July 17, 2009

Sale Barn Nights (Sketch #14)

Category: News — Ira @ 6:36 pm


“Play us a tune on an unbroken spinet, and let us hear
the actual voices of old fairs; Let us move backwards
through our memories…Let us relive the million forgotten
moments of our lives….”

—Thomas Wolfe

We made it probably three, maybe four times a summer. It was a rare treat, to be allowed to go. An experience to be savored and treasured, for the delightful thing it was. To partake of the bustle and stir of the great city market that was the Aylmer Sales Barn. Every Tuesday was market day.

It was a ramshackle ratty place, consisting of a few acres of cracked and rolling pave-ment and dirty broken gravel, lined with row upon row of vendors’ stands. Inside the main auction barn they sold cattle, and in later years, furniture. A dilapidated side wing housed a number of “English” vendors, who sold mostly cheap Japanese trinkets. And antiques and just plain old junk.

Amish vendors too, sold their wares from little market stands, outside in the elements. Of a Tuesday, the laden old top buggies lumbered down the main gravel road through the community, en route to town. Uncle Abner was a consistent mainstay, selling his eggs. He made the weekly trip to market until he no longer could because of age, a period of close to fifty years. LeRoy Marners sold baked goods. And maybe several other Amish families sold things too. I can’t remember. In the early 1970s, Sam K. Yoder also had a stand.

To us, the Sale Barn was a huge affair, a far shining vista of glittering treasure, a vital part of the pulse of the Aylmer settlement. A place that throbbed with life and lights, full of exotic and wondrous sights and sounds and tastes. Where one never knew the exciting adventures that might unfold.

Sometimes I got to go with Dad, sometimes one of my older brothers let me tag along. We usually went to town first, walked and shopped the great stores on the Aylmer square. Stedman’s. Canadian Tire. IGA. Then ended the day at the Sale Barn.

Outside the main building entrance the French Fry wagon sat parked, windows opened, the delicious tempting odor of hot oily fresh cut fries permeating the air. We always bought fries. Sprinkled them liberally with strong sour vinegar. Canadians don’t put ketchup on their fries. That’s for sissies. And Americans. I wasn’t even aware such a strange and frightful practice existed until I was probably ten years old.

There was a small café in a corner inside the ramshackle Sale Barn building. Beside the serving window stood a metal water tank filled with ice and shimmering bottles of cold soda pop. Mountain Dew, Coke, Orange Crush, and the swirled glass bottles of biting red Cream Soda. There, beside that tank, through the sliding serving window, auctioneer Les Shackleton bought me an ice cream cone one summer night. I was a penniless curly-haired little five-year-old kid, wandering around on my own, staring with hungry eyes at all the mouth watering ice cream and pop other people were buying. He was a nice loud man, who took pity on me and kindly asked my name and claimed to know my father. “So you’re David’s boy,” he boomed as he handed me the cone. Barely able to speak English, I nodded. I slurped the Maple Walnut ice cream, and marveled that such people existed, who for no discernible reason bought little Amish boys such treats. And I savored every bite.

Sometimes a few of my friends were there as well, and we hung out, absorbing all the sights and sounds. The fruit and vegetable man, hollering his prices at passersby. Dad usually stopped by that stand late and haggled for a box of overripe blackened bananas to take home to feed his ravenous family. And down the line, vendors selling clothes, shoes, sunglasses, toys, junk, and old used bicycles I would have killed for. Anything imaginable was available at the Aylmer Sale Barn.

The Pigeon Man sat parked off to one side. The back of his truck was lined and stacked with rows of wire cages. Pigeons and other birds fluttered and bounced inside the cages. Amish boys from around the community, including my older brothers, slipped out at night with dim flickering flashlights. Like squirrels, they scrambled and shimmied up the hand-hewn beams in the empty yawning lofts of great old red barns in pursuit of as many pigeons as they could grab. It’s a wonder someone didn’t fall and break his neck. The pigeons they caught were deposited into burlap feed bags and delivered to the Pigeon Man each Tuesday at the Sale Barn. For thirty-five to fifty cents apiece.

The action lasted until late; it was always dark when things shut down. The vendors wrapped up and loaded their leftover wares and headed out of town. I don’t know if uncle Abner usually sold all his eggs or if the Marners sold all their baked goods. I imagine the prices dropped as closing time approached.

And then one night, it happened. A strange and terrible thing. As the Marners were heading home, a car slowly approached from the rear. Pulled around, and stopped. It was pitch dark; the gravel road was devoid of all other traffic. Young Paul Marner and one of his sisters sat in the large top buggy. A man emerged from the car and approached. Paul pulled the horse to a stop. At his side, the man on the road held something that might have been a pipe, or a gun. He wasted no time with greetings, but gruffly demanded their money.

They gave him all the day’s proceeds, a grand total of twenty-seven dollars. The man returned to his car and roared away. Greatly shaken, the two headed on home, glad to be unhurt. The news flashed across the community the next day. It was all people talked about for a week or two. I was in the second or third grade, seven or eight years old. So it must have happened in 1968 or ’69.

I don’t remember all the details, but somehow the local police got on the case. And somehow they caught the guy. I don’t know if there was a trial, or if the Marners ever testified in any way, but the robber spent some time in jail. Probably a few years at least. And that’s about all I can recall of the Great Aylmer Buggy Robbery.

My father was a man of many trades, and once a year, for a few weeks in July, he too joined the vendors at the Sale Barn. He shipped in fresh cherries by the truckload, from the fertile orchards down close to Lake Erie. A smiling elderly man named Alfred C. High rattled in on a Tuesday after lunch. On the back of his old blue flatbed stake body truck, he had loaded stacks and stacks of lidded wooden baskets with half-loop handles, filled with some of the world’s most luscious black cherries.

Somehow Dad had located the High Farms and made a deal. He paid them just a smidgen above wholesale price, then sold the cherries at the Sale Barn for retail price. It was a money making proposition. By the time I came along, Dad’s reputation as a seasonal cherry vendor was firmly established in the Aylmer area. During the season, people flocked in to buy his cherries.

Alfred C. High usually delivered a few baskets of cracked cherries, or seconds, with each load. These were never sold at the Sale Barn, but were always snapped up by the local Amish because they were cheaper. One Tuesday about mid-morning, William and Fern Kramer, an elderly couple from the nearby Mt. Elgin settlement, trundled the fifteen miles in their horse and buggy to buy some cracked cherries from that day’s load. They sat for hours and hours, waiting for the truck to arrive. About the time the old blue truck pulled in, Neighbor John from half a mile down the road rattled in with his old hack to pick up a few baskets of cracked cherries for his goodwife, Martha.

Unfortunately, that day there were only three or four baskets of cracks, instead of the usual dozen or two. There was tension in the air as Neighbor John and Fern Kramer faced off on who would get to take the cracks. Standing there, hands on her hips, Fern struck first.

“I guess I’ll take them all,” she said authoritatively. Neighbor John looked extremely grieved. As Fern moved in to seize the baskets, Dad intervened. They would have to share and each take two baskets. That’s the best he could do, Dad said. And the fairest thing. Neighbor John looked slightly less grieved. It was not a good day for the Kramers, who had to trundle fifteen miles on their horse and buggy clear back to Mt. Elgin. After waiting for hours and hours. I don’t know why they didn’t just take a few baskets of good cherries. But they didn’t. Guess it never crossed their minds to spend the extra money.

Once in awhile, I got to go along to help sell. On Sale Barn day, we pulled into the vendor area and located a stand. Alfred C. High then backed his old stake body truck to the site. And we unloaded maybe a hundred or more covered baskets. Dad helped unload, but he was already busy selling, engaging anyone who showed even the slightest interest. To verify that the cherries were of good quality all the way to the bottom, Dad would pour a full basket into an empty one, slowly rolling out the delicious fruit. He even allowed people to taste a few before they bought. After tasting, few could resist a purchase.

And here, at a vendor’s stand at the Aylmer Sale Barn, I was introduced to my first real taste of commerce. Of selling a product, taking money, giving change. The bustle and stir of the crowd, the characters who stopped and talked and tasted and bought. “English” people, the old, the young, the fat, the tall, the long-haired hippy types of the age. Scraggly hillbilly hicks, most of them. As were we. We just didn’t know it.

And we engaged too, in some minor commerce of our own. Lugged in cages and boxes with baby rabbits and bantam hens with cute little fluffy chicks. Sold them for a few dollars apiece. We weren’t allowed to own large livestock like calves and goats and sheep. Dad said they ate too much feed. But we did raise small stock, rabbits and such. What we sold was ours, we pocketed the money, to save or spend on things we wanted, hockey equipment and occasional contraband like sports magazines and comic books.

When things slowed down a bit, or most of the cherries had been sold, Dad left us at the stand from time to time and went off to do his shopping. One evening, I stood there all alone. Selling baskets of cherries right along. Two long haired young thugs approached. Well, maybe they weren’t thugs, but they sure didn’t have any money to spend on cherries. One of them stopped in front of my stand and pointed at the sky.

“Look at the plane,” he said. I turned around and looked up.

The young long haired thug grabbed a handful of cherries while my back was turned. The neighboring vendors all roared with laughter. The two young louts walked on, snickering, munching on their pilfered cherries. I was helpless, mortified and hugely embarrassed. I resolved never to get fooled like that again. Like a country simpleton.

And once as I stood there alone at our stand during the early hours of a summer evening, a great ruckus arose from the fruit and vegetable vendor across the way. A bald giant of a man, he was particularly aggressive that night, staggering about and accosting passersby with loud, crude shouts. He was slosh-faced drunk, but I would never have been able to tell. I thought he was just a loud English man. Eventually someone notified the owner of the Sale Barn, and he emerged to confront the loud bald vendor.

The bald giant vendor stood there, red-faced with drink and breathing hard, as the owner curtly ordered him off the premises. The giant bellowed a slurred curse, then slowly cocked a massive paw and unleashed a wide slow looping swing. The owner ducked, then dove in and grabbed the giant behind each knee and yanked. The giant abruptly sat down on his rather sizeable butt. Confused, he slurred more curses, then slowly stumbled to his feet and attacked the owner again, cocking a massive menacing fist. Again, he swung a wide slow looping arc. Again, the nimble owner ducked and dove at the giant’s knees and tugged. Again, the giant sat down abruptly. This time the owner turned and walked away. A few minutes later, two cops arrived and escorted the drunken giant to their car and took him away.

In my memory, that was the first real violence I ever witnessed. I stood there, gaping in awe and disbelief. No one, I figured, would believe my tale.

The Aylmer Sale Barn. There never was one like it, before or since. A place where small children sailed on great voyages of adventure into a strange and mysterious world. A place never forgotten by those who shared the grandeur of its glory years.

It still exists. Vendors still gather of a Tuesday afternoon to sell their wares. Old timers still hang out in the café and speak of bygone times to those who will listen. On the morning of my uncle Abner’s funeral in January, I drove by the Sale Barn with my sister Rachel. We didn’t stop or get out, just drove by and looked. I barely recognized the site of so much drama and wild adventure all those years ago. The place looked sad and desolate. A small cluster of tattered, forlorn buildings is all that remains.

Maybe that’s all there ever was. Maybe it always was a sad forlorn little hick country place. And not the great distant shining vista I remembered as a child. Maybe. To most people.

But not to me.



  1. Great memories there, you said it exactly right, the Sale Barn ain’t what it used to be. Either it changed, or we did, maybe both. I remember telling Lester about it, after we were married several years. We went to Aylmer and stopped there. I was shocked, the glamor was all gone. The French fry truck, oh I can still taste those. We had no clue that people ate them with a meal as a veggie. French fry was simply that; the lady would always ask salt and vinegar?, then spritz some on.

    Then I wonder; what are the “Sale Barns” of our children’s lives? What will they remember in 20 years???

    Great reading. Thanks.

    Comment by Rachel — July 17, 2009 @ 10:21 pm

  2. What would we do without our childhood memories like that?? I loved reading that because I felt like I was there and could smell the french fry wagon and feel your excitement at seeing everything! Why the heck would someone sell pigeons, by the way?? No wait, why would someone BUY pigeons?

    Have you ever walked through your old elementary school? I did that one time and talk about small! I always thought it was HUGE back when and so colorful. Thanks for a great post – loved it!!

    Comment by Bethrusso — July 18, 2009 @ 11:19 am

  3. Because of my size I never was an Aylmer Sales Barn person. People literally butted me around. I like the Shackleton’s Sales on Thursday evenings much better.

    Comment by Katie Troyer — July 18, 2009 @ 11:43 am

  4. The festival had went through an especially bad year. On it’s last night.

    Comment by jason yutzy — July 18, 2009 @ 12:23 pm

  5. Sorry, hit the wrong button there! What I meant to say was a comment on your little row with your uppity nephews a couple weeks ago on the word which was not a word or was a word, as the case might be. I think your blog is remarkably typo free aside from some punctuational liberties which can be ascribed to poetic license, I think. Also, you use very good grammar. I oughta know-I’m speaking as a teacher who has graded about 1 million papers…

    Now, what I was going to say, was, consider this gem from the front page of our local paper, the West Central Tribune. “the festival had went through an especially bad year. On it’s last night”. The front page, no less!

    Comment by jason yutzy — July 18, 2009 @ 12:34 pm

  6. The Aylmer sale barn!! It does bring back a lot of memories. That’s where I bought my first harmonica, and if I remember correctly, my first pack of cigarettes. Oh, the sights and the sounds of the world to a little Amish boy. I wonder how many Amish boys have bought forbiddens at the Aylmer flea market!! Could we hear a few confessions?

    Comment by Gerald D. Hochstetler, Jr. — July 18, 2009 @ 12:57 pm

  7. Great post as usual. It reminds me of the weekly Monterrey auctions.

    Not to associate myself with the uppity nephews, I must still take issue with Jason’s gem from his local paper. I found the article in question, and here it is in context.

    “It was many years ago, and the festival had went through an especially bad year. On it’s last night, an epic storm came through, destroying thousands of dollars worth of equipment and sending fans running for cover.”

    Was it the use of the word “it’s” instead of “its”?

    Comment by Reuben Wagler — July 19, 2009 @ 12:45 am

  8. Aylmer Sale Barn, does it ever bring back memories! I could not resist leaving a comment. Confessions of forbiddens … I would have many. The main one being the tapes. Somewhere in the middle of this “big” barn was the tape booth. Where anything from Jim n Jess the Virginia boys, to (my favorite back then) The Easter Brothers would be playing on a loud tape player. Right beside the tape booth was a book store and that is where you would always find me. My head deep in a book. I would have no idea what I would be reading as my reason for being there was of course the sounds from the tape booth. Whenever I managed to get some cash (each tape cost $10.00) I would look down the aisle one way, then the next. When I was sure it was all clear I would (with dry throat and pounding heart) grab a tape and drop the money and take off to spend countless hours in my room at night with the battery opperated tape player. Until someone found them and then the whole procedure had to start over again. Since then Jesus has saved my soul and my songs have changed, but the memories are still there.

    Comment by Jonathan Jantzi — July 19, 2009 @ 6:06 pm

  9. Absolutely loved this one- could see it all!

    Comment by Ann — July 23, 2009 @ 3:35 pm

  10. I enjoy reading your site each week. We just returned from Ohio yesterday, Holmes Co., to be exact, and thought of you as we drove through the countryside. We used to live in Sugarcreek and occasionally went to the sale barn located there.

    I used to be a proof reader and it seems like I can’t stop proofing everything I read. I would say that the most offensive grammar in the quotation (Comment #5) is “had went.”

    Comment by Ruth Hochstetler — July 23, 2009 @ 3:42 pm

  11. What grand adventures for a little boy.
    How could anyone stand by and laugh when those creeps stole your cherries? Poor little thing. I hope they choked on a pit.

    Comment by Francine — February 4, 2013 @ 12:02 am

  12. I remember watching my Canadian friends from bible school dip their fries in mayo…THAT was strange! ;) course they were the ones who also wiped their mouths with serviettes and had other strange names for common things. I will say tho… Ketchup chips were always a treat whenever I visited Ontario. Yummy!!

    Comment by Eileen — February 15, 2013 @ 10:52 pm

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