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Gavels fall in the Hill Country

Sure, Ebay's pickings are bigger, but nothing beats the thrill of the hunt at rural auctions scattered around the Lone Star State.

November 09, 2003|Kevin Brass | Special to The Times

Thorndale, Texas — It was relentlessly muggy in the VFW Hall in Thorndale, a small town in the Hill Country northeast of Austin, where Texas melts into cornfields. Perspiration was turning into flop sweat, and my mind was wandering toward the cheap lemonade at the chili-dog stand when the man on the podium presented what appeared to be a sort of crusty spittoon.

"Can I get $12.50 for this piece of history?" the auctioneer barked.

"Yes!" shouted an assistant, spying a bid among the plastic chairs.

It surely was a sweet spittoon. You could look at it as spittoon art or as an important part of spittoon history. Either way, it had caught the eye of a gray-haired woman in the front row, who minutes earlier had bid feverishly on a box of old quilts.

"Come on, folks, take a closer look," the auctioneer implored. "Can I get $15?"

In the back near the chili-dog stand, a man who looked as though he had stopped by on his way to a deer hunt raised his hand, prompting a bark from the assistant and a frown from Quilt Woman.

With two loud yelps and a flash of gestures, the spittoon was sold, snagged by Quilt Woman for $25. She quickly collected her prize and added it to the pile of quilts. In the back, Deer Hunter stood dejected and spittoon-less, a victim of slow reaction time and a lack of resolve.

In the small towns of Central Texas, auctions are a cutthroat form of consumer competition and far removed from the sterile world of EBay. Auctions are staged every weekend in senior centers and barns throughout the Hill Country, the rambling landscape of cedar groves and rivers surrounding Austin, San Antonio and Houston. They are uniquely Texas events, from the Frito pie, that tasty combination of corn chips and chili found in the snack bars, to the pickups in the parking lot.

In many Hill Country towns, the belongings of generations of Texans -- from Texas Ranger memorabilia to French antiques -- is up for grabs, attracting antiques dealers, scavenger hunters and history buffs from all over the state.

The auctions are usually announced in the classifieds section of the local papers, which is how one Saturday afternoon last fall my wife, Lietza, and I ended up driving to our first auction in Blanco, a river town equidistant to Austin and San Antonio on the Blanco River.

We headed west from Austin toward Johnson City, home to Lyndon B. Johnson's family ranch, now a national park. The hills were lush with cedar, oak and pine trees. About 150 years ago, long before LBJ, these hills were ruled by the Comanche, who made the settlers and Apaches fear its ravines and gullies. Today the roadside is a microcosm of Central Texas. A big sign in front of a taxidermist advertised, "The Buck Stops Here." Small shacks housing ramshackle antiques stores popped up in the middle of nowhere, their porches littered with old, rusty farm equipment.

As we approached Blanco, the hills were dominated by grand ranches, remnants of the days when cattle barons ruled. Stone pillars and rusted iron signs marked the entrance to properties with such names as the Curling H and the Rolling N; their large ranch houses were barely visible in the distance.

The centerpiece of Blanco, population 1,500, is a town square dominated by a two-story limestone building known as the courthouse. It was used as the county seat from 1886 to 1890, when, as the locals say, "LBJ's ancestors stole" its political role for Johnson City.

With a few minutes to spare before the start of the auction, we wandered into the Blanco Flea Market, a large barn off the square. The flea market, which also bills itself as a "Historical Mohair Warehouse," was packed with kitsch and the flotsam of rural Texas. I would have paid $325 for a 19th century carved wood pulpit, but I couldn't fit it in the car.

Behind the counter a man with a wide gray beard strummed a guitar. "If you're interested, every other Saturday night we have a little jam session in the back there," he said.

Sizing us up as auction types, he shared news of an auction in nearby Twin Sisters, which shows up as a pinprick on the map.

"If you go down the road and see the big red barn, that's it," the man said. "But you never know when he's going to have a sale, so you have to stop on by."

Down the street people were already gathering at the one-room antiques warehouse for the "viewing," the period before the auction begins where everybody can pore over the merchandise.

Many auctions have a theme -- sometimes featuring the contents of containers sent from Germany or France, for example -- but this one was a hodgepodge, from antique milk bottles to World War II-era English furniture.

Before the bidding started the auctioneer, a leathery cowboy with a droopy mustache, a wide-brimmed black hat and a broad silver belt buckle, moved from table to table, selling boxes filled with discarded kitchen items, old radio manuals and a thousand pieces of assorted junk, some for as little as $5.

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