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Amish Auction

I buy some element or other on eBay at least once a week, but I also go to real live open-outcry auctions every month or two. Most of the wood for the Periodic Table Table came from the closing out auction of a lumber yard that had been in operation for 120 years until it fell on hard times.

The best auctions are of three types: School district or municipal surplus auctions, closing out auctions of industrial concerns, and estate auctions of people who had interesting hobbies. And then there are the strange ones. One of the most interesting I've been to was the estate auction in fall 2003 of an Amish gentleman who had run a welding and metalworking shop on his farm.

The Amish have settlements in several parts of the country including one of the largest in an area spanning several small towns about 30-40 miles from my farm. They choose to live apart, preserving their very distinctive style of dress, their German language (though by now with a pretty strong midwestern accent, if I may say so), and refusing to use such modern conveniences as cars and electricity (with some exceptions).

It's a tight-knit community, and when there's an auction of one of their own, a lot of people show up: There were at least fifty horse and buggies parked out in a large wheat field (this being Amish country, they had of course provided designated buggy parking with a hitching line, a convenience not available at other auctions).

Naturally, they all know each other and/or are related to each other. The auctioneer, for example, had the same last name as the estate being auctioned. The Amish cultivate an image of harmony and simplicity, but this is not always entirely compatible with the fact that they are human. The humanity came through clearly in this auction.

It soon became clear that several family members, sons of the deceased I heard murmured, were bidding on items in the auction. Against each other. Now, you know there is something going on in a family when two sons bid up the price of an undistinguished wooden tool box to one thousand dollars, where anywhere else it would have fetched a hundred or two at most. It was the same story with other items of sentimental value.

Amish auctions have a bad reputation among cheapskate bottomfeeders such as myself, because the Amish will often gladly pay as much or more for a used item as an identical one would cost brand new at a store in town. I assume this is a combination of the fact that the nearest such stores are a day's ride by horse and buggy, and their desire to keep the money in the Amish community, rather than let it out to the surrounding "English" world. And this makes perfect sense: Pay a hundred dollars to your neighbor, and you're a lot more likely to see some of it back next week than if you give the same amount to Walmart.

I have very mixed feelings about the Amish. On the one hand, they are a thoughtful people who rightly question and debate any new technology before allowing it into their community, rather than rushing headlong to waste their time and money (like the rest of us do). On the other hand, some of their decisions are clearly based on some pretty rigid thinking, and they tend to cultivate an image for the tourists that is not entirely in line with the fact that they are human beings.

I can understand not wanting to be connected to the electric utility grid: The people who run that system, we have all learned, are a bunch of crooks, and the utility serving this area is one of the worst. Now, for the Amish not using electricity doesn't mean not using power tools: Instead they use diesel generators to operate hydraulic pumps, with a system of hydraulic lines running from the generators to individual hydraulic motors they have installed on otherwise standard-issue commercial power tools.

Tools like the quarter-million-dollar four-sided planer in a wood shop I frequent. It's made in Germany, it's top of the line, and it's standard production in every way except that they have torn out the electric motors and replaced them with hydraulic. Maybe this makes sense: given that you're going to generate your own power on site, it is more efficient to transmit it hydraulically than to incur the losses inherent in generating electricity. But it's far from a "simple life" choice: It a sophisticated bit of mechanical engineering.

And gas lights instead of electric? That makes no sense: It's dangerous, unhealthy, and inconvenient. Maybe in a home that has no electric generation it makes sense, but in a sophisticated wood shop and showroom with many-hundred-horsepower Diesel generators operating both large hydraulic pumps and electric generators, using gas lights in the shops has more to do with giving the tourists the "simple Amish lifestyle" vision they have come for than it has to do with a rational assessment of the technology, or a religious aversion to electricity.

This slightly distasteful sense of the phony is enhanced by the Maple syrup they sell in the same shop. It may be labeled as "Home made Amish Maple Syrup", but the list of ingredients is pretty un-home-like, and there's no getting around the fact that it actually contains no Maple Syrup: It's commercially prepared imitation Maple-flavored corn syrup. In short, it's fake.

Anyway, back to the auction. It was a very large auction, took from 8:30AM to 5:00PM despite have two auction rings running most of the time. Mr. Herschberger obviously liked having a lot of tools, and he seemed to follow pretty much the preference to avoid electricity: The large machine tools were operated off an overhead line shaft with wooden wheels and cloth belts. The whole set up would have very much at home in the late nineteenth century, and some of the tools may in fact have dated from that time. But no one, not even the Amish, still weld or cut the acetylene anymore: There were several high-end electric arc welders on the block, which went for a couple thousand dollars each. No one made any jokes that started with "Did you hear about the Amish arc welder....", though it's certainly tempting.

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