9712 N.W. 31st Avenue Vancouver, Washington 98665
Announce it and they will come! And so it was that we arrived at the family farm of Alvin and Esther Buller, longtime residents and farmers in Hampton, Nebraska, to attend the Buller Auction on August 4-5, 2000.
As we approached, the tall corn seemed to nod as we passed, and soon an opening in the freshly cut alfalfa field drew our attention. There, like little soldiers, row upon row of stationary gas engines stood, neatly placed on pallets, proudly awaiting inspection!
A closer look revealed a modest home built on the site where Alvin Buller was born some eighty years ago and which is now occupied by his son Paul and wife, Dianne. We could see family members preparing for the auction, marking parking areas, moving flatbed trailers filled with engine paraphernalia including magnetos, oilers, cranks and more. Alvin's daughters, Norma from Denton, Texas, and Donna from Bradshaw, Nebraska, were visiting in the background and watching brother Paul as he spoke briskly on his two-way radio.
The first day of the auction dawned with a heavy mist. Irrigation was in full swing and combined with the 'sweat' of the corn, left the air heavy with moisture. Lonnie Nixon, the auctioneer, readied his crew and by 9:00 a.m. began the two-day event asking for bids on a long row of old carts and wheels. The sun broke through just as the magnetos were auctioned. My husband Bob had eyed them carefully the day before and had positioned himself within easy view of Lonnie's sharp eyes! Rick Rohrs, a well-known auction attendee, was also prepared to bid. The items sold quickly, the John Deere Model E with the 6 HP gear, the Wicos and the Websters as well as many two, three and four cylinder types.
Delicious aromas from Woody's Barbecue wafted across the farm yard, and many buyers sauntered over to take advantage of the beef, pork and brot sandwiches, some accumulating tabs as they returned time and again for refills of soft drinks and iced tea.
As the auctioneer's sing-song continued, interspersed with his 'bit-of-a-do-do-do,' Esther Buller sat under a nearby tree, observing the activity. I asked her how she felt, seeing her husband's collection being sold and hauled away. She held up her hand to interrupt as Lonnie closed a bid for $340 on a Maytag engine. 'Goodness,' she said, laughing, 'that kind of money for a little Maytag. Alvin couldn't take time to fix the little engine on my washer years ago, but he had all kinds of time for those Maytags he collected.' She added that she didn't recognize many people, saying, 'Most of these folks are strangers, but there are some I recognize from our auction stops.'
I asked Esther about some of the more unusual items Alvin had worked on, and she told me about the Case model, twenty years in the making. Alvin used an old lipstick cap of hers as well as an old sewing machine part to complete his project!
Alvin Buller, born into a German Mennonite family, died Thanksgiving Eve 1999, tools in hand, in his favorite place, his workshop. Married for many years, he met Esther in Colorado Springs, Colorado, while in the service. He attended college for two years, then devoted his life to farming.
He and Esther spent winters in Pharr, Texas, for the past 28 years and he began, in the 1960s, traveling the side roads looking for old engines. Esther related she became a master co-pilot, as he sometimes took his eyes off the road a little too long, and even 'missed some stop signs,' in his zeal for the perfect find! He loved attending auctions, 'standing back,' she said, and 'keeping his mouth shut,' watching and waiting for the right opportunity to bid on what he'd come for!
His last purchase, an engine cart, was made in the summer of 1999. It came with a small compressor, but Alvin wanted the cart and got both for $45.
In his later years, Alvin anticipated part of his collection would need to be sold, Esther's security paramount in his mind, should he predecease her. His family chose their favorite items, ensuring they would be passed on to grandchildren and beyond. He began sorting and cataloguing all his literature, including GEM's, farm equipment and repair manuals. Daughter-in-law Dianne remarked he had it all 'lined up for the family.'
Next day the gas engines, sitting in the hot sun awaiting their new owners, were auctioned off at prices ranging from $100 for a Fairbanks-Morse Type Z, Style D, to $5,600 for the John Deere Model E 6 HP (the belt pulley sold for an additional $150). My heart tugged a bit as I listened to the bidding on the 6 HP jump from $2,000 to $4,200 and then skyward! We'd wanted to complete a second set of three Model E's, but felt pretty satisfied our 6 HP at home was nicely escalating in value, restored in fine fashion on its original cart.
By 1:10 p.m. it was all over. The Fairbanks-Morse 'Jack-of-All-Trades,' third from the last to be sold, was purchased by friends LeRoy and Delores Arola from Woodland, Washington. When the auctioneer called out 'Going to Washington!,' I knew the Arolas had purchased a favorite.
We were impressed by the time and talent of Alvin's grandsons, sons-in-law and others who quickly and efficiently helped load up trucks and trailers once the auction ended. This was clearly a well-organized family affair, and it was evident each member was feeling the bittersweet effect of their husband, father and grandfather's life-long interest being removed from Alvin's beloved farm. But we who collect these fine old engines know and appreciate the interest Alvin Buller held. He, in effect, has allowed us to continue his fine tradition and to pass along our passion to our children and grandchildren. Thank you, Mr. Buller.
Auctions come and auctions go, and this one near Aurora, Nebraska, will be remembered for a long time. Just ask the folks who bought the Economy 12 HP for $4,250, the Oshkosh for $3,600, the Challenge Type H for $2,400, and the McCormick-Deering for $3,050!
As for Lonnie and his team, they were headed out to continue a busy summer schedule in the hot midwest. And as for Bob and me? A box filled with magnetos, a few carts and a couple of beloved John Deere Model E's were added to our collection.
See you down the road!