Auction Day [read this free]
In the Town Where Bidding for Charity Began
By Madge Cook Wylie
Photos Courtesy of Madge Cook Wylie
This article is offered free in its entirety for the first part of January.
In a way, the story of Melba is less about where it’s going than where it has been.
The town may be not much more than a wide spot on the road to nowhere nowadays, but it got on the map with the emergence of an epidemic that began spreading in the late-1940s. Infantile paralysis, which was running rampant in the country, struck several families in the Melba area. My family’s nearest neighbors, the Crams, who had ten children, were quickly affected. David and Mary went to the hospital—Mary for two weeks and David for two months. After that, David went to what was then the Elks’ Convalescent Home for Children in Boise, where he stayed for four months, followed by outpatient care for the next two years.
Their mother, Leola Cram, read the story of Sister Kenny, who had devised a method of heating wool blankets in boiling hot water and applying them to children affected by polio, the short name for the paralysis. Leola told me she heated blankets and sat up all night, tending to the children. The next year, Jack Cram, who not been charged a dime for his children’s care, gave five hundred dollars to the March of Dimes drive.
Among other children in the valley who were affected by the disease was Brandt Reynolds, a fifteen-year-old who contracted a debilitating form of it called the bulbar type. June Trauernicht was thirteen when she was stricken with two types of polio. Following about two years in the hospital, she spent the rest of her days in a wheelchair and slept in an iron lung. Paralyzed from the neck down, she nevertheless graduated cum laude from Northwest Nazarene College in Nampa, where she majored in speech and hearing. She traveled to the College of Idaho to take a class in experimental psychology and later went to Idaho State University in Pocatello, earning a master’s degree in speech and audiology. She was employed at the Idaho State School for many years, always working with the most disabled, while she herself remained paralyzed. We all were touched by the epidemic. I had a couple of children and younger siblings who could have been victims.
When the situation arose in our valley, a group of farmers led by Ora Stokes, the grandfather of several children, met to discuss what to do in response. They decided upon an auction form of fundraising and selected the closest Wednesday in 1950, because it was the birthday of President Roosevelt, a lifetime sufferer from infantile paralysis.
Some of the leaders, including Stokes’ son-in-law, Gordon Vogelson, who was our town’s maintenance guy and village constable, went door-to-door to invite people to participate in the auction. Everyone pledged something—baby calves, bales of hay and unused machinery from the men, and canned fruit, loaves of homemade bread, doilies, pillow slips, and other crocheted items from the women.
When auction day arrived, objects filled a parking lot near the high school. Everyone brought something and everyone bought something. At the end of the day, a very satisfying result was declared: $2,800 had been raised, all of which was sent to the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis.
After that first year, an auction was held in Melba annually for the Polio Foundation, as it was called. School was let out because, at first, it was held on a Wednesday near Roosevelt’s birthday. In the auction’s second year, $3,800 was raised.
Other auctions started up around the country, soon numbering about three thousand, but for ten years, Melba continued to raise more money per capita than any place in the United States. By then, the epidemic was over, and a vaccine had been formulated. Our kids all received inoculations. By the time my youngest child, Jerry, was five years old, children were given a pill rather than an injection.
The Melba community decided it was time to spread the wealth around to other charities, but organizers were notified by the Polio Foundation that all our money was obligated to them. The group, which was now called the Melba Charity Auction, broke with the polio organization and gave to causes such as treatment and prevention of heart disease, cancer, blindness, and juvenile diabetes, as well as to local youth groups, such as Boys’ State, Girls’ State, and 4-H. After the auction had been going for many years, the organization started giving five thousand dollars annually to our Quick Response Unit, although that ceased after the QRU became a taxable unit as part of the Melba Volunteer Fire Department. A percentage of the money we raised was retained for local tragedies, such as house fires or sicknesses.
For a long time now, the real attraction to the auction each year hasn’t been the choice of items to buy, but the food. To this day, each person who attends is asked to bring two homemade pies. For years, men and women of the Walter’s Butte Grange cooked “bushels” of egg noodles in the school kitchen the day of the auction. The Rebekahs made popcorn balls each year. A few citizens were experts at homemade candy, such as fudge and divinity. On auction day, they sold candy to students in the classrooms, and because the school kitchen was busy, sack lunches were made and sold to the kids, which was a treat for them.
Eventually, state school authorities determined that students couldn’t take a day off for something so insignificant as raising money for charity, which meant the auction had to be rescheduled for the last Saturday of each January.
A highlight of each auction day was a contest among fancy cakes, some of which were sold several times, bringing several hundred dollars for each sale. Joan Noe and Doris VanSchoiack built a cake each year that incorporated the auction’s theme. One year, when I made a huckleberry pie to be sold by the piece, the woman at the pie table suggested I take it up to the auctioneers to be sold separately. Scott, my editor at the newspaper, bought it for $106. I continued to do that for a few years. Since huckleberries are not native to this part of Idaho, my son Larry, who lives at Priest Lake, still picks those tiny delicacies one by one (you can’t strip them off the stems like gooseberries or currants) and hauls them down here when he comes home each year to spend the winter.
We’ve continued to have the charity auctions, but in some years, the apathy in the community has been apparent. Nevertheless, a few people would gather and organize another auction for the following year. My job all that time has been to do the publicity, which includes getting articles in area papers and putting out a flyer in advance of the day.
To me, the important part of auction day is the volunteers who see that it gets done. Auctioneers from around Canyon County have taken turns showing up to keep the event going. This year, David Harrington, who aspired to be an auctioneer from a very young age, will take the gavel. Edith Pease has been managing the purse strings for nearly twenty years, making sure that money raised is distributed the proper recipients.
Our town, where the auction form of raising money for charity started nearly seventy years ago, may be fading away, but the spirit of those engaged in auction day prevails. Every year, here come the bales of hay and the baby calves and puppy dogs. Pies fill the pie tables, the homemade noodles look scrumptious, and you can smell chili wafting from one end of town to another.
The sixty-ninth consecutive Melba Community Auction will be held on January 20, 2018, because of a conflict with high school basketball games on the last Saturday in January. The auction will start at 10 a.m. in the high school gym. People will gather from all over the Boise Valley to visit, enjoy the food, and spend a few bucks for charity.