Farm auctions close a door on a way of living

Jerry Apps
Jerry Apps new each item and the stories connected to the equipment listed on his family's farm machinery auction bill in 1973.

The coming of spring meant the coming of farm auctions when I was a kid. There were many auctions as small family farms closed down, one after the other. It was a sad time in the country. It was also a sad time for the small villages that depended on these farms for their livelihood.

After World War II, farming began changing dramatically—tractors replaced horses, electricity replaced lamps and lanterns. Get big or get out was the message of the day.

In the neighborhood where I grew up there was a small family farm about every half mile. I remember them well: Bill Miller, Allen Davis, Andrew Nelson, Griff Davis, Arlan Handrich, Joe Hudziak, Charlie George, Bill Witt (my grandfather), Frank Kolka, Jesse DeWitt, and McKinley Jenks.

On a chilly spring day in 1965, my dad sold our small herd of registered Holsteins at an auction. Dad had worked since the 1920s to develop and improve his dairy herd. Now he saw them, one after the other, sold. That evening, when I walked with dad from the barn to house, he was crying. I had never seen him cry before.

My dad and mother lived on the home farm until 1973, when they had another auction. This time the farm machinery, household goods, and feed were sold. The auction bill noted a category for “Antiques and Collectibles.” Most of these items the folks used every day; they were more than antiques to them. A Farmall C tractor was on the list. Also, several horse-drawn machines—a dump rake, a two-row corn planter, a potato digger and a hay loader. I knew each item, knew it well, knew the stories connected to it.

It was a tough time, for me, for my brothers, and especially for my dad and mom. Farming was so much more than making a living, it was a way of life. The farm auction closed the door on a way of living—so important, but too often ignored.

THE OLD TIMER SAYS:  Never forgot the importance of the small family farm to the history of this country.

Jerry Apps

Jerry Apps, born and raised on a Wisconsin farm, is Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the author of more than 35 books, many of them on rural history and country life. For further information about Jerry's writing and TV work, go to