Annual Amish auction: a destination, chance to relive history
As seems customary, or maybe just lucky, clear skies, a bright sun and balmy weather greeted the 2019 edition of the Amish Clearview School Quilt and Consignment Auction held July 27 at the school grounds on Highway 104 between Brodhead and Albany in Green County. The annual auction—this was the 23rd annual—is held to benefit the Clearview school serving the 40 or so children from the Amish families in the area.
Actually there are three auctions taking place at the same time: The biggest crowd sat under the huge striped tent where the quilt auction takes place; the furniture auction (also under a tent) always draws a big enthusiastic crowd and the third auction moves up and down rows of "stuff" laid out in rows on the ground.
Quilt bidding competition
I’m always amazed by the spirited competition among the bidders at the quilt auction as they seek to buy quilts of a specific design or quality. My wife was a quilter for a few years but mostly she made what are called “wall hangings”—several of which still hang where she placed them years ago.
What makes a quilt sell for a high price? An Amish woman who said she was not an expert, although a couple of nearby friends disagreed, said it was all in the stitching and color combination. "People who are interested in buying quilts do it for different reasons," she says. "Maybe they want a certain pattern. Maybe they are matching the curtains and paint in a bedroom. Maybe they just like the color."
A $925 top
Whatever the reason, the chairs and benches in the quilt auction tent were full with about 500 people from 9 a.m. until late in the afternoon with the highest price quilt selling for $925 and many bringing between $400 - $500. The catalog listed 154 items but many more were unlisted that didn’t make the catalog. By the way, the quilts at this auction do not need to be made by Amish quilters but must be handmade.
I’ll admit my knowledge of quilts starts and stops with memories of the big, heavy, thick quilts we used on our beds on the farm. I think my grandmother made them and we needed them to cover up with on those cold nights (before the old farm house was insulated) when I was a youngster. We had a half dozen or more but I don’t remember what ever happened to them—they probably went into the estate sale when my folks moved off the farm.
Need a chair?
The furniture auction is also a big attraction as everything from a small stool to an elaborate bedroom set went under the auctioneer’s gavel. It seems furniture buyers often come for a specific piece to use in a bedroom or living room. Bedsteads, chairs and tables are popular. An array of outdoor wooden chairs always lines the outside of the tent serving as demonstration models for potential buyers or perhaps resting spots for the tired.
Junk or finds?
Perhaps most intriguing to me is the third auction site where everything from “soup to nuts” are sold. The auctioneer remains in his “box” in a pickup truck that moves up and down rows of "stuff," some of it old and beat up, like the old, broken wooden wagon wheel and rubber kickball that brought $3, to a couple of saddles that were in very usable condition. The five-hour auction again proves that "one person's junk is another's treasure" and that everything someone throws away can find a new use with a new owner.
A picnic lunch
Then there is the food—something that may draw the crowds as much as anything. It's a grand picnic for people from Madison, Janesville, Beloit and the Chicago area. Where else can you buy food prepared by Amish cooks on a grill behind the one-room grade school or on the stoves in the schoolhouse, pick it up out of the schoolhouse window, eat at a picnic table while making new friends?
And don’t miss the homemade or horse made ice cream made in five gallon buckets using a mixer powered by a 20 year old horse owned by Rudy Detweiler. The horse, walking in a circle, powers a mixing contraption that replaced an old engine some years ago. “I made the mixer from the gears of a horse-drawn hay mower,” Rudy says with rightful pride. “And, no, the horse isn’t working too hard, like some city folks might think—this is a lot easier than pulling a hay wagon.”
As to the results? Just ask the folks who stand in line to get a scoop of ice cream on their pie. “It’s ice cream like it was—no additives, full fat, no air—and still should be,” an eater summarized.
The Clearview School Auction has a bit of a history dating to the mid 60’s when Lester and Fanny Detweiler held horse auctions in the mid-1960s when they lived in Waverly, Iowa. In 1977, they, along with a number of other Amish families, relocated to the Brodhead-Albany area where they bought a dairy farm.
In 1980, Lester held a horse auction at the Alliant Center in Madison. “We expanded into machinery and held two more auctions in Madison, then it got too expensive and we quit."
A couple of years later Detweiler resumed his horse auctions at his Brodhead farm, billing it as the "All-Wisconsin, Fall Draft Horse, Machinery & Quilt Consignment Auction".
"Somehow we had sold a few quilts and then more quilts, and the event got bigger," Detweiler remembers. Early on Fanny Detweiler got involved in running the quilt auction and did so for nine years. She admits that it was a lot of work and she got tired out.
A home at the school
In 1995 the auction was transferred to the Clearview School, just across the highway from the Detweiler farmstead, where it has prospered—with quilts as the main attraction—since. The proceeds are used to operate the Amish school and the parents of students do much of the work including the baking of 400 pies sold by the piece at lunch or whole to take home.
The annual Clearview School Auction, always held on the last Saturday in July, is much more than a farm auction. It's a reunion for the Amish folks who have left the community. If you think that Amish people who don't drive cars are stay-at-homes, you are dead wrong.
It's a great time for those attending near and far. Where else can you watch and maybe buy quilts, furniture and whatever at your own price, eat food from brats to hot dogs to casseroles prepared by Amish cooks, eating at a picnic table under blue skies? And when you’re full, search the tables of pies, breads and jams and jellies for sale—at the right price—that you can take home for later eating.
The annual Amish auction is a place to sell and buy handmade quilts—the kind you don’t find just any day. Perhaps equally as important—this is an event! A place to “get away from it all” for a few hours and do nothing but watch people and relive a bit of rural history. No admission or parking fees, and you might be able to park next to the buggy parking area and talk a bit with the horses who are patiently waiting for their owners.
As I summarized in this column back in 1995, “the annual Clearview Auction is a 'Back to the past, get ready for the future, picture taking, people watching, everyone talking, pie eating, ice cream dripping, diets don't count, back to the farm gathering'."
And it's still that way
John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.