The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

The Great October Auction

By John Hassell Yeatts © 1985

Issue: October, 1985

The first Monday in October 1926 dawned grey and misty. A thin fog covered the meadows, glens and cornfields of Mayberry, Virginia. The sun kept pushing hard against the grey and by 9 that morning it had popped through above the Knobs revealing a blaze of color above the laurels and rhododendron that lined the brown road banks leading to Mayberry. The blight that brought the blues to that community and surrounding territories had already started killing the chestnut trees. But a few still retained a golden sheen.

A sad day in August that year had brought the untimely death of Cephus Scott, one of the area's best known citizens and merchant. This had started a chain of events that was to culminate in the sale of ponderous amounts of dry goods, hardware, and groceries that crammed his big store. It was to be an auction sale that had been advertised by printer, Eslie Smith as one of the greatest events of the year 1926. And for Mayberry, it was, in fact, no less. By 8:15 that morning Mr. Cephus' nephew, 11 year-old Edgar Scott was already predicting that "enough people were coming to drink the spring dry." Edgar was referring to the pristine watering hole beneath a giant oak tree on the store grounds that had been a popular gathering spot for more than 50 years. Folks drank its 43 degree water from gourds, Vienna sausage cans and Prince Albert tobacco tins never failing to comment upon its freshness. Some lucky ones, on jubilant occasions, chased apple brandy with its waters. Mr. Scott had cooled pop and butter in its branch for longer than the boys could remember. No one had ever dipped it dry.

The crowd was increasing. The road in front of the store was now filled and people were beginning to cover the bank across from the building. Most eyes were fixed upon the closed 9ft. doors that stood between them and all "those bargains." Deputy Sheriff, John Harrell, looking pleasant, but formidable astride his sorrel mare was there as a visual reminder that laws for the most part would be obeyed. Nipping at the spring, O.K. No displays, no abuses of the privilege.

At about 9 sharp, the big double doors swung open and out strode big Len Reynolds looking cheerful and important. He was the show that many had come to see. Standing 72 inches tall, he weighed approximately 4.5 pounds for every inch. He was clad in his usual casual trousers, blue chambray shirt and string tie. He was a loquacious, chanting auctioneer who really knew the art of "crying" sales. Sometimes one of his friends would banter when Len's evaluation of some merchandise became too extravagant. This was just what Len needed. It became a vaudeville show with the comedian on stage and a "straight man" planted in the audience. The man would usually end up paying the price he had protested. The executor of Mr. Ceph's estate, a nephew Lane D. Scott, followed closely on the heels of the auctioneer, his arms filled with boxes of shoes. Len mounted the dais, took a minute to lament the passing of Mr. Ceph, and got right down to business. Some of Mr. Ceph's grandchildren became runners carrying load after load of merchandise from the shelves to the auctioneer. On and on the chanting went and on and on the buying went. The young lads in the crowd were amazed at the flow of the big greenbacks to the cashier. (The smaller 2.5 by 6 inch currency would not be introduced until 1933.) Occasionally a lad would swallow hard at the sight of a gold coin or a gold-backed piece of currency. The school term hadn't yet begun so boys and girls could help with the family harvests. But many of Mayberry's most conniving young people were present for the event. All that excitement and stuff, it was better than a circus.

From the shade of a white pine above the road came the unmistakable sound of Ernest Boyd's claw hammer stroke on the banjo. And then the mournful sounds of "Oh my darling Nellie Grey, they have taken you away, and I'll never see my darling any more." It was Ernest alright.

A bunch of men interested only in the hardware to be sold on the 2nd day had started a poker game in the cutting room of the big barn that stood on the store grounds. Dick Marshall was trying to draw to an inside straight and made it. Dick was always sharp as well as lucky. Some of the horses tied at the long hitching pole were whinnying. The crowd moved back to allow a smoking Model T roadster to chucker through. About everyone recognized the winning grin and friendly wave of Rev. Bob Childress. "Stay with us preacher," big Len, the auctioneer called. Ennis Dickerson, faking outrage because someone outbid him on a pair of moleskin trousers tore a shoe box in two and stomped the halves in the dust. A few people laughed and Ennis looked pleased. The auctioneer shouted, "Another pair, just your size, 46's, coming up Ennis," and Ennis wound up paying more than the trousers had been originally priced. The sun grew hotter now, and the crowd smelled of chewing tobacco, snuff and sweat. And it was all blended with the smells of kerosene and leather and chocolate candy coming from inside the store.

The auctioneer acknowledged the presence of his revered Uncle Jace Barnard, now 85 years old, who had walked almost a mile to the sale. Folks - most of them knew Uncle Jace who had fought his last battle of the Civil War and been captured at Gettysburg. They admired and respected the bearded old gentleman who looked a lot like "Marse Robert", and had surveyed much of the land around Mayberry. And hadn't Mr. Jace once taught school in the loft of the store? Folks watched him raise his walking staff to signal the auctioneer of his willingness to raise the bid. Several people crowded in just to see the kind of merchandise the old man was buying. Pretty Mary Lee Agee, now Coy Yeatts' wife, shyly bid on a bowl that would be used to bathe her new baby in. (Their oldest son, Coy Lee still has that bowl.)

Well sir, the sale lasted until dusk and was adjourned until the next day. The second day was almost a repeat of the first. A few new faces now, and the good ole boys did not resume their game in the cutting room.

Then about mid afternoon of the 3rd day, the merchandise began to dwindle out, and then all of it was gone. The mood of the crowd began shifting from carnival to somber and then to melancholy. Finally it was almost like the mood of a funeral crowd. Something more than Mr. Ceph was dying.

A frail lad of 10, clad in overalls that matched his eyes, had changed even earlier. He had dropped tears when his oldest sister wept with outrage 4 years earlier when the Mayberry post office was eliminated. And he had wept when his gentle Pa had broken the news to him late that summer that his friend Ceph "was gone." But now, the real finality of things had begun to take shape. The big store that had served so long as a social center, dance hall, lodge hall, school room, as well as a trading post was actually dying. The lad was fighting to choke back tears. And as he watched Lane Scott take the big folding key that opened like a jack knife blade and click: the lock closed, the boy was seized with a strange desire to run away and away. Some place where he would never see the big store again.

But times change, and boys thoughts do too. As he came to be a man he finally accepted it as simply another scene in the passing parade. A new scene would soon take its place.