The Dirt on Pa.'s Amish 'Mud Sales'

Lancaster's mud sales are packed all-day auctions that draw thousands of bidders from near and far

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    Many Pennsylvania towns have a claim to fame. Philadelphia has Independence Hall, Pittsburgh the three rivers, Gettysburg the Civil War battlefield and Harrisburg the state capitol.

    Lancaster, of course, is famous for its horse-drawn Amish buggies clip clopping down two-lane roads past green farms with red barns and gray silos.

    And every spring, there are the mud sales.

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    Haven't heard of the mud sales? They're a big deal around here -- bustling, daylong auctions that draw thousands of bidders, buyers, visitors and gawkers -- held at various volunteer fire halls on Saturdays from late February through summer.

    Some bidders travel here each spring from as far away as Canada, New England, Ohio and Tennessee, said John Graybill, chairman of the Bart Township Volunteer Fire Company, which sponsored its mud sale in early March. It featured 20 auctions, some indoor but many outdoor in 35-degree cold, attracting several thousand men, women and children. This mud sale is his fire unit's major fundraising event every year. "Everybody looks forward to it," he said

    People gathered to bid on Amish crafts, antiques and ornate quilts, some as big as 10 feet by 10 feet; standardbred horses used in racing, or workhorses, mules and ponies; small metallic-gray carriages pulled by horses; farm sheds, bales of hay and straw, wagons, wood saws, rakes, manure spreaders, field sprayers and pressure washers to clean equipment; plants for home and garden, and furniture such as chairs, tables and dressers.

    Young Amish boys, using small wooden wagons, hauled purchases to a buyer's car in exchange for a modest donation. Visitors must park their vehicles several hundred yards from the firehouses because there's little parking nearby.

    Under one large tent, about 100 horses were jammed in side-by-side, awaiting an auction, with some animals occasionally getting restless and nudging or bumping each other. An Amish man would come in and smack the horses on their large rear ends, restoring calm. Dozens of local volunteers wearing name tags helped run the auctions. Many had Amish, Mennonite and Pennsylvania Dutch names such as Hess, Schertzer, Lapp, Zimmerman, Zook, Fleischer, Esch and Stoltzfus.

    While many folks were seeking bargains others came just to chow down on barbecued pork and chicken, thick pretzels, handmade milkshakes, corn-chicken chowder and piles of french fries. At the 2012 mud sale, more than 6,000 pretzels were sold, Graybill said.

    "I come every year for one reason -- the food," said Mike Mellott, a farmer from nearby Quarryville, as he munched on a pretzel log roll, a pretzel stuffed with roast beef, sausage or ham and cheese.

    Nancy Mulhollan, who lives in neighboring Chester County, said she hadn't been to a mud sale for a few years, but, as a lover of colorful quilts, "I decided it was time to see what the prices were like."

    And she was pleased -- "A lot of quilts that would cost $800 elsewhere are selling for $250 to $350," she said. "At these prices I may buy one."

    The mud sales were started about 50 years ago, in part to give local farmers a chance to obtain new or used equipment as planting season approached. The name comes from the seasonal change from winter to spring, as the frozen ground, in most rural areas not covered with grass, stones or asphalt, begins to thaw and turn muddy.

    Nora Frick of nearby Lampeter has been coming to these auctions for 25 years and "it's always muddy." This year's weather was much chillier than in 2012. "Last year we wore T-shirts to the auction and got sunburned," said her daughter, Ariel Frick.

    Bart Fire Chief Dave King said that a few years ago, before the new firehouse and its paved driveways were built, "There were some areas around here with mud as much as a foot thick. Once in a while we'd find a shoe stuck in the mud."

    Mud sales serve another major purpose -- giving volunteer fire companies around the county a chance to do the bulk of their yearly fundraising. The companies serve small towns such as Airville, Bird-in-Hand, Gap, Strasburg and Honeyville.

    At this sale in Bart, the huge crowd of Amish farmers was unmistakable -- men, young and old, with long beards, in traditional black shirts and pants and straw hats on the their heads; women wearing black dresses and either black bonnets or head scarves of various muted colors.

    Judging by appearance, Amish folks easily made up more than half the crowd, with the rest being "English" -- the Amish term for non-Amish people, regardless of their national origin. Non-Amish visitors were also fairly identifiable, with many men wearing heavy jackets and baseball caps or woolen ski caps on the cold day.

    One who stood out was Gary Shrey, who lives in southern York County and used to work in Baltimore. He wore a Steelers cap and Steelers jacket and said he took a lot of flak from co-workers, who root for the Baltimore Ravens.

    "They'd ask me where I got that terrible hat," he said. "One guy asked me if I'd lost a bet and had to wear it."

    He said he likes coming here "because it's like a huge yard sale. I sometimes buy lanterns if the price is right. And my wife likes to go to the quilt auction."

    The Amish rarely speak to outsiders and don't want their pictures taken. But Ike Fisher, an Amish man who is fire company vice chairman, made an exception this day, as a favor to Graybill.

    Fisher, 62, with a long gray beard, has been a fire company volunteer for several decades. He said the fire volunteers, Amish or English, get along well and talk freely among each other.

    "We're all human, and there's no reason we can't communicate and work hand in hand," he said. The annual auction, he said, "is great for the community. It gets us to work together."

    Graybill also has been a Bart firefighter for decades, and now holds the unpaid post of chairman. None of the 70 volunteer firefighters are paid, he said, but money is needed for updating fire trucks and other equipment, plus building the new firehouse seven years ago.

    He said most of the company's $90,000 annual budget comes from this auction and a smaller one, just for building materials, later in March. There are also private donations but no public funds, he said.

    The fire company serves a 43-square-mile area in southern Lancaster County. "We provide top-rate fire and emergency medical services to small communities that have limited industry and commercial businesses," and thus a limited tax base, said Levi Glick, fire unit president. "We offer quick response to emergencies."

    Raising the money to buy modern fire equipment also helps attract more volunteers, he added.

    In October 2006, the Bart firehouse took on a different role. It became a staging area for hordes of journalists who poured in from around the world to cover a horrific story that occurred just three miles away in Nickel Mines. At an Amish school Charles Carl Roberts IV shot five girls to death and wounded five others before killing himself in the classroom as police closed in on the scene. The school has since been torn down.

    Christine Parshall of Chester County, who sat beside the quilt auction at a table selling Christian books, said she and her husband George are still amazed at "the Amish way of forgiveness," as the community forgave the gunman and offered to help his devastated family.

    The memory of that horrific event in Nickel Mines still hurts, Graybill said. "It put us on the map, but it was a sorry way to get on the map," he said.

     


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