The announcement went out on WXCY radio -- the unheard of had happened. Hunter's Sale Barn would be closed due to ice and snow. Word traveled fast, from Tom Hudson's barber shop to Jesse Cox's insurance office to Dale Haywood's tractor-repair garage. But there were still a few who braved the bitter cold and showed up that Monday night at Hunter's, only to discover the barn was dark.
"They'd crawl up the driveway to get here if they had to," said Norman Hunter, who's had to cancel the Monday-night auction and flea market only five times in the 19 years he's run the business. "This is a big night out for people."
On warmer nights like we're experiencing now, more than 2,000 people from Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania converge on Hunter's Sale Barn. About 70 percent of them are Baltimore-area residents who will gladly drive an hour for a dose of Cecil County's country atmosphere. Wedged between Harford County's townhouse sprawl to the south and the corporate clatter of Wilmington, Del., to the north, Cecil remains stubbornly rural. Pancake breakfasts are a big deal here, and some people trustingly leave their cars idling while they pop into a store.
Hunter's 13-acre property south of Rising Sun was formerly a dairy farm, then a pony show grounds, and then a livestock auction before Hunter bought it in 1975. He auctioned cattle, sheep, pigs, cows and chickens until 1985, when the livestock business dwindled to nothing. Many of the area's farms went broke and were sold to developers during the economic crunch of the late '70s and early '80s. The times had changed, so Mr. Hunter did, too.
He tore down the animal stalls and replaced them with folding chairs for the auction-goers. And converted a huge red dairy barn on the property into an antiques and collectibles shop. And then he began to auction salvage (discontinued and damaged goods) from department stores and wholesale warehouses. He offered toys, hardware, appliances, clothing, food, housewares, sporting goods -- basically everything he could get his hands on. Sales reached $2.5 million last year.
Dale Haywood used to buy pigs and cattle at Hunter's, but on a recent Monday night, his bargain bounty was a case of Acme cola. He paid $4.50. Mr. Haywood, who lives a half-mile away from Hunter's, is a 30-year veteran of auction houses. He sold his farm 10 years ago and now repairs tractor engines.
"It's kind of sad," he said. "This community was all farms at one time. Then it became too expensive for farmers to survive, and the younger guys told their dads to sell off, because they didn't want to get into it."
Mr. Hunter admits that on auction night his only real competition in Cecil County is "Monday Night Football," and that's only in fall and winter. So the people come, in droves, and spend hours bidding on everything from razor blades to giant cases of Rice-A-Roni. The high-back wooden chairs on the auction floor are filled with people of all backgrounds and races. There are stout Amish farmers, well-heeled professionals, young families with squealing babies, retirees and teen-agers. They come for the bargains, but they also come for the camaraderie they feel once they step into the auction house.
"People know your face, and they talk to you," said Carol Doutrich of Cardiff. "It sounds funny, but it's almost like a big family. And of course the bargains are unbeatable." She had just paid $11.25 for 1,500 plastic cups for her nephew's wedding.
Mr. Hunter, his son Chris, daughter Ronda and wife Carol are the auctioneers, and they make sure the wisecracks fly around the ** room as fast as the bids.
The regulars pay $5 for a bidding number that's valid "forever, or until we close down," according to Mr. Hunter. He knows many of the bidders' numbers by memory, and often gets Christmas cards that bidders sign only with their numbers.
"It got to the point that one day someone called me to say that bidder #52 told them that bidder #26 had died," Mr. Hunter recalls. "At first, I thought it sounded kind of cold and impersonal, but now I think it's kind of nice, actually."
Dorothy Telak and Ethel Mickolajczyk of Baltimore County are regulars. They earned their bidder numbers the hard way -- they drove around Cecil County on three occasions before finally finding Hunter's Sale Barn. Now they are among the 250 regulars who file into the long concrete building every week, entering on the same ramps that cattle and pigs once trod on.
"Everyone here's really nice; we look forward to it every week,said Ms. Telak. On a recent auction night, she and her husband, Cas, drove their Lincoln home with a box full of items, including an 11-pack case of Bounty paper towels that they paid $7 for.
"We come here not needing anything, but we always go away with a bunch of stuff," she said. "You get into the spirit of the bidding, it's like an addiction."
The walls around the barn are stacked with the bounty that America's consumer culture has produced -- fax machines, bubble gum, microwave popcorn and instant soup. The only remnant of the livestock trade is a huge buffalo head that's mounted on the wall behind the auction block. The head belonged to Neil, a 1,400-pound buffalo owned by Mr. Hunter that was shot when it escaped.
"We had a buffalo roast that day," Mr. Hunter said drolly.