BACK MOUNTAIN MEMORIAL LIBRARY AUCTION
In 1945, the Back Mountain Memorial Library in Dallas, Pennsylvania, consisted of a grand total of 3,000 volumes, a paid staff of one librarian who was assisted by several hardworking volunteers, and assets of $13,000. Today, the library boasts a collection of more than 40,000 books and periodicals, four full-time staff members to fill the increasing demands for library service, and an annual budget of $40,000 to fund its operations. A substantial part of the library's growth has been made possible by a unique community endeavor — the Back Mountain Memorial Library Auction. Initial funds to create the library had been raised by a house-to-house campaign conducted by the Dallas Woman's Club throughout the 11 municipalities of the Back Mountain. However, by 1947, community donations had proved insufficient and the library's financial reserves were dwindling.
That winter, a group of women who had volunteered their services to prepare books for the shelves, were discussing with librarian Miriam Lathrop what could be done to replenish the funds. Among the women were Mrs. Alice Howell, Mrs. Harry Ohlman and Mrs. Lewis LeGrand. The women hit upon the idea of collecting recipes and publishing a cookbook, but were discouraged from this project by Howard Risley, then publisher of “The Dallas Post", because he felt it would involve too much time with too little profit. That idea was scrapped, but the women continued to search for a way to support the library. One afternoon while they were working in the library, Mrs. LeGrand casually commented that a friend of hers had written that her group had made a profit of $700 from an auction. This intrigued Mrs. Howell, who took the idea to Mr. Risley. He was enthusiastic from the outset and is quoted by Mrs. Howell as saying, "Hell, we'll have an auction and make $2,000!” Howard Risley was wrong. The first auction made over $3,000.
It really was a barnyard auction then, held at the Risley farm on Lehman Avenue. Flyers distributed for that auction asked for donations of horses, cows, sheep, pigs, geese, pheasants, seed, manure, lime — as well as household goods. An antiques committee evolved almost by accident. While prowling around in the upstairs of her barn one day, Mrs. Risley mentioned to Mrs. Howell and Mrs. A.D. Hutchison that there seemed to be some valuable antiques among the items brought in for the auction. They culled out a few of the better ones, washed and dried them and decided to auction the antiques separately. They were placed on display on a work bench beside the tables used for the auctioneer’s block to ensure that a dresser or bird cage would not be dropped on a precious piece of cut glass. There were just three booths that first year: the refreshment stand run by Mrs. Joseph Schmerer; baked goods with Mrs. Harris Haycox as chairman; and a booth under the direction of Mrs. Dana Crump where pocketbooks, toys, and lace could be purchased.
The auctioneers (Howard Herman and Ralph Sands) were the only professional help that year. The second year, when these men were late returning from lunch, Howard Risley and Harry Ohlman took over and enjoyed themselves so much that amateur auctioneers became a tradition —it was more fun that way!
Bands from Dallas and Lehman high schools played throughout the day and night, and a dinner, which had been prepared by women of the Huntsville Christian Church, was held at the school. It rained that Saturday, June 7, 1947. Although there was cover for part of the crowd, the auctioneers and the goods to be auctioned were out in the open until Fred Howell went home and got his tent which he hooked onto the barn and stretched over the auctioneers and their tables. Because the rain kept some people away, the auction was continued to the next Saturday. It rained so hard, in fact, that the auction was moved inside the barn. The barn then became one of the first traditions of the auction, with ensuing auctions being held at Risley’s barn for the next quarter century. The old, white, wooden barn's cramped stalls eventually proved inadequate for both the expanding auction and the growing financial needs of the library. Therefore, a new ‘barn’ was designed by Lee Eckert and John Gregorski and erected on property adjacent to the library facilities on Main Street. The construction was aided financially by a $12,000 contribution from the Dallas Rotary Club.
The auction barn was just one of many traditions to evolve over the years. For years, the first item offered over the block was purchased —usually at an inflated price— by Herman Thomas, a gentleman farmer from West Dallas. When Mr. Thomas died, his widow carried on the custom of purchasing that first article.
Herman Thomas was also responsible for establishing another tradition which proved especially delightful for youngsters. Each year he donated a fleecy lamb which he personally delivered to the auction grounds in a gaily-decorated buckboard wagon. When the lamb was put on the block, the story goes, Herbert Hill Sr., would imitate a lamb’s “baaaa” each time the bidding went up a dollar.
The first item sold at the first auction it back. This became an annual —an Ithaca calendar clock— was purchased by Fred Howell for $4, put in working order, and returned 20 years later when it was purchased by Albert Davis for $104. Returned by Mr. Davis for the 25th auction, the clock was sold over the block for $305
Coats also have returned time and again to the auction block. One year, Dr. Sherman Schooley appeared on the grounds in a Roaring Twenties raccoon coat. He was talked into donating the coat for sale across the block …but couldn't bear to part with it and subsequently bought it back. This became an annual event for Dr. Schooley, with the cost of the coat soaring as other members of the community joined in spirited bidding against the good-natured physician.
Another coat figuring in a recent auction was the fringed buckskin jacket and Stetson hat owned by the late Herman Thomas and donated to the auction by Mrs. Thomas. Many persons remember Bill Moss, an untiring auction worker, modeling the jacket and hat while clutching an antique rifle.
One procedure that has created a lot of fun over the years involves the "Surprise Valise". The auctioneers fill a small suitcase with items of questionable value, adding other items periodically as an inducement to raise the bid. Always some loyal supporter of the library bids on it, buying it at a price greatly above its real value. Harry Ohlman was a prime instigator of this tradition, encouraging his friends to buy the suitcase as a ‘souvenir’ of the auction.
Past auctions have also included these highlights: Joe McVeigh purchasing an old commode and using it as a front row seat during the auction; selling the 125-year-old pews from the Huntsville Christian Church, old-fashioned school desks from the Dallas School District, and the original park benches from the Wyoming Monument; unrolling several carpets from the upper barn door which resulted in clouds of dust being deposited on the auctioneers and audience, thus ending the sale of carpets at the auction.
Over the years, virtually everything imaginable has crossed the auction block, from an armadillo shell basket to flats of zinnias. Animals have provided added interest to each year's auction… kittens, puppies, bunnies and an occasional pony have found loving homes with the auction's younger set.
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