It was billed as Hollywood Night, the St. Mary’s fundraiser held at the Melrose American Legion March 2.   For a small Minnesota town, it was an entertainment highlight for the post-Christmas pre-Easter social  doldrums.  With pink ball gowns and top-notch prime rib and wine, the night aspired to, and did, deliver much of the glitz as billed. The hall was packed, not only with people but with an amazing array of items soon to find new homes.   Fundamental to the success of the fundraiser, however, was nothing from L.A.,  but the charity auction itself.  More than $50,000 would be raised before the night was finished, most of it in a little over two hours.

The key to opening wallets, and to the funds that would flow, was the auction.  But auctions don’t run themselves.   The event’s monetary success was a joint effort by many talented and committed organizers.   A lion’s share due, however, to the talents of a man who truly loves what he does, auctioneer Dan Winter.   Principal Bill Doyle admitted as much,  as he tallied the funds raised that Saturday night. “He’s a talented guy.  He seems to be able to get the bids up there.”

    What does it take to be an auctioneer?  Winter was happy to chat a bit before the cattle auction at Albany Central Livestock, sitting on wooden bleachers, the sawdust pit below and cattle softly lowing- impatient  just behind the gated door.

“Out of 17 grandkids,  I was the only one to take after my grandfather,” he said.

Dan Welle (left), Dan Winter (middle) and Jim Hoppe (right), helped auction off a bunch of items at Sacred Heart School in Freeport earlier this year.
Dan Welle (left), Dan Winter (middle) and Jim Hoppe (right), helped auction off a bunch of items at Sacred Heart School in Freeport earlier this year.

That would be Frank Winter, one of the few auctioneers who worked the Minnesota farm auctions of the 1930s and 1940s. It was a bleak time for farmers, as both nature and the market system failed to sustain their livelihoods.   A time when farm foreclosures and the auction were part of the ominous landscape of the Midwest.

Gone now are the days of the “penny auctions.” When faced with disaster the farmers banded together and bid, with the proceeds going to pay the mortgage.  At auctions across the Midwest, farmers showed up as a group and physically prevented any real bidders from placing bids.

The history of auctions and auctioneering goes back at least 2,000 years.  In ancient Babylonia the only acceptable way for a young woman to become a wife was for her family to haul her off to the auction block and get a decent bid for her hand in marriage.  Certainly the largest item ever auctioned off is recorded in history when, in 198 A.D., the emperor Pertinax was killed and the entire Roman Empire was auctioned off to the highest bidder who was, as the story goes, beheaded for his efforts just two months later. The American Civil War ushered in widespread auctioning as household goods seized as spoils of war were auctioned off, usually by the colonel of a military unit.  The term colonel remains today as the customary term of reference for an auctioneer.

So how does one  become a modern auctioneer?  “Back in 1978 I got myself into the Mankato College of Women,” Dan recalls.  “That was the only place in the state that offered a course on auctioneering.  It was a one-week course.  I passed – one of  the top three.  Been doing it ever since.”   Mankato still offers training in auctioneering-now renamed  Mankato Auction College.

As would any successful entertainer, Dan has developed his own distinctive style.  His auctioneer’s call, “the cattle-rattle,” seems to sound more Southern than just Mankato.  “I used to work the Midwest Horse Sale in Waverly Iowa, one of the biggest horse sales in the states.  I’ve worked auctions from Oketo, Kan. to Rock Springs, Wyo.”  All conspired to form a distinctive drawl, “but it only comes out when I’m working,” he said.

While Dan was able to spin gold from the donated items on that Hollywood night,  “A couple of thousand went for a lovely grandfather clock” which brought about some of the most heated bidding.  In his time, he has had less classy items.  When asked what was the oddest item he ever auctioned, Dan apologized before telling of a farm auction that had a pile of manure on the grounds of  the event. “My partner dared me to try. Ended up getting $250 for it.  I’ve done it two more times since then as well!” he added.

Dan generously provided other insights into auctions and auctioneering. “The neater the display the more money it brings in.  Just something psychological, I guess.” The weather also plays a part in larger household or farm auctions. “If it is raining at the start, it’s OK.  The people are prepared.  But if it rains halfway though, that’s it.  Most people who frequent auctions know the good stuff goes first.  People don’t want to stick around for the left-overs.”

Besides working the weekly cattle auction, Dan has plenty of other gigs coming up.  Freeport has a toy and antique auction coming up first Sunday in May, which will include some of the nearly lost history rescued from the Flour Mill fire.  The second Saturday in May and the last Saturday in August will find Dan auctioning at Amish events near Long Prairie.