June 19, 2012
James Gary sat behind his auctioneer’s microphone and told the sad news to the sizeable crowd swelling the inside of the Spring Hill Auction Barn.
This could be the last one.
The Gary family has held auctions here since 1966, but when Wal-Mart came knocking the offer was too good to pass up. The agreement is near finality, James acknowledged. He said the family would continue its estate sales and other off-premises auctions.
“I want to make it clear we are not going out of business,” he said. “In fact, we’re selling 110 acres and all the contents of the house in Columbia at the end of July for an estate sale.”
In acknowledgement of the event, much picture taking took place on this observed Memorial Day, May 28, and a large American flag waved in the breeze as a greeting to all the many entering the building.
James’ mother, Burnetta, the company bookkeeper, said she was concerned about the flag’s condition due to its relative lack of use.
“I noticed this morning the red was nice and red. I didn’t want it looking dingy. I wouldn’t want a flag looking that way.”
Attendee Larry Crowder is a self-described “regular” who regrets the apparent loss of the auction barn and what it means. “One more Wal-Mart is one too many,” he said. “It’s sort of sad to see an era like that end.”
Crowder, 74, drives in from his home in Murfreesboro. “I’ve been coming here for 25 years. I’ve enjoyed being here. They’re honest people. That’s been their trademark in my opinion. Coming here is a social event. People come here to see each other.”
Crowder’s comments were echoed by many others.
People sometimes brought in their leashed dogs. The metal chairs were of several colors. A concession stand offered soda pop for 50 cents. Handmade and sub-standard signs vied for wall space. Parking was on the grass since sales were not held regularly enough to squash the growth. It was down-home in the best possible meaning of the words.
The auction house favored no particular sales specialty. A gun sale was a big recent success. Today it is a bit of a mix but the main feature is showcases full of Case pocket knives.
After today’s auction bid finis, James, when asked the most memorable sales event held in the place, said, “We’re diverse. We’ve sold so many items over the years. It was not unusual to have two sales a week here with 400 to 500 items going at each one.”
He said it was just as difficult to nail down what might be their speciality in slamming down the gavel. “If it was any one thing, I’d say we probably specialized in liquidation sales.”
Joe Spencer Gary, 15, James’ son, is more than eager to carry on the tradition. “I’m ready now. I’ve won some junior auction competitions already. I can’t get my auctioneer license though until I’m 18. Soon I’ll be able to go on the road when I get my driver license.”
The young, freckle-faced spielmaster said he was practically born to the trade.
“One newspaper article about us said I was three when I was at my first auction, but my dad says he remembers holding me in his arms at an auction when I was younger than that.”
A rumor circulated months ago about an “endangered species” possibly complicating the deal. Supposedly, an endangered species bat was hanging around and if it built a nest the deal was kaput.
If true, it could have been the Indiana Fruit bat, on the endangered species list and native to Tennessee. In recent weeks, that particular bat held up construction of a new jail in Coffee County. The gray bat is also on that same endangered list.
“It’s a bunch of hooey,” James said. “I heard the rumor but no one ever said anything about it to me.”
A row of blue-shirted auction helpers describe and hold up items and yell “Yep” when a bidder raises a hand.
“Never been sharpened,” said one as he held up a vintage pocket knife.
The Gary home sits next to the barn. To the south is the little house last lived in by the Sam Davis family. Davis was a tenant farmer and worked some for the auction house. He moved in the 70s when his family outgrew the small place.
“Everybody in the world has taken a picture of that little old house,” James said.
Some have even written poems about it. The pictures and poems line the walls.
That little house, the family home, the barn and all the outbuildings will be razed to make way for the new Wal-Mart.
James said the sale was likely inevitable. “The influx of so many people has done it. I guess we had the smallest tract of land left along here.”
Ben Gary, 80, who started the business, has taken a lesser role in recent months. Ben’s father, Spencer, helped out until he was nearly 90 years of age.
James said the property was never listed for sale but inquiries were regular.
Ben started the business in 1964 with Everett Hughes. The first sales took place at a hay barn owned by Hughes off Depot Street. Ben landed at the barn location about a year and a half later. It was a former Massey-Ferguson tractor dealership. In all, the family bought a parcel of 35 acres.
“We never listed it for sale, but with my parents aging it became increasingly clear a change would come. Change is part of life.”
Gary Auction, however, will continue its fast-talking sales.
“We’re gonna keep doing that,” James said.
BY BRYCE MARTIN