Late last year, the Federal Reserve announced average farmland values in the Midwest increased 25 percent, marking the largest single-year gain in three decades. In Iowa, for example, prices at more than 50 sales exceeded $10,000 per acre.
Ultimately, farmland -- like everything else -- is only worth what someone will pay for it. But if the item up for sale is rare enough, prices can go through the roof. That was the case at an auction in one rural community, where a sale attracted national and international interest. And as Laurel Bower Burgmaier discovered last fall, the auction also marked the end of an era.
Virtually an entire Iowa town went on the auction block this fall. Touted as one of the biggest antique auctions in the world, the sale included seven acres of land and 16 buildings containing tens of thousands of items.
Judd Grafe, Grafe Auction Company: “Auctioneers will talk about the sale of the week or sale of the month or year. This is the sale of a generation.”
The tiny town of Scotch Grove was bustling in September when treasure seekers and reminiscing locals descended upon it for an enormous auction.
Items up for bid were from the Balster’s Implement and Parts Company. For 137 years, the Balster family had a variety of enterprises in Scotch Grove, including a gas station, lumber yard, implement dealership and grocery store. Locals used to say, “If you can’t find it, go to Balster’s.”
Vernon Helgens, Scotch Grove, Iowa: “We were good friends of the Balsters and I knew them well.”
95-year old Vernon Helgens lives on a farm near Scotch Grove. He worked for the Balsters in the 1930s.
Vernon Helgens, Scotch Grove, Iowa:” The Balster family was ahead of their time. We would go and they had running water and they had a bathroom. Most of us had a path and a cold seat, you see. They were ahead of their time. They were business people. They were people of knowledge. People of ambition. People that wanted to make things work, you know.”
David Balster, Monticello, Iowa: “We certainly felt like we had a role to play as far as the business we were in with farm implements and hard to find parts as it came to be later. But, we just tried to serve the community and public and we had a longer reach because we sold to every state in the United States. We had everything that basically a person would need for farm and home.”
David Balster and his sister Susan Zazas represent the fifth generation of Balsters. Their great, great grandfather Arend Balster Sr. came to America from Germany with his parents in the mid-1850s, and he set up a blacksmith shop near Scotch Grove in 1874. His son John, or J.C., Balster opened more businesses in the area in 1912, but he died in a car accident shortly after, leaving his son Arend Balster Jr. to take over at the age of 19. Arend Jr. continued to run the family business until his son Les took it over in 1968.
David Balster, Monticello, Iowa: “We went back three centuries worth –the 1800s, 1900s and 2000s. To me, that has a huge significance to trace the culture and how it’s changed in 137 years. So, we had that continuing legacy. And, I think the thing the family and Susan and I definitely have appreciated is at least for a moment this week, people got to appreciate that history.”
David and Susan say the business meant everything to their dad Les who ran Balster’s Implements and Parts Company with his father Arend Jr. and then on his own for 69 years. After he passed away in 2009, the family decided it was time to end the business and called in an auction company to stage a once in a lifetime sale.
Judd Grafe, Grafe Auction Company: “So, I came down thinking they had a couple buildings, a few items to sell and a tractor or two. And what we found is there's generations upon generations of equipment and supplies that are in pristine shape.”
Grafe Auction Company, based in Minnesota, was the lead auctioneer for the Balster sale. When the auction crew arrived seven weeks before the sale, the Balster buildings were bursting at the seams. Workers struggled to walk between stacks and stacks of merchandise. They found hundreds of thousands of retail, wholesale and service items on the shelves and floor –many still in their original packaging and displays.
Judd Grafe, Grafe Auction Company: “Many parts are not only collector value, but are still utility value. So we have Amish coming from across the country because it’s such a wonderful offering of implements that they still use, a utility piece, but you can’t find them new anymore.”
Promoting the sale as “a time capsule of America,” auctioneers set up a massive 4-ring auction. Items sold included vintage signs from the 1920s, sickles and shovels from the 1940s, and unopened cans of oil for Model T’s that brought $1,800 a piece.
Curt Montgomery, Lisbon, Iowa: "These are crosscut saws, five and six footers. You’ll never see anything like this again, never see a sale like this again. It’s pretty neat to be a part of it.”
Al Oberbroeckling, Monticello, Iowa: “I got these wooden bearings to pull behind an old horse disk. A lot of people didn’t even know this stuff was here. One guy told me he wanted a canvas for his Oliver combine and he had the Amish make it. Here there are hundreds of them.”
Grafe Auction Company said it received e-mails and phone calls from interested parties all over the world. Even the Smithsonian Institute called about the Balster’s sale.
Judd Grafe, Grafe Auction Company: “To have one family own all of those businesses and have an inventory. I haven’t seen it before and I know people in the industry who say they’ve never seen it. I don’t think we’ll see it again. It’s that unique!”
While seeing their family’s business come to an end is bittersweet for the Balsters, they found solace in the legacy their father and generations before him established as the main proprietors of Scotch Grove, Iowa.
Susan Zazas, Miami Lakes, Florida: “He would be amazed. He would be amazed that all of this stuff got catalogued and sorted and it’s going to be distributed to different buyers. And, that we’ve done it.”
David Balster, Monticello, Iowa: “On the core of it, he would be happy with what’s happened, just for the recognition and the fact that people cared.”
Vernon Helgens, Scotch Grove, Iowa: “It makes you feel a little sad. It’s an end of quite an era of time. But they have done their job well.
For Market to Market, I’m Laurel Bower Burgmaier