Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A day at the auction

I was at a farm auction the last weekend and had a pretty good time. Washington state is young enough that the old growth forests were harvested pretty recently. So recently that you often run across people who cut down the big trees.

The rural auctions here have a wide selection of big-tree saws and axes and other implements that work well for big timber. I like the history, and I enjoy timber framing, so running across a great deal on an adze or a set of draw knives. I like the feel of a tool that is hand-smooth and shows decades of use.

The handsaws in this picture are 5' and 7' long. that's a handsaw that's designed to cut logs in half, or huge beams. It's not a two-man saw that's 14-20' long -- and they were there at the auction. Hand drills, bow saws, all sorts of cool old tools. Those handsaws went for $30 each. For scale, notice the auctioneers feet in the upper left hand corner of the picture.

Some of the tools show surface rust, some more damaging. Some of the tools are just plain hard work, like that hand drill with the shoulder pad so you can lean into it while you drill.

All of the items are stacked on hay wagons, and there are three auctioneers standing on three different wagons, all simultaneous. I'm moving back and forth between wagons hoping to catch the items i'm interested in, missing some. It's part of the game. Carhardt clothing is the uniform of the day, and I wonder if some of the old-timers here are buying because of memories and not need. Every now and then someone will hold up a tool and ask anyone in general "what is this". "Silage knife", comes the quick reply. "you use it like this" gesturing with both hands. "Root axe. Really good at chopping roots out of holes" "Not good for anything, wall hanging. Maybe not even that", said with a sly smile -- and you know the bidder you'll be competing against.

Then there's the tractor auction, where tractors of all sorts are paraded through and sold. It starts with lawn tractors, to general derision. The farmers want them, but dont want to be seen buying one because their friends are all there, and they'll get ribbed about it. As each lawn tractor sells there's a general hue and cry by people who know the buyer. "DAVE! HOO YEAH! YOU ARE FARMING NOW!!" "Something for the wife, eh dave!!" It's all good natured, but dave is red faced.

There are tractors of all descriptions, but the big boys are the ones that garner respect. Each one was the king of its farm in its day -- the purchase that the farmer weighed and debated and scrimped and saved for. Visions of the work he could do, and the better life he'd live, and all of that is decades ago for these tractors. Some are very pretty, with new paint and parts, and others aren't, and I like the rusted ones, and the dents, and the wear and tear shown becuase it's honest. I am an honest machine that's worked hard, and I made life better for he who bought me. The gleam of that promise can be seen in the faces of the bidders. They want to pretend like buying this tractor is just business, but it's the boy in them 50 years past that secretly delights in the ownership of this anchor of the farm.

The small tractors are a mystery to me. Maybe that's as big as they were when they were made. Maybe its all that could be afforded, or a bigger one wouldn't fit between the rows. A tractor museum roars and clanks and squeaks by and the baseball caps swivel and the carhardts bunch as shoulders rub together in urgent conference about whether the wife will approve.

A crafty farmer has posted a sign on the side of this truck. "2 speed axle has disc brakes, NO CDL REQUIRED" because no one likes paying more than they can, and this truck goes for more than other, newer trucks because what was said makes sense to the other farmers, who watch every penny and don't delight in the purchase of a truck as much as a tractor.

Outside, groups of farmers in their uniforms meet and greet. The auction is one of the few times that they'll see other farmers, and it's half social. Surrounded by old wagon wheels and a yard-art seeder, these men are discussing fertilizing their field; general complaints about the price of fertilizer, and what a good price that tractor went for.

Some of the carhardts are clean, as this fellow on the left. I wonder if his wife made sure he was presentable, in the new outfit. His friends don't care, as with the fellow at the center. Smudges are a mark of honor. I work for this dirt, it says.

My choices were a pair of scytes, hand-smooth and well used, with sharpening stones attached by duct-tape. Clearly well used and in very good shape. A root axe, a pair of double-bladed axes, 4 adzes, an I beam 20' long and weighing 400lbs, a box of draw knives and a giant stainless steel pot.

I'm curious about the scythes. I'll try using them this summer to see what it was like. My connection to history.


Lee Johnson said...

Sounds pretty neat. I wonder if there are any farm auctions in our area. I probably wear enough Carhartt to get in the door.

The small tractor photo looks like a Farmall A or Farmall Cub. Both models featured "cultivision", with the engine offset so the operator had a clear view of cultivating tines to work row crops. The low weight minimized soil compaction. I can picture all those attributes still being useful to organic market gardeners today.

Looks like you got a brush and a grass scythe. I picked one up at an estate sale last year, but it didn't come with a stone and I haven't worked the edge up sufficiently to use it well. These American scythes are best known for wearing you out. I think most modern "scythers" have switched over to the more delicate European design which is considerably more efficient at cutting grass. The American model is still useful for wading into blackberries and brush, if you can get a knack for the technique. There's an extensive article on both here.

Emily said...

Great post. Enjoyable reading. I'll be checking out the article on scythes as I'd like to get one for harvesting small batches of grass and grain. Emily

Lee said...

Actually, I got caught up advocating for small tractors and forgot to mention how much I liked this post too. Very immersive style.

Emily - Another good place to start for scythe information is the Scythe Connection. They are pretty opinionated, but there's lots of good information and links to most scythe retailers in North America. Harvesting grain with a scythe also requires a cradle. I don't think anyone sells these anymore, so you'd have to fashion your own from old photos. This is way down on my to-do list as well.