6 AM, Saturday, September 24. The thin clouds to the east are just beginning to turn red, and already there are several acres of cars parked at the Elkhart County fairgrounds in Goshen, Indiana. Already hundreds of visitors, gathered for the 21st annual Michiana Mennonite Relief Sale, have lined up for pancakes and sausage in front of one of the giant exhibit barns. Comes a voice over the PA system: “We have doughnuts in building 12. If you’re not in the mood for a big meal, try a doughnut.”

6:10 AM. Some Old Order Amish are selling pastries in another exhibit building. The women are short and wear dark blouses, aprons, and long skirts. The men, also in dark clothing and with wizened faces, have long beards that stick out from their chins at an improbable angle. They seem to belong in one of those Romantic landscape paintings with a rugged alpine panorama in the background.

6:30 AM. “What church are you with?” asks Richard, an intense young doctor, in the information tent immediately after I tell him my name. The Mennonite Relief Sale is a chanty fund-raiser, a social gathering, a bazaar. But no one forgets that it’s organized under the aegis of a religious group.

Richard tells me that the organizers hope to raise $500,000 from the sale, the biggest of 35 such sales held annually in the United States and Canada. The money will go to the Mennonite Central Committee, which sponsors development projects in over 50 countries. Richard mentions some of them: agricultural training in Bangladesh; tornado-relief work in Saragosa, Texas; sending blankets to Mozambican refugees.

Everything is donated. The pancakes and sausage and pastries bring in a lot; there are also antiques, and crafts from a number of third world nations; but the real money comes from the quilt auction, Richard says.

6:45 AM. There’s a sign outside the cavernous building where the quilt auction will begin at eight: “These items are sold as memorabilia or for decorative purposes. It has not been subjected to the provisions of the Indiana bedding law.”

Inside, aficionados are already examining the 350 or so quilts displayed on makeshift wooden racks. There is a democratic mix of young and old, experts and newcomers.

Quilt talk: “That pattern took a bit of thinking, didn’t it?”

“Boy, oh boy. Makes you dizzy, almost.”


“The colors this year are really super. ”

“You see? They should have gone with off-white on the back.”

The quilts have been donated, some by individuals or families, but most by Mennonite and Amish congregations (these two branches from similar religious roots have a friendly relationship) in Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan. Many represent the work of the better part of a year. They sport colors and patterns and names as bright and varied as the dress of the Amish is plain: Mexican star; night and noon; Jacob’s ladder; Kansas dugout; shadow box; monkey wrench.

A raised platform sits along one of the longer walls in the huge room. Atop it is a large speaker’s podium and an angled, revolving stand displaying a white, blue, and salmon-colored star-pattern quilt. Before the stage are arrayed rows of folding chairs and wooden benches; by seven o’clock, individuals and families have already claimed the best seats, the ones toward the center. Some wear farmers’ work clothing, some wear polo shirts; only the conservative Mennonite women, with their long skirts and starched white bonnets, look like they’ve made any effort to dress up, but then they always dress that way.

7:40 AM. About 30 men gather around the south end of the stage, clearly distinguishable from the audience. Over half of them wear ties, and several sport cowboy hats. They are the auctioneers, and they all look like they come from Texas, with their smiles and handshakes and beef-fed self-confidence; it’s as if they know they can talk their way out of any situation.

8 AM. Bill Yoder mounts the stage. Short and stocky, he walks as upright as Barney Rubble, and is stout enough to pass for a Swiss peasant (which in fact many of the Mennonites’ ancestors were). As head auctioneer, Yoder will introduce the other auctioneers, but he will also sell the first 15 or 20 quilts himself.

Yoder more often sells livestock than quilts, he tells me later; he was at the Logansport, Indiana, livestock auction for almost 12 hours yesterday, until midnight. You wouldn’t guess it now from his energetic voice.

After making a couple of announcements, Yoder begins the auction punctually with a daisy-patterned quilt from the First Mennonite Church in Berne, Indiana.

“Five hundred who’ll give me 500 now 300 who’ll give me 300, 300-dollar bid get 200 started, 200-dollar bid–200 dollars! 200-dollar bid, two and a quarter, 200, 225, two, two twenty-five, two hundred twenty-five! two fifty, two and a quarter, two fifty,” Yoder begins his rap, mixing attained and desired bids with such speed that it takes me a while to understand what has actually been bid and what the auctioneer wants to hear from bidders. It is breathtaking: before his rap, Yoder spoke blandly, unobtrusively; now it’s hard to believe that this rapid-fire stream is coming from the same mouth.

The first thing I notice is how his spiel accelerates several times over in his rap. It’s part of the game: when the numbers follow one another so quickly, likely buyers may feel more pressure to bid, and prices may rise higher. When he wants them to, Yoder’s numbers come tumbling out packed close as a line of dominoes.

But it is obvious from the first minute that Yoder does more than talk fast. He introduces something else into his rap, a sound that fills the spaces between his numbers. It is a sort of phrasing that seems to approach English but remains incomprehensible, like a dialect that has evolved just beyond the limit of mutual understanding. At its most extreme it is reminiscent of the boinging and buzzing of a Jew’s harp. I let my mind wander a little, and I think of a banjo strummed fast or a swarm of bees. When I get back to really listening, it is hard to imagine a human tongue fluttering fast enough to produce such a sound, and I understand why the auctioneers work only half-hour shifts.

When questioned later, Yoder cannot immediately explain exactly what he says during such moments; he’d have to go into his rap to recall it. “It’s a filler,” he tells me. “It’s a chant, I guess it makes it musical. People who follow auctions prefer it because it makes it more musical, more entertaining.”

Yoder isn’t the only performer. Eight to ten other auctioneers patrol the aisles in the densely packed crowd, watching for bidders and transmitting their offers to Yoder. As soon as a patron bids, the floor auctioneer yells sharply or thrusts a hand into the air to indicate to Yoder that the desired amount has been bid. Yoder incorporates a new bid into his rap almost seamlessly. “Two fifty, 300-dollar bid,” he, says. “Two hundred fifty, three, three, three.” Here a floor auctioneer signals. “Three,” Yoder emphasizes slightly, “three fifty, three, three fifty,” and the price has risen $50 almost before other bidders can blink.

At first what the floor auctioneers are doing looks chaotic; some of them seem to stand as idly as car salesmen. But they are in fact combing every seat on the floor, some with outstretched fingers to indicate just where they’re looking. They are tensed, ready to signal instantly should a patron yell or nod or raise his numbered registration card to register a bid.

The best floor workers do more than just react to bids. Part of their job is identifying likely bidders, since a large part of the crowd comes simply to watch. Working one aisle is Leonard Miller of Goshen, a bearded young auctioneer with a cowboy hat and intense, twinkling eyes. He cajoles patrons, seeming to draw bids by his sheer good nature. When someone in his part of the crowd bids, Miller yells more loudly than the other auctioneers; his cry is short and sharp and carries traces of the Indian war whoops you hear in late-night westerns.

9 AM. Miller recognizes a young woman near me as a likely buyer; she has been on the edge of her seat during several sales, nervous with anticipation, but has not yet bid on any quilt. When a large Queen Anne design from a Mennonite congregation in Elida, Ohio, goes on sale, the price runs quickly through the low hundreds. The young woman bids $600. From several aisles over comes a bid for $700. The young woman, giggling, bids $800, Miller standing beside her. Her opponent bids $850. Then, briefly, the auctioneer’s rap continues uninterrupted by yells from the floor workers.

Miller regards the young woman. “Come on, give me $875!” he says. He grins, but it is a grin with a nervous edge, as tensed as the rest of his body. He’s ready to react instantaneously to her slightest nod or barely mouthed “yes.” She nods and bursts out laughing.

The other bidder buys the quilt for $900. Later, the young woman buys several quilts, giggling every time.

10 AM. Slowly the differences between different auctioneers become clear. Not all have a vocal style as refined as Yoder’s, a style that seems so removed from the material interest of making as much money as possible in the shortest possible time–his performance is as purely theatrical as the quilts are artistic. “It’s either natural or it isn’t,” Yoder tells me later. With him, it’s natural; he started at age 15.

The third auctioneer, semiretired Elias Fry of Archbold, Ohio, also learned his craft without the formal auction training that, according to Yoder, has become prevalent within the last two decades or so. Fry enunciates his numbers more slowly than Yoder, with less ornament, so that they are at times easier to follow, if less musical.

Fry generates some laughter the first time he nudges a quilt price to $1,000. “Nine hundred, a thousand, a thousand dollars!” he says, “now two thousand, who’s got two thousand, two-thousand-dollar bid?” No one falls for it, even after the quilt’s fast run through the hundreds.

Yoder tells me one possible way to distinguish veteran auctioneers: they are more likely than a greenhorn to have a sure feel for how much a particular quilt will bring.

10:30 AM. The new-and-used-items auction is in full swing in the dairy-goats shed, a high-roofed, wooden affair with no walls. Along one of the long sides of the building is a row of bleachers, across from them a silver gray pickup truck. On the truck’s bed is mounted a canopy; on the canopy are mounted four loudspeakers. Two auctioneers sit on chairs in the truck bed and sell the donated items, arrayed between the truck and the bleachers. These auctioneers were at the quilt auction earlier; throughout the day, the auctioneers rotate between the sale’s several auctions.

Among the items not yet sold: a large wooden toy train; new toolboxes; an antique spinning wheel; a manual clothes wringer; several organs; a used heat pump; a picnic table; and several wooden lawn ornaments–ducks with wings that spin in the wind.

In this audience, conservatively dressed old farmers predominate. Visiting yuppies spend their time either at the quilt or the antique auction. When two old men make low bids for the clothes wringer, an auctioneer walks from one to the other, trying to cajole them into bidding more. Neither of them giggles.

11 AM. Robert Lambright buys the 1988 Michiana Mennonite Relief Sale commemorative quilt for $10,000. Lambright is one of the owners of an auction grounds and flea market in nearby Shipshewana; the auctions bring a huge amount of business to the tiny town of “Shipshe”–its nickname around here.

The auctioneer tries to raise the price: “It’s sold for $10,000 the last few years, and we don’t want to get into a rut,” he says. “There’s been some inflation. But it gets awful quiet when you talk about $10,000 for a quilt.”

1 PM. Several auctioneers have had to pause occasionally–one auctioneer as often as once during the sale of every quilt–to clarify for bidders and themselves just what has been bid. Yoder does that only once–now. It’s during the quilt auction, but he’s just about to sell, for $82,500, a new house in Goshen built with donated materials and labor; and he does it now only because the sums involved are so great. The sale draws the day’s most sustained round of applause.

The average price for quilts hovers around $700.

3 PM. Leonard Miller now stands in bright sunshine atop a wooden wagon covered with potted plants. All the food vendors have left–many of them sold out by early afternoon–but several men and women selling big blocks of cheese are still set up at strategic fairground intersections. Besides the quilt auction, this is the only action left.

Miller receives three- and four-dollar bids with the same fervor Elias Fry exhibited announcing $1,000 bids, reminding buyers that the money goes to charity. “It’s only money!” he says. “How about $6?” I have to raise my bid to $6.50 before I can come away with a tray filled with plants.

Sunday, September 25. Organizers report that the 1988 Michiana Mennonite Relief Sale raised $504,545, not including a continuing trickle of later donations.

For more information on Indiana Amish Country, see the Visitors’ Guide in this issue.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Peter Friederici.