"Five, five, a hundred-eighty'five, do I hear one-ninety?" rattles the auctioneer in powder blue leisure suit and white patent leather shoes. Th other 51 weekends of the year he's hawking Chevys, but the last Saturday of March he and others like him donate their talents to auction off more than 300 quilts at the Mennonite Relief Sale in Harrisburg, Pa.
"We're hoping for as many as four or five hundred," says Mrs.Miriam Stoltzfus, quilt chairperson, who's still counting till the last one comes in March 20.
It's the granddaddy of quilt auctions, or, more appropriately, grandmama, and the diehards arrive early. Six p.m. Friday, March 24, the doors of the Farm Show Building swing open for a close-up sneak preview of the quilts that'll be up for sale Saturday morning. And there, in a display area larger than the East Room, hang the labors of love over rainbow-hued racks.
For the entire preceding year, Mennonite sewing circles have been stitching away at their Lancaster Roses, Friendship Dahlias, Dresden Plates. Every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon at the Ephrata Clothing Center, women have been gathering over the quilting frame; the same scene has been reenacted throughout Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvannia. Cheered on by Mrs. Stoltzfus and the $105,000 netted from last year's sale, they quilt to this annual crescendo.
Saunter down the aisles. This is where a fine eye comes in. The one with the beautiful blues but the long stitches - will it hold up through a lifetime of washings? Or, to the dealer standing nearby, will it sell? Scribblings jotted down in the program margin, the better to bid with in the morning.
Twelve hours later, the early risers return for breakfast: a true Pennsylvania Dutch repast of sausage, eggs, ham and omelets. Later booths will open serving funnel cake, apple fritters and shoofly and strawberry pies. Some tourists (my husband, for one) lick their chops fondly and remember this as "the Superlative Strawberry Pie Sale."
Outside the grills are revving up with barbecued chicken. Ponies saddle up for the onslaught of kiddie rides.
It's a family affair, and balloons abound. So do a curious mix of teenagers - some in jeans and workshirts, some young mwomen in tradtional Mennonite garb of plain dress and white cap.
Stake out of front-row seat early. The auction starts at 9, and about 3,000 folding chairs will be set up to hold part of the crowd! Register and take a bidding card, then sit back and watch the parade begin.
Up front, surrounded by maybe a dozen busy workers, is a double bed-size platform, mounted at an angle on a rotating base. A professional sale, this, but one marked by the hard work of people with old-time values.
Contrasts fill this bustling stage. The plainly dressed, unlipsticked Mennonite women beside the flashy polyester of the auctioneers. The flat Pennsylvania Dutch countenances beside the intricate, emblazoned quilts their hands have wrought. These women, who still for the most part put in their own gardens, can their own beans, "sew their own clothes and wear white caps to show submissiveness to their husbands," run a top-flight show that atracts people from all over the East. And they're good at it.
The larger and more unusual quilts coming up are first hung behind the auctioner, in full view of the audience. By the time that Lone Star or Log Cabin reaches the display platform, the audienc has been eyeing it for half an hour or so, and the biding rises.
Highest quilt last year went for $700 - a Holly Hobbie applique. But there were $25 baby quits, too and most go for under $200. A traditional high points is Mrs Jonas Good's Pennsylvania Dutch quilt, replete with hex signs and Amish buggies.
Why pay $200 for a bedcover, when one can be bought at Woodies' white sale for $39.95? Take another look. For so many hours of 1978, $200 is a bargain. A professional quilt designer in Arlington confesses she makes about 75 cents an hour for her work. And consider it an investment. Quilts are finally coming into their own as an acknowledged native American art form. Compare what's available at Applachian Spring (1655 Wisconsin Ave. NW), Appalachiana/Recollections (Bethesda's Georgetown Square), and the Foundry's Canal Company General Store before heading up there.
Who are the bidders? Dealers, to be sure, who'll stop at their self-imposed ceilings. A couple from Manassas who have $150 in their pocket to put down on Dutch Rose or Sunshine'n'Shadows for their color-coordinated bedroom. A medical student from Hershey who's a brand-new uncle. And the Mennonite men and women themselves.
Quilt No.49 comes up on the block, and a wave of excitement bubbles through the crowd. The quilter is here, right here in our midst. "Bring that lady up on the stage!" gestures the auctioneer, and soon Mrs. Martin or whoever is standing proudly, plainly, by her exuberant Trip Around the World, painstakingly pieced of scraps from her children's clothes.
Up goes bidding. When there's a face, a friend, to place with the work, the audience goes all out to please.
Last year's youngest entrant was a nine-year-old girl woh strolled right up beside her Nine-Patch quilt and watched her friends and family bid it up.
Those who haven't been quilting through the year consider this their contribution to the church and often buy quilts for their own or their children's homes. It's not unusual to see a white-capped lady sitting with a stack of nicely folded quilts piled kneehigh by her chair.
Bidding will continue till about 4 in the afternoon. For a break, walk around to the other exhibits that fill the two to three acres of the Farm Show Building. In addition to a quilting bee going in the far corner there might be a demonstration of a methane conveter.
Take your toddler over to the display of Third World crafts and children's toys, products of Mennonite self-help projects in Asia, Africa and South America. Buy him a puzzle from Kenya.
Pick up some literature on nutrition and food production, two other involvements of Mennonites throughout 39 countries. The "relief" in Relief Sale refers to relief for the world's hungry and cold, and proceeds go to Mennonite fieldworkers who teach oter to help themselves.
In the meantime, over 500 people, both Mennonites and others, give their time the day of the sale, and the scene is lively. This is their 22nd annual, an event that has outgrown two other locations through the years.
Two decades ago this was just a "community affair" held on a Morgantown farm, according to Mrs. Stoltzfus. (If you remember hearing about the Morgantown Quilt Sale, this is it.) "People would clean out their attics," she recalls, for donatable items. From there it grew. And grew. Word spread, they began advertising. From the farm to the Farm Market, and, after being rained on three years ago, finally to the Farm Show Building.
This year there's an added attraction:a simultaneous auction of antique furniture in another area of the building. "An experiment," says John Hostetler of the Mennonite central Committee, and one that will be continued if it's successful. If their record over the past 21 years is any indication, it will be.