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At Work: Priceless Legacy

Adair County

A Community Calling in Adair County

Story and photography by Terri Queck-Matzie

And now, after lying half a century in his garret and other dust holes, these things were not burned; instead of a bonfire, or purifying destruction of them, there was an auction, or increasing of them.
The neighbors eagerly collected to view them, bought them all, and carefully transported them to their garrets and dust holes, to lie there till their estates are settled, when they will start again.

— Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Whadda you give me on that? Somebody pay 500 on i-it. I git the money, git the money, git the money. Start now, 100 dollars. Now two-oo. I got one, now two, two, two . . .

One by one the belongings are carted off to new homes — Dad’s bentwood rocking chair, Grandma’s Carnival Glass bowl, the Roseville vase Mom bought at the auction down the street. Antiques and collectibles. Useful household items. Reminders of special memories.

Buyers are here for reasons as varied as the merchandise. Some are family. Some are collectors. Some are dealers. Some are just here to visit with friends and neighbors and enjoy a warm summer day. Winning bidders will leave with new property, but everyone in attendance today gets an afternoon of free entertainment courtesy of Tim Baier, Auctioneer.

“It’s the best show in town,” says antiques dealer Tom Bingaman, a staple in the Adair County crowd for nearly 40 years and through two Baier eras on the local auction circuit.

At a charity auction Baier (pronounced, fittingly, buyer) warms up the gathering by introducing his volunteer ringmen. “I’ve got a minster and an insurance agent,” he tells the waiting bidders. “They can twist your arm as good as anybody.” For nearly 45 minutes Baier deftly works his audience, pulling in bid after bid. A sales pitch for the merchandise is paired with a shout-out to a well-known face in the audience. When the pace slows, he turns the tables back to the ringmen. “I should have gotten two minister-ers,” he slides into his cadence. The room erupts with laughter. The pace of the bids picks up.

Git-a-one, git-a-one, git-a-one, now two. I git-a-one, git-a-one, git-a-one, now two, two, two. Git-a-one, now two. Hundred dollar bill, now ha-alf. Hundred and a quarter, now ha-alf . . .

Auctioneering requires keen observation and timing skills. “And knowing your buyers,” stresses Baier. He knows who in the crowd is likely to buy that box of postcards, who won’t bid against others, whom he can joke with or joke about. It’s all part of the complexity of a profession that looks simple with Baier commanding the block.

Baier is the third generation to ring out the familiar call. He has a yellowed graduation certificate from Jones Auction School in Chicago that marks 1913 as the year his grandfather, Henry, began his career. Baier’s father, Delmer, took up the trade when he returned from the Coast Guard after WWII, working with his father and a string of partners through the years. Delmer’s wife, and Tim’s mother, Joan, took her turn as auction clerk.

After college Baier partnered with his father and Max Erbes in the late 1970s. The trio ruled the Adair County auction circuit for nearly a quarter century until Delmer’s death in 2003 and Erbes’ in 2004. (Max’s wife, Helen, still clerks.) Tim now partners with various auctioneers depending on the type of sale, lending his reputation and expertise to any configuration. It’s those partnerships and supporting roles Baier credits with his continuing success as an auctioneer. It’s the people he credits with his choice to enter the field.

“It was really the community that got me into it,” says Baier. “People kept asking me if I would do it.” Thirty-five years later he’s still providing what he considers a valuable community service, helping families settle an estate, clean out a family home, liquidate assets for relocation.

I got a hundred and a half, hundred and a half, now one seventy-five, five, five. Hundred and a half, now one seventy-fi-ive. I got one seventy-five, now two-oo. One seventy-five, now two, two, two . . .

Household sales are more often than not estate dispersals. The passing of one’s possessions to friends and neighbors is a long-standing American tradition. An auctioneer works for the seller and must know his merchandise to get the best price. That knowledge is essential when the goods on the auction block are more than tools and dinnerware. Baier is also a real estate broker who presides at land auctions — from Grandma’s early-20th-century cottage to today’s high-priced farmland. “That’s the family’s entire inheritance or maybe their retirement. Every dollar matters.”

Building trust and credibility with the buyer is equally important. “You know you’re getting a fair deal at a Baier sale,” says Bingaman. “There aren’t any bids pulled out of the air, no misrepresentation of the items up for sale.”

“There’s a fine line between the buyer and the seller,” adds Baier. “You have to be fair to both.”

Baier spends his weekdays as sales manager for Schildberg Construction Company in Greenfield, but auctioneering is more than just a Saturday afternoon gig. Much preparation goes into every sale. Long before the crowd gathers and the first, sometimes barely perceptible, wave marks the initial bid of the day, there are meetings with sellers to preview their belongings and sale bills to compile, print, and disperse. Also crucial are packing up and setting up — arranging items for the most efficient and effective order of sale — for around 100 sales a year.

“I enjoy it,” says Baier. “I enjoy the people and being part of small-town life.”

Those times he’s called to serve the community register the closest to his heart, another part of the long family tradition. “Dad and Grandpa used to do 50 or more church bazaars a year,” he recalls. “Now I do around 10.” There are also Optimist Club pie auctions, junior classes raising money for prom, and benefits for those in need. “I just did one for a local kid fighting cancer,” he adds, letting a touch of emotion penetrate the professionalism. “Those are special. And I’m glad I can help.”

Baier hopes to see the family tradition continue. His three sons are beginning their own careers, and Baier is waiting to see if one of them picks up the auction call. “I was privileged to work beside my dad for 25 years. That’s not something most people get to do. So maybe one of them will want to do that some day. It’s just in your blood, you know.”

Terri Queck-Matzie is a Fontanelle-based writer and photographer who knows a good deal when she sees one.

Calling for the Cause

In the midst of WWI, the Baier family found its intersection with history. The Red Cross worked to raise money for the troops, and donations at local auctions contributed needed funds and increased public awareness.    

Fontanelle farmer Mark Dunkerson donated a scruffy black-brown rooster to the cause in 1917. Henry Baier was one of the auctioneers calling the sale that day. “How much am I offered for this rooster?”

From the rear of the crowd came a faint voice. “50 cents.”

Just when it seemed the bird’s fund-raising career had come to an unremarkable end, the same voice spoke. “I don’t want him,” it said. “Sell him again.” And so the rooster was resold. Again and again that day.

The sale became a game, with no one person owning the bird for more than five minutes and no bid larger than $10 accepted. When the day was over, the rooster had been sold 108 times and the sales had netted $292 for the Red Cross war effort.

The rooster went home with auctioneer David R. Jones of Casey, who dubbed the bird Jack Pershing, after General John J. Pershing, leader of U.S. troops in Europe. Throughout the remainder of the war, Jones and his crowd-working sidekick traveled the Midwest replicating the Fontanelle phenomenon. By the end of the war the duo had raised nearly $40,000 for the Red Cross effort.

On September 30, 2001, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, history repeated itself. It was Delmer Baier who resold Jack Pershing — now in taxidermy form — to a crowd gathered at the Adair County Heritage Museum for the Adair County Sesquicentennial Celebration. Jack was on loan from the Iowa State Historical Society for the occasion, and the effort produced $1,800 for the Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund.

Illustration © Hranisavljevic

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