Case No. 82-C-30, State of Kansas, County of Wallace, moved forward to "special execution" here today. When it was over, a sad story had arrived at the closest thing possible to a happy ending.
"Special execution" is the legal term in Kansas for a sheriff's foreclosure sale, the public auction where a farmer's land or equipment is sold to pay his debts.
The debtors whose equipment was on the block today were Glenn and Dorothy Lewis, who have farmed for three decades on these high plains near the Colorado border.
The Lewis' problems are partly the same ones that have led to sheriffs' sales in farm communities from coast to coast this year. Their costs were high, their income low. Interest rates were murderous: 15.6 percent on a 1982 loan. Freak weather also took a toll.
But the Lewis' failure resulted, too, from Glenn's growing obsession with rightist politics. After joining the American Agricultural Movement in 1977, the soft-spoken Lewis said today, he gradually grew deeply interested in political philosophy.
Lewis invested $8,000 in a personal law library "to learn my rights," he said. He decided the state had no constitutional right to force him to buy a license plate, so he painted his own and put it on his pickup.
But his financial catastrophe continued. Court records say the farm's crop of corn, milo and wheat brought in $87,500 last year. The family never even got to hold the check. Every penny they earned went to the local cooperative that had given them an operating loan. At the end of the year, the two still owed their lender $47,302.04.
The co-op went to court to get the 29 pieces of farm equipment Glenn Lewis had put up as collateral.
Relying on his law library, Glenn Lewis peppered the court with pleadings and motions. "Comes now the so-called defendant, Glenn M. Lewis, a Free Man," a typical motion began. It went on to plead that "Ex necessitate, the right, jus in rem must exist before seizure."
But as the court proceedings moved inexorably toward "special execution," Glenn's wife, Dorothy Schmalzreid Lewis, retained a lawyer of her own. The lawyer entered a motion that proved decisive today.
The motion asked for a two-stage auction of the Lewis equipment. First, each of the 29 items would be sold individually. In the second stage, anyone who offered a bid higher than the total of the individual bids could take the entire lot.
Today's auction, in a dusty field outside the sheriff's garage, looked at first like a muster of Bonnie and Clyde's posse. Worried that Lewis' Agricultural Movement friends might cause a ruckus, the state police and the Kansas Bureau of Investigation sent about 60 uniformed officers to keep the peace. There were Movement farmers here, but they mainly kicked at the dust in sullen silence. Only one, Lewis' friend Alvin Jenkins, disrupted the sale, shouting, "This is a DISgrace."
The sheriffs of Wallace, Greeley and Sherman counties, brass bullets glistening in their low-slung holster belts, stood on a truck bed and took turns being auctioneers. As his livelihood was auctioned away, Glenn Lewis, thin and straight as a beanpole, lectured his friends and reporters on political theory.
"We the people are supposed to be the civil authority," he said in quiet but resolute tones. "If you claim your rights you see the outside forces come in to take away your rights....You can't make money because the money they're issuing in Washington is not real money under our Constitution."
When the auction's first stage ended, the total of bids was $34,660. (Since this is less than Lewis owed, his lender has the right to bring further suits for the rest of its money.)
Now the sheriff asked for bids on the whole lot. An elderly, white-haired man with a floppy gray hat, arms folded, quietly called a bid: $34,661.
Across the yard, someone else bid $34,662. The man in the floppy hat bid $34,663. For 20 minutes the two men competed in $1 increments. But it was clear the man in the floppy hat would not be denied. After a long period of utter silence in the yard, the sheriff let him have the lot for his final bid, $34,713.
The man in the hat whispered his name--Carl Schmalzreid--and hurried away.
Someone asked Glenn Lewis if he knew the winning bidder.
"Yes, I know Carl," Lewis said impassively. "He's my father-in-law."
"I think," said Glenn's friend Jenkins, "that if they want to put in a crop at the Lewis farm this year, somebody will let them have some equipment."