“You’re riiiggggght” shouts the auctioneer, at just past eleven o’clock on an overcast, but dry, Saturday August 31 2013. “We’ll start with this wagon load and at noon we’ll sell the farm”. After explaining to the crowd who my parents are and, surprisingly, his own history with the farm they have owned for the past fifty years, the auction begins. The auctioneer knows my dad quite well as a cattle dealer and a regular auction attendee. A number of the articles he will sell today dad bought under his hammer at other farm auctions over the years. He reminisces about watching hockey games in this house over fifty years ago when his uncle owned the farm and the only television in the neighbourhood.
For the next three hours, the rapid fire chant of the auctioneer will barely stop between articles held up from wagons. When the wagons are empty the crowd will follow him around the yard, from item to item like a swarm of bees or a flock of blackbirds, straining to see, not wanting to miss the final price or the opportunity for a deal.
The highlight of this sale, for some, will be the sale of the farm. There are a number of folks in the crowd interested in buying the real estate. Most have visited at least once, toured the buildings, walked the land. But, when the bidding starts, only two bidders emerge to compete for the right to the deed. The rest are out of their price range in the first moments of bidding.
These two bidders represent something of a conflict playing out in rural Ontario. One of them is the neighbour down the road whose family traces its history in the area back to the first settlers. He has been renting the land here for the past five years, or so, and operates what many might see as a large, industrial style, beef farm. He already owns well over 500 acres, feeds hundreds of cattle, but feels he needs to continue to expand to stay ahead of rising costs. This property would fit well with the rest of his operation, but he will have little use for the house and other outbuildings. He is very active in the community, his church, service clubs, well known and well liked.
The other bidder is a Mennonite who would like this property for his son who is soon to be married. In many ways, Old Order Mennonites are resettling many parts of Ontario. They are building farmsteads where the original ones had been bulldozed to make room for cash crops. They are bringing livestock and large gardens; building new churches and schools; looking for opportunities for their large families. Whole concession roads have been transformed, one farm at a time, and they would really like to add this farm to their holdings. The bidder is a leader in his community, a deacon in the church and one of the first to settle in the area.
As the bidding accelerates upward there is a feeling of tension in the crowd, Could this farm really be worth so much money? The final bid sits with the Mennonite family and the auctioneer, as he had promised, stops the bidding to consult with my parents. They return and declare that the farm is now selling without a reserve and bidding is opened again. Tension increases as the battle between stability and change goes on for another $65,000. In the end, the neighbour is outdone by the seemingly endless resources of his Mennonite competitor. With the declaration of “SOLD” and the bang of the gavel, the crowd’s tension is broken and there is a round of applause for both bidders. The neighbours go home, defeated, and the Mennonite women crowd in to inspect the house, to claim their prize. Change continued its relentless movement.
The rest of the auction was uneventful, almost an anticlimax, the main event was over. The farm would continue on as a single family unit, the buildings would be maintained and improved, livestock again would be pastured in the fields and a large garden would again be planted near the house. For all of the “return to the way it was”, however, there is also a fear for the community as we know it; the Mennonites bring their own community with them and interact only as they need to with the local village and its institutions. I wonder now, if the auctioneer and his relatives, didn’t have many of the same feelings of something slipping between their fingers, as they watched the hockey game fifty years ago in what became my parents house, part of the Dutch migration of the 1960’s.
In the next few weeks, my parents will move to their new home. Much of their stuff is gone, carried, and driven, down the driveway last Saturday. I overheard a neighbour ask my father if this was going to be a sad day. He responded very quickly with “Why should it be sad? We’ve had a good life. We’ve been blessed here.”
And so, surrounded by family and friends, an era ended, change came, and something new is begun.