Things were rough in the Midwest in the Great Depression. So Paul Owens picked up, moved to Boise and founded the Boise Main Auction 75 years ago.
The first auction building was where the Shilo Inn sits now, said Owens' descendent David Wesely, Jr. He owns and operates the fourth-generation business today.
In the 1940s, the auction moved to its current home - an airy barn-like structure at 2912 W. Main St. Auctions take place every Saturday morning. A tiny cafe serves biscuits and gravy, the "farmer's platter" and "a little bit of everything," said Wesely.
The auction is prime for people watching, whether you're bidding or not.
For one thing, there's the auctioneers' expert patter. On a recent Saturday, an auctioneer extolled the virtues of a rusty wagon wheel: "Yuppies will pay top dollar for this kind of thing for their landscaping," he said, dragging out the syllables of the last word in such a way that it left no doubt about what he thought of yuppies and their landscaping.
There's the patter of the crowd: "Pretty soon, these liberals will want to take away our pressure cookers because they'll be worried we'll use them to make bombs."
Then there's the merchandise. Piles of stuff - ceramic horse head vases, table lamps, 1980s-style night stands, walkers, record albums. It all fills a series of bays in the auction barn. You can look through the chain-link to try to spot treasures. Some buyers come equipped with flashlights to see into the bays' dark recesses.
The auction runs on a consignment system. "John Doe brings in his items, we sell them, he takes home a percentage," said Wesely. "It runs pretty much how it always did."
Shelley Smith Eichmann, whose family has been in the Boise real estate business, since the city's earliest days, nominated the Main Auction as a Boise icon, calling it a "local treasure."
When her real estate clients are moving and have items that they can't sell, but that are too good to give away, she sends them to the Main Auction. "Sometimes what they earn is a disappointment. But sometimes it's amazing," said Eichmann.
Buyers, like sellers, love the thrill of the unknown, said Wesely. His customers range from people with a couple bucks in their pockets to millionaires: "They all come down here looking for the good deal."
Shopping in a store is one thing. An auction is something else.
"Here you are participating in the action. We tease people. They have a good time. They get drawn in. It's a magnet," said Wesely.
Anna Webb: 377-6431