Field Notes: Brumbach Auction 1-24-2014

Field Notes – 5:00 PM – 6:30PM

First visit to the Brumbach Auction, Sunbury, PA

Sveva Marcangeli


I visited the Brumbach Auction, where people within a 50 mile radius would come to buy products from cabbage, to Tide detergent, to train sets, to even cooking books. As I parked the car, from the outside the barn looked all closed. It took me a while to find the one door that would lead to the auction since the barn had 12 doors lined up one after the other. Once I found the door, to the right of the Bingo Fun Night door, I walked in to find another door ahead of me with a piece of paper taped to the door that had written in marker “No Pets Allowed.” As I opened the second door, I was surprised by the setup of the auction. It was much different from what I had imagined. The setup resembled more of a restaurant or social space then a barn.

There are seven rows of tables and benches spread out evenly in the center of the room, seven on the left hand side and seven on the right. Furniture, clocks, and other auction items that are currently not being sold are pushed up against the walls and surround the barn to make one feel as if they are being wrapped in history and culture. Items such as Tide detergent, paper towels, candy, apples, portraits, and pots are all lined up at the front in front of the two bid callers. The two bid callers, a woman and a man, are standing a top of a large riser, while the man speaks into the microphone calling out the prices and the woman takes notes on who wins the auction item.

There were two young men in their mid-30s at the back of the auction behind a table who had all the food provisions. Whenever auctioneers would win the bid, the two men would scatter themselves around the tables and assist the auctioneers in their provisions. This auction was unlike any other I had ever experienced. Unlike regular auctions where there is only one winner, when it came to certain foods such as cabbage, candy, and apples, there were multiple winners who would tell the two men in the back of the room how many pieces, pounds, or ounces they wanted of their food, and the two men would report to the bid callers the amount the auctioneer bought. To the left of the two men stood a counter service that offered burgers, fries, hot dogs, soups, soda and other unhealthy options. A woman stood behind the counter taking orders.

As I walked toward the back of the room all eyes were on me since I obviously looked like I didn’t blend in with the people there. I came dressed in my school clothes while everyone around me was dressed in sweatpants and baseball caps. My age also seemed to play a factor in drawing myself attention since I did appear to be too young to be at the auction. The people there must’ve been 50 years old or older. I received a lot of curious looks.

I made my way to the back of the room in front of the food counter where three women in their early 60s were standing, speaking amongst themselves in a huddled group. Before taking a seat, I decided to stand next to the women for a while and observe my surroundings from above, before emerging myself with the people seated. The barn consisted of roughly 27 people over the age of 45 who where all their in couples. Some even brought their children and left them behind all the benches and tables sitting in an eighth row that consisted of archer seats, like the ones you would see in a baseball stadium. There was a distinct separation between the 8 children between the ages of 8 and 16 in the back and the grandparents or parents in the front. Everyone at the auction was eating from the counter service provided in the back while participating in the auction, and the men had different pieces of cardboard, that seemed to have been made last minute, with their auction number written on it. The children in the back seemed all disinterested in their parents and grandparents auction as each crouched in their chair either playing with their phones or eating. Exception made for two older teenage boys who seemed to be interested in the auction as they stood by their fathers and watched them bid. It was also interesting to note that some people didn’t even have an auction number. They were there just for dinner and to observe the auction, which I find very peculiar for I don’t see how watching an auction during dinner can be of any enjoyment. I assume they are endeavoring to figure out what prices are suitable for what items or have some emotional, traditional attachment to the event.

After closely scrutinizing the area, I approached the three women in the back of the room in front of the counter service and asked them if they could explain the process of this particular and peculiar auction. I went on further to ask if there was a reason why they came to this specific auction, if they had some sort of emotional attachment to it or whether it was because it was in the area. Woman X, who was the woman who stood in the middle of three, seemed to dominate most of the conversation. She told me she had been coming to this auction as far back as her childhood trips with her mother and grandfather. However, her sole reason for coming to this auction was because she was an adamant collector of cookbooks. She states, “Reading and using cookbooks, especially older cookbooks, is a great way to experience that personal connection with the past.” This made me wonder if this type of auction had less of an emotional attachment to the user of the cookbook, but rather to meaning behind the item itself. When I asked the women if they came here because of the quality of the items and if they knew where the items came from, they said they had no idea where they came from. They came from all over America. This led me to think that the reasoning behind buying items from this auction for most of this women, stemmed from a need to reminiscence their childhood. They want to delve back into the past, to their grandmother’s antique recipes, to their mother’s old cooking pots and coffee makers. They are endeavoring to perhaps savor a taste, capture and relive a moment in the past. Unlike a normal auction where people buy items because they know the meaning and story behind it. The second woman told me she came to this auction because it was a great way to get deep discounts on everything from cereal to spare ribs to kids toys. The third told me she came because her husband had been coming ever since he was young as well.

I proceeded to sit down in the middle of the crowd and finally emerge myself in the auction. I spoke to an elderly woman next to me who told me she would drive 50 miles just to see this auction because the prices, bargains, and history behind some of the items meant a lot to her emotionally. It was a tradition of hers that her family had been doing since a young age. She was the sole single woman at the auction. All the other auctioneers were in couples. The men generally dominated the bidding, even when it came to the food. The women would just take note and tell the men what they needed.

Overall, the auction had been quite interesting. I came to realize that this type of auction was much different from any other auction. The emotional attachment didn’t stem from items that they knew belonged to certain people, but rather from a nostalgic need that had to be fulfilled and relived. Furthermore, I caught a glimpse of patriarchy that seems to be a recurring motif in the rural Pennsylvania society I observed at the auction. However, more observation would have to be done on this topic to reach any solid conclusions.

One Response to Field Notes: Brumbach Auction 1-24-2014

  1. milofsky says:

    This is a really nice account of the auction, although it’s really hard for me to get a sense of how you reacted to the place and the events. You do not show much of yourself in the writing and because of that it is hard to know where we would go to drill down more deeply. Generally, the things you react to are the things we want to try to explain and speculate about. So it is important to bring your reactions into your account.

    The other thing that is striking about your notes is that in the last half when you started talking to people you mostly did not give direct, specific descriptions of the people and of what they said but rather you provide what I call “summary descriptions”. You draw some nice conclusions about why people come to the auction and you relate their reasons to tradition and it is clear that your conclusions come from the conversations you had. But what tradition is and why it has such hold on these people is unclear because you do not recount the actual conversations, tell how the observations were expressed by people, and you don’t link your conclusions to the actual things people said, to your personal impressions and reactions to the people and their specific utterances, or how the more descriptive and scattered things people would say in the course of a conversation give you evidence that allows you to draw your general conclusions.

    It is super that you talked to people at this auction. You ought to spend more time studying the people and treating the interactions and conversations as important in themselves. You present them as a means to an end rather than as an end.

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