May 31 2008
“Let’s go 50, a dollar-fifty. Now two. And 50. Now three. And 50, just 50 – do we have three-fifty? Fifty?
“Sold, for three dollars. All right, times 45 …”
Yikes. Had I just bought 45 double-impatiens for $135? Or did he say “four or five,” whatever I wanted?
Neither. Auctioneer Philip Wolf was just rushing into his next sing-song of bids, for flats of smaller flowers. My purchase was “times 12” – which means I bought a dozen near-identical plants. The foot-tall flowers were lush, fat with blossoms.
No two auctioneers sound exactly alike, but their lyrical, rhythmic chants are the kind of serenade that could rival rap musicians. The lilt seems hypnotic, and this is a part of what turns a sale into an event.
Amish families in southwest Wisconsin sell their products at least twice weekly during summer at the Growers Produce Auction, but the Memorial Day and Labor Day sales are by far the biggest.
“I don’t know where it all comes from, but it’s just amazing,” says Pat Gnewikow of Wilton, about 20 miles northeast of the Cashton auction site. She’s been making this destination an outing with her sisters for years.
The sale of thousands of potted flowers and/or vegetables, about 100 handcrafted quilts, numerous pieces of hand-carved furniture and other crafts keep three sets of auctioneers busy from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on the two holidays.
At the other auctions (11 a.m. to about 2 p.m. Tuesdays and Fridays, with Wednesdays added in August), the product selection all fits into the auction house and is sold by one auctioneer (who actually is German Baptist, not Amish).
Hundreds of handmade baskets and rugs are sold per auction. As harvests ripen, there will be fewer plants in pots and more freshly picked produce.
A few of the 150 consigners are “English” (non-Amish). Typical customers are wholesalers who buy merchandise in large quantities, although items in smaller amounts also are sold.
Most growers live within a 100-mile radius of Cashton, says Vernel Nelson, auction spokeswoman. When products are sold from farther away, she says they are identified as such before bidding begins.
Sometimes finished quilts or quilt tops come from as far away as Pennsylvania and fetch up to $700. The buyer of a quilt top, to which a back and batting must be added, has the option of hiring a local Amish woman to finish the project.
Vernel says the auction house helps the Amish obtain supplies that might otherwise be out of their reach. That includes cardboard tote boxes to hold 10 pounds of asparagus, or the plastic planters that become flourishing flower arrangements through greenhouse gardening.
A part of the auction allure is the appealing mix of merchandise and the ease in which customers can get swept into the bidding process. Getting a bargain means knowing your bottom line – and how much you’re buying –before bidding begins.
Not all auctioneers operate alike, and that can be confusing. One auctioneer may let a winning bidder take only as many of an item as is desired. Another will hold the top bidder responsible for an entire quantity of merchandise. The rules tend to be clear, but explanations are quick.
It’s fun to simply watch the action and people. Or arrive with friends and make bidding decisions as a group. Or be aware when strangers buy more than expected.
So when an auctioneer declared a winning bid of $17.50 for gorgeous hanging baskets, and the buyer flashed the peace sign, we smelled opportunity.
“That was times four,” the top bidder was told, with no room for negotiation, because a new sale began. We made a beeline her way, struck a private deal and soon took two unwanted baskets off of her hands.
The Growers Produce Auction site is at S347 Dell Road, Cashton, which is five miles southeast of the community and just off of Highway D. For more: 608-654-7880.
Activity begins in mid-May and ends in mid-October. Payments are made by cash or check. No credit cards are accepted. Quilts and furniture are only sold at Labor Day and Memorial Day sales.
To glimpse everyday Amish life in southwestern Wisconsin, follow Highway U or D out of Cashton, through Monroe and Vernon counties. Hilly and twisting roads compel you to slow down and soak in the horse-powered fieldwork, clotheslines full of blue and white laundry, clip-clop of hooves and buggies, dramatic vistas dotted with windmills.
Within the neatly tilled acreage are farms that go to extremes, tattered and rough to immaculate and idyllic. Simple roadside signs advertise bounty or craftsmanship – bakery to handcrafted beds – but don’t swing into a driveway unless serious about making a purchase. These hard-working families prefer to not be interrupted by gawking tourists.
To better understand what it means to be Amish, visit Kathy Kuderer at Down A Country Road, 12651 Hwy. 33, Cashton. She grew up with some of the area’s Old Order Amish families, sells their products in her rural enclave of tiny shops and leads 90-minute, small group tours of the area, which include stops at Amish farms.
Cost is $50 per family vehicle, and you drive as Kathy or another guide narrates. Reservations are required. For more: www.downacountryroad.com, 608-654-5318.