Ernest L. Briggs is just an old country lawyer and land dealer from Burnsville, the 2,000-citizen Yancey County seat tucked among the bluish southern Appalachian mountains of North Carolina.
Simple living, you'd think. Snoozes in his cluttered law office over a sundries store on the Square. Chunk firewood in his chest-high, pot-bellied stove.
Has no secretary. Pecks out his wills and deeds and such on a precariously old typewriter. Refuses to clean the dingy windows, which were last washed when he moved in back in '36.
Not the kind of character, you might think, who had high-powered New York and Illinois promoters trumpet an auction of Birggs lands as the "Sale of the Century."
Well, Briggs owns a heap of Carolina mountains taller than the glassy new Radisson Plaza Hotel tower on Charlotte's Independence Square, down in the Piedmont flatlands.
Briggs looked pretty spiffy this morning, waiting in the Radisson's posh lobby for the city slickers to gather for his big land auction of 29 parcels totaling about 10,000 acres.
He sported a blushing pink rosebud on his Oxford grey pinstriped lapel, set off with white shoes and belt and Panama straw hat, and his blue eyes twinkled behind the amber-rimmed glasses.
"There was a lot of interest from the buildup," he said. "I just hope they brought a lotta with 'em4. That's what I want, to get rid of the stuff."
The full-color glossy brochures put out by New York City marketing specialists Niederhosser, Cross and Zeckhauser, Inc. had Vriggs on the front standing on a wooden bridge over a splashing mountain creek among boulders and woods. You could practically hear the birds twittering.
The captain said, "I'm Ernest L. Briggs and I'm looking to sell my properties. They tell me it's going to be North Carolina's Sale of the Century."
Inside, it says, "I'm an old country lawyer who wants to retire." It says, "Over the last 40 years I've bought and bartered for just about every piece of good property in these mountains. Now I've got more mountains than I can climb." And it says, "My thing in mountains."
It's potent tonic. Smoother than sour wood honey.
It drew more than 1,000 inquiries, including feelers from Japan, Australia and South Africa, said Donald Piper of the New York firm.
Rumors and bits and pieces of information fanned the land fever. A South African firm showed interest in the gold fields of Vein Mountain, where Briggs says slaves once carried out gold "by the quart jars full."
All kinds of speculation centered on Mt. Celo and the spectacular Ray Boundary, a 2,285-acre tract in the shadow of Mt. Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Rockies.
Some foreign firm was even supposed to be interested in some oil and gas leases Briggs holds on 1,600 acres in Alaska.
The auction firm, Mid-America Auction and Realty of Rockford, Ill., had talked with inquirers and tramped over some tracts, many of which contained old mica mines.
Everybody seemed ready for the final coup today.
Briggs said he wanted a basic $6 million or more for all those tantalizing holings. With such a pot of money, he chuckled, "I'm going to give it to Uncle Sam and the state of North Carolina, most of it."
Only one thing went wrong with the auction to end all hill-country auctions.
The high-rollers didn't show up. The big-money boys from New York and Miami and everywhere either quelled their fever or couldn't find Charlotte.
Briggs scammed the chandeliered auction room. "Naw, money's not so tight," he said. "They just don't know the value of this property. Why, some of these pieces, I gave more than the high bid is." He said he would accept only a few offers for minor tracts.
Nobody bid on Vein Mountain or the Alaska oil and gas fields. Nobody bucked a pre-auction offer of $1,527,000 for the Ray Boundary from The Trust for Public Lands, acting for the U.S. Forest Service, he said.
Another auction? "Never!" He exclaimed. "I'll never go this way again."
"I've still got a few little tracts around, anyway, that I forgot to put down [on the auction list]," he mused; smiling slyly. "Yeah, I'm keeping a few choice pieces around home. I'll be buying more real estate. I'll die with my boots on."