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At country auctions, many treasures are in the eye of the beholder

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Sunday, October 10, 2010

Autumn is the season for country auctions, and in the upper Piedmont, that means a trip to Tillett's Auction Barn on Belmont Ridge Road, just north of Mount Hope Church. Bill Tillett has been auctioneering since fall 1963, after he graduated from the Superior School of Auctioneering in Decatur, Ill.

With his ruddy face and broad-brimmed hat, Tillett, who is more than six feet tall and has a discus thrower's build, is a commanding presence among the masses that often surround him.

"Ask him about the anvils," an onlooker suggested.

Tillett told me that, at the old agricultural shop at Loudoun County High School, he, along with a few other teens, could heft a 100-plus-pound anvil over his head.

Tillett had been going to auctions since the late 1930s, then in tow with his father, Christopher, taking a break after a day's work on the family dairy farm. Today's auction barn stands on that land.

"It was all rural people then," Tillett said. "They could find a use for just about anything they bought."

How did he feel the first time he ran an auction?

"It was at the Aldie firehouse. When you got up before the public like that, and you're looking for a place to hide, there's no place to hide. There were no mikes then. Roger Powell, the Loudoun sheriff, a good friend of the family, he got up there to give me a break."

Auctions through the 1970s were nearly always announced as public sales, and the names of the people selling items typically appeared in newspaper ads and on handbills tacked on the doors of country stores. For the Tilletts and their neighbors, it was the Waxpool store, run by Bill Tillett's grandfather Samuel Edgar Munday.

At a public sale, usually held before a family moved or after a death, people often bid on an item because they wanted to buy a keepsake of someone they once knew. It was a way of having a tangible remembrance and a link between generations.

Tillett ran public estate sales from the Shenandoah Valley east into Fairfax County and south into Fauquier for 16 years, before deciding that he wanted to own an auction house. His 130-foot-long cinder-block building on Belmont Ridge Road in Ashburn opened in April 1980.

The area was still rural, and Tillett recalled that on Saturdays, "you'd start the sale at 10. They'd bring their lunch, make a day out of it. There wouldn't be room for anybody to park. They wouldn't leave until the last item was sold. Now, they don't stay the way they used to. When they play out, we play out."


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