“Okay now, gents. Loosen up. Let’s try two. Two-dollar bid, now two, now two, will ya’ give me two? Will you give me two, just two greenback bills?”
“Two bits,” says Mrs. Stone in a little-girl voice.
“That’s unheard of! Do I hear a dollar? One greenback dollar! Now one, now one. Will you give me one?” He goes on like this for five more minutes, but the wide gray sky just muffles his singsong. Finally . . .
“Call the sale!” someone yells, and the auctioneer, having no other bids, has to close.
“Sold for one quarter,” he yells with disgust and knocks his gavel on the table. “Unbelievable! Why she’s worth twenty times that much!”
Mrs. Stone hands the quarter to one of the suits, takes her animals back in the barn, and the sale goes on. Twenty goats all sold to Mrs. Stone for ten cents, or two bits, and each time her voice gets stronger.
I begin to understand that this auction is rigged. Not one of these neighbors plan to buy the old lady’s farm; they’re here to make sure no one else does.
The auctioneer leads the crowd to the farm machinery. “What am I bid for this 1920 John Deere? It’s a beauty. Not a speck of rust on her,” he begins without spirit. “Do I hear twenty? Twenty greenback dollars. Now twenty. Now twenty. Who will give me twenty?” Again no one bids. “Do I hear ten?”
The bankers rub their clean-shaven chins and wipe their spectacles. This sale isn’t going as planned, and there’s no way anyone is going to get the two hundred dollars in back taxes that someone has decided Mrs. Stone owes.
I look around the crowd, wondering who the oil and gas man might be and see One-Arm Wetsel, Mr. Hummingbird, and Charley Roote, the old veteran who was one of my grocery delivery customers, along with a dozen other familiar faces.
“Do I hear ten, ten, ten?” Dead silence. The auctioneer shakes his head and looks at the bankers. One of them shrugs. The John Deere goes to Mrs. Stone for three dollars.
I stay until the actual land comes up for sale, and for a minute I think the farm is lost. The auctioneer starts the bidding at two hundred dollars and is down to one hundred dollars when a man with slicked-back hair wearing a pin-striped suit exits a late-model Graham and walks toward the front. This is it, I think, the company making its move.
The oily-haired weasel starts to raise his hand to bid, but is immediately surrounded by farmers who, without even touching him, make their point clear. Mr. Hummingbird towers over him at almost seven feet tall, and Charley Roote strolls over and opens his jacket to display a pistol tucked into his belt.
“We don’t think you really want to buy this farm, mister,” Charley growls, boring into the fellow’s eyes. “It wouldn’t be healthy. We think you want to get right in that shiny auto and go back where you came from. Understand?”
The farm goes for five dollars, sold once again to Mrs. Stone. Thinking it over, I realize she’s spent about twenty dollars in all, and now she’s clear and free of the bankers, tax men, and the oil and gas company . . . at least for a while.
By the time I get to White Rock I’m two hours late.
“About time you got here,” Boodean chides me. “Lucky the brass had to go to Camp Laurel for a meeting. What happened, car trouble?”
“I’m sorry. Did I miss anything?”
“Nah. Just a bellyache and a boil. Then Lou Cross came in for some more of that salve you had made for his wart at the pharmacy. He says it’s really working.” Mrs. Ross holds out a cup of fresh coffee and I tell them about the farm auction, but no one is as excited about it as I am.
When I get home, I get a better reaction. Eager to narrate the story, I run up the stairs to tell Patience and she gets so worked up, Daniel has to tell her to calm down.
“This is great. This is great,” she keeps saying. “The people are taking control! They’re fighting back.”
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” I continue, enjoying her enthusiasm. “The farmers stood up to the bank, and Mrs. Stone got her land back. Then they chased the oil and gas man off the property. The auctioneer didn’t even bother to sell the household contents, because by then he knew they were beaten. The whole thing must have been fixed by someone. . . .”
Daniel, who reads the paper religiously, enlightens us. “I’ve heard about these sales in the Times. They’re called penny auctions and started in the Midwest. Nationwide, they estimate, a quarter million farms have been foreclosed on, so the farmers are getting organized.”
“But they don’t have a union, do they?” That’s Patience, always a union supporter.
“County agriculture societies seem to be the instigators,” Daniel goes on. “Or sometimes they’re spontaneous. However they happen, the locals bid ridiculously low and some won’t bid at all. If an outsider or a land speculator shows up, things can get rough. There have even been a few deaths, though no one was charged. The banks walk away with a fraction of what’s owed and the farmer gets his land back. This may be the first penny auction in Union County, but it won’t be the last.”
“After it was all over,” I share with a smile, “I saw the old lady wave at Mr. Roote, so I think maybe he was the one who got the other farmers to show up. She was almost gay, and he was standing very tall.”
November 25, 1934
Today I have been thinking about my life as a physician, and I’m not proud. I could enumerate my wrongdoings, each omission or co-mission seared on some twisted lobe of my brain, but the list is too long. I’ll just tell you one event that sticks with me. There were so many. . .
Mary Proudfoot comes first to mind, the MacIntoshes’ cook, an African queen. Back in 1930, when we still lived in Liberty, she was carried to my small clinic after her fall down the MacIntoshes’ back stairs. I knew something was fishy, but chose to ignore it.
Mrs. Proudfoot, a highly respected colored woman, was as strong as an ox. At six foot tall she was my equal. How does a woman like that just fall down the stairs at one in the morning? And why was she fully dressed at that time of the night?
William MacIntosh, the coal baron, had brought her to me in his Oldsmobile. The man was upset, almost crying, and smelled strongly of booze. This was no surprise. Though it was still Prohibition, anyone could get liquor when he wanted.
The cook was unconscious, her pupils dilated and unequal, and she had bloody spinal fluid coming out of her nose, a sure sign of an intracranial bleed. I should have done an immediate craniotomy, but I called the funeral wagon and sent her to Robinson, the Negro physician across town.
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