways to enjoy a country auction. You can hunt for bargains, socialize with friendly rural folk, or try to divine the personalities of the property owners by studying their stuff. I suspect everyone who attends a Saturday auction in the country does a little of all three, whether they realize it or not. The affair at Herb and Delores Biesenthal's farm, just north of this small town in southeast Saskatchewan, provided plenty of opportunity for all.

The elderly Herb and Delores are selling the farm and moving away for health reasons. Since Herb was born here and took over operation of the farm from his parents, he accumulated a lot of stuff over the course of his lifetime including, I must say, a fair bit of flotsam and jetsam, just like the rest of us.

Corine Bonk with depression glass.
Corine Bonk with depression glass.

But the Biesenthal country auction also featured a long, well-publicized list of antiques and collectibles interesting enough to attract a half-dozen dealers from around the region, as well as a good portion of the 300 or so people who came out for the day-long event. There was a pump organ in "perfect" condition, a bookcase/writing desk combination, wooden chairs, dressers, a spinning wheel, a crank gramophone, a "Canadian cradle", a child's sleigh and a baby carriage, pocket watches, bullet lighters, mantle clocks, a large doll and many other items, including a good selection of "depression glass".

"Because it was made during the Depression," Corine Bonk, of nearby Glenavon, replied in a charitable tone. "It was fairly reasonably priced. A lot of people had it."

And a lot of people now collect it. Increased interest brings increased prices, says Bonk, especially at auctions in Estevan and Weyburn, which tend to attract American visitors.

"Some of the pieces there go for as high as $200," she said.

The bargains are still out there for those who know what they're looking for.

Going for a bargain.
Going for a bargain.

"I picked up two pieces at an antique shop in Whitewood recently and I don't think the guy knew what they were because I got them for $10. So, in some places, you can still find it really cheap."

Shortly, I find myself attempting to repair a plastic, 35-mm camera farmer Dennis Lindh received a couple of years ago as an inducement to renew his subscription to The Western Producer farm journal. It wasn't clear to me on first arriving here that we auction people are all in this together. I would learn.

Having spoken with me earlier and noticing my old Pentax, Lindh took me to be the most likely candidate in the crowd to provide him with camera repair and/or advice. He planned to visit relatives in Sweden in a few weeks and wanted to take a camera with him. Should he buy a new one or have this one repaired? I startle myself by fixing the film advance mechanism.

I met Lindh before the auction got underway near an antique sewing machine in the furniture and wood-ware section of the farmyard. Turns out sewing machines are dear to him. His late mother bought a beautiful old Singer at an auction sale in Sweden in 1920. When she and her husband prepared to move to this part of the world shortly thereafter, Lindh's father dismantled the machine, packed the parts into a trunk and reassembled it when the couple arrived in Canada.


"My mother used that machine for another 60 or 70 years," he said. "When she passed away I tried using it, but it was worn out." He lent the machine to the Kipling museum.

Having not yet tired of silly questions, I asked Lindh whether the machine I found him staring at was of interest to him.

"Well," he said slowly, "this is a T. Eaton's machine. That name, alone, should tell you something."

"But I thought Singer was the name in sewing machines," says I.

And a woman's voice replied: "Singer likely made it for Eaton's."

We looked down to find that the voice appeared to be emanating from a robust rump situated where the stool of the sewing machine normally would be. Then a head and torso materialized. She was searching for a trademark, I suspect.

In any event, Lindh already purchased a working Singer to replace his mother's machine. It's a centennial model he bought at an auction sale three weeks ago. And it was one of those deals that every bargain hunter dreams about.

"The company started in 1851 and the one I got is 1951," he said, adding the unit came with the original manual and bobbins. "It's got the most beautiful, beautiful wood you ever saw. Curved legs - you know, that French style."

How much did he pay?

"Fifty bucks."

As I walked away from Lindh, the owner of the voice beneath the sewing machine came up to me and said she, too, attended that auction three weeks ago. Rain forced all the other bidders to seek shelter while Lindh stood fast, a wet winner. I didn't ask why she felt obliged to tell me this.

Most country auctions proceed, rain or shine. Advertisements I read before attending this one typically stated the auction will take place in a barn or large shed in the event of rain. According to Rod Churi, however, rain that occurs a day or two before an auction might actually boost attendance at the sale.

"I know a lot of guys who say 'well, it rained. I'm going to go to an auction sale'," Churi said, as the auctioneer behind us sang the virtues of a chain saw. Churi's best-guess explanation is rain leaves farmers feeling a little more optimistic about the crop and a little more willing to part with a dollar.

Not for sale.
Not for sale.

"I've heard this from lots of guys," he said.

Rita Ash's curiosity has gotten the best of her. She purposefully approaches me as I'm walking between the antiques section and the farm machinery area: "Can I ask what you're doing?"

"Certainly," I reply. And I explain.

Ash, who's moving from an old, old house into a new, old house on the farm, was looking for furnishings for the 1930s-era home. It would be a couple of hours before any of items of interest to her reach the block. So like everyone else who's not interested in horse rakes, hay balers or one-eyed tractors, we visit. Unlike yard and garage sales in the city, people socialize at a country auction. It stretches on for hours. The local ladies' auxiliary prepared the sandwiches and goodies on sale inside the Biesenthal house.

Not everyone here farms. Bill Coldwell, of Midale, Saskatchewan, is a civil servant who visits auction sales in search of antique furniture he fixes up and sells. Coldwell, a relative of the late M.J. Coldwell, a founder of the Canadian Commonwealth Federation party (predecessor of the New Democratic Party), says he keeps the odd item, too.

Business is what brought Arnie Tiefenbach to the auction. Tiefenbach is a writer and folk artist who paints cheerfully idyllic rural fantasies. He also dabbles in antiques.

"I know antiques fairly well and I have fairly good contacts," he says. "So I just try to pick up the odd piece and flip it on a wholesale basis to finance the art."

One of Tiefenbach's paintings is called "Remember the year Rudolph caught the flu?" It depicts Santa loading gifts onto his sleigh while his elves round up some cows. I know this because eventually I find myself standing beside Tiefenbach's van, in a cow pasture parking lot, filing through art prints after buying a book he wrote about a popular Saskatchewan curler named Sam Richardson.

A Christmas card from the painting by Arnie Tiefenbach.
A Christmas card from the painting by Arnie Tiefenbach.

Call it what you will, maybe "the fellowship of the country auction", but I paid wholesale for that book. We were all in this together.

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