The residents of this coal mining hamlet in Southwest Virginia gathered in the yard of Trammel Baptist Church to watch and pray as the entire town was sold at auction today.
"We have a house for everyone," beamed J.R. Botkins, as the last of more than 60 white frame houses were offered to bidders.
Word that the town, a turn-of-the-century coal camp complete with post office, company store and boarding house, was to be sold at auction first circulated here in Dickenson County less than a month ago. The money would go to the heirs of coal baron V.L. Bird and his wife Marguerite.
Many of the tenants found out about the impending sale when representatives of the owner's estate came around to inspect the houses.
Panic spread among the residents, many of whom are disabled or laid off coal miners whose families have paid nominal rents -- $50 to $100 a month -- for generations.
With the help of several church groups, the residents hastily formed an association, elected Botkins its president, and sponsored bake sales, gospel sings and carwashes to raise the cash for the 10 percent down needed to bid at today's auction.
"No one actually stated what was going on," said Botkins, 22, an unemployed nurse's assistant who shares a house with his cousin, a sawmill worker. "A couple of lawyers wanted to see the house, so I showed them around. Next thing I knew, I heard the houses were to be sold."
Linda Tiller, a lawyer from Lebanon, Va., who is a coadministrator of the estate of Marguerite S. Bird, said she told most people whose houses she visited about the sale, and even offered to allow them to buy the houses in advance of the auction at their appraised value.
About 25 tenants took advantage of that offer at a meeting on June 27, Tiller said. Even if she missed notifying a few tenants, Tiller said, "it was common knowledge" that the houses were going to have to be sold.
Marguerite Bird died June 23, 1981, but settlement of her multimillion-dollar estate was held up for five years with legal wrangling, not the least of which was a claim -- eventually upheld by a court -- that Bird's husband, V.L. Bird, who died in 1977, fathered out of wedlock a daughter who should share in the proceeds.
A deal was struck last month between Marguerite Bird's heirs -- 14 nieces and nephews -- and her husband's daughter, paving the way for today's auction. Fears that bidding by bargain-hunting outsiders might inflate the house prices beyond the means of the tenants failed to materialize, thanks largely to the efforts of the optimistically named Trammel Homeowners Association, which managed to prevent neighbors from bidding against neighbors.
But it did not look too good at the start.
The first three houses were sold to Homer Kizer, who moved to Washington 22 years ago for the security of a job with the federal government when he could not get a job in the mines here.
Kizer could not see who he was bidding against across the crowded green-and-white striped tent in the yard of the Baptist Church. It was only after he had become the first successful bidder -- buying three houses for a total of $11,500 -- that he discovered that the tenant in House No. 1 was a childhood friend, Clady Johnson, who grew up near him on Hazel Mountain.
Johnson had dropped out of the bidding at just over $2,000 and stood silently, puffing a cigarette and pushing back tears, as she watched her house sell for $4,000.
Emotions were high as the time for bidding approached. Auctioneer Gaines Dickenson had hired four private guards to augment the sheriff's deputies and state troopers on hand to control the largest crowd anyone could remember in Trammel.
Tacked onto the fronts of most houses, next to official auction notices that assigned a bidding number to each parcel, were hand-printed pleas, "Please don't buy our house."
The sale raised more than $200,000 for the heirs, with most of the proceeds coming from the association or its members.
One person who said she was pleased with the outcome was Peggy Jane Bird Marshall, 47, who sat in the second row in the tent, keeping a running tab on the sales.
According to her attorney Jerry Tiller (who is the husband of the administrator), Marshall, as Bird's daughter, stands to inherit nearly half of what could be an estate worth $7 million.
Association leader Botkins, who got his house, assessed for $4,000, for $1,650, said the association paid 10 percent down and bought 24 houses, including a couple of boarded-up properties that will be made available as rental units for tenants who cannot afford to buy the ones in which they are living.
Botkins said lawyers for the estate have agreed to extend from 14 to 30 days the time for which payment of the remaining 90 percent is due. He said the association needs to raise about $40,000 by Aug. 12. Contributions are being accepted at the Trammel Homeowners Association, P.O. Box 29, Trammel, Va. 24289.
Not all of the tenants bid on houses today. In addition to those who bought theirs earlier, a few, such as 84-year-old Addie Williams, have opted to move.
Williams, who reared four children in the seven-room house where she has lived for 50 years, plans to move to a trailer. Her house was bought by another resident -- the sister of an employe of the estate -- at the June 17 advance sale.
Both attorney Tiller, in behalf of the estate, and representatives of the homeowners association said they have offered to allow Williams to live in another house, but she rejected those offers.
"I've been here too long to move to another house, so I'm leaving," Williams said. Her decision is supported by her son Arthur, an unemployed miner who lives in Abingdon, who said it is time that his mother not have to walk outside in the rain and snow to use an outhouse.
About half of the Trammel houses do not have indoor bathrooms, and one-third have no running water. But all have electricity, and as a result, more of the houses have cable television than bathrooms, making the $5,100 bid on the town's cable system one of the best buys today.
Another of the few successful nonresident bids came from a Manassas couple, Clifford and Barbara Shamp, who read about the sale in the Manassas Journal Messenger. They bought the 17-room boarding house, which none of the residents wanted, for $6,100.
"I haven't the vaguest idea what we'll do with it," said Barbara Shamp. "Maybe we'll use it as a getaway place," said her husband, a retired truck driver.
At day's end, Kizer, a 43-year-old bachelor who is a data processor for the Department of Health and Human Services in Bethesda, was besieged by residents who tried to persuade him to sell back the houses he had bought.
He said he would think about it. Meanwhile, Kizer has problems of his own. He said Fairfax County is buying the trailer park in Hybla Valley where he lives.