7/6/2013 7:00 AM
By Dick Wanner Reporter
BIRD-IN-HAND, Pa. — There’s no town square in Bird-in-Hand, Pa., no shopping mall, no serious sports venue, no 12-screen cineplex, not even an official government. There are some thriving businesses. There is some of the country’s most productive farmland. But what this village of 402 people has in almost unprecedented abundance is community spirit.
That spirit bubbles along day-to-day, year-round, and then boils over on the fourth Friday of June each year for the annual Bird-in-Hand Auction. The auction is a fundraiser for the village’s Hand-in-Hand Fire Company (its official and sublimely appropriate name). Steve Esh is a fire company member and one of a crew of five, more or less, who organize the event. Esh didn’t have final numbers on the Monday after this year’s auction, but he said more than 300 volunteers arrived to help set up tents, direct vehicular and pedestrian traffic, cook and serve food, clerk for the volunteer auctioneers, and all the other big and little jobs that go into running an event that in any given year draws from 3,000 to 7,000 people to 10 acres of Bird-in-Hand farmland.
This year’s Friday crowd looked much closer to 7,000 than 3,000.
There was no good way to estimate the crowd on Thursday night. This year, for the first time in the auction’s 14-year history, there was an early bird sale and a chuck wagon dinner the evening before the big sale. The event went swimmingly.
The skies opened up and dumped buckets, tubs and tanker-loads of rain on the assembled crowd. You couldn’t see the mud for the standing water.
Even so, Esh said, there’s already been talk of a Thursday night event in 2014. There were 300 tickets for the chuck wagon dinner and they all sold. The cooks came from the Valley Forge Black Pots Chapter of the International Dutch Oven Society, with an assist from Susquehanna Iron Masters, another chapter of the I.D.O.S.
A Dutch oven is a cast iron pot with a lid. You put food in the pot. You put coals from your fireplace, or charcoal briquets from your local Agway, under the pot, and on top of the lid. Then you let it cook.
The rainy weather meant people had to stand inside the tent to pay for their meals and wait to be served. And the weather meant that some of the volunteers scheduled to serve the meals had to go hold onto the tents.
They weren’t just being worrywarts. The tents usually start going up the Saturday before the sale. This year, there was a windstorm Tuesday night that destroyed a 60-foot-by-250-foot tent. The tent was insured, Esh said, but the cost of renting a replacement took a big bite out of the fire company’s income from the auction. So did the 14 truckloads of sawdust hauled in to help deal with mud that could — and did — arise when you mix thousands of people, hundreds of cars, a slew of buggies and a monsoon.
Esh said the firemen this year would be very grateful for the $10,000 or so they would raise from the food concessions.
The money raised is important, according to Amy Wissing, but probably not as important as the goodwill that Bird-in-Hand citizens generate amongst themselves and their visitors.
Although her bare feet were muddy to the knees Friday morning, Wissing said she is definitely not a farm girl, and claims as her origin the urban reaches of Bird-in-Hand. Neverthless, she is a Bird-in-Hand’er through and through, and the daughter of former Hand-in-Hand Fire Chief Tim Hoerner, who now serves as the company’s president.
Wissing is a public relations and marketing professional who still lives in Bird-in-Hand and whose client roster is filled mostly with people she grew up with or that she’s known most of her life. Unlike her dad, she’s not a member of the fire company — she says she’s not quite in tune with the whole firefighter bonding ethos — but like her dad, she is a dedicated volunteer for the cause. She leads the company’s outreach and education efforts —focused primarily on the community’s children — and she puts a lot of work into promoting the annual carriage auction.
Although there are enough items to keep a small army of volunteer auctioneers busy on sale day —nursery stock, antiques of every sort, household goods, miniature horses — the real draw, Wissing said, is the carriage inventory.
The Lancaster County Carriage and Antique Auction, its official name, began in July 2000, when Weavertown Coach Shop hosted the National Carriage Makers’ Reunion in Bird-in-Hand. Jake King and Elam Petersheim spotted an opportunity to host a kind of carriage-themed garage sale, put out the word, attracted the attention of 60 other people with carriage-related wares, and held their first sale. The second year was bigger than the first, and it just kept growing.
Petersheim is a local antiques dealer and King is with Weavertown Carriage. They were joined by Paul Stoltzfus of Leola Coach. The sales were initially held on Petersheim’s farm, and when the crush of the crowd grew too big for his place, the site shifted six years ago to Bird-in-Hand.
Amy Wissing, a people-person’s people person, seemed to be smiling every second of sale day and, she said, in a sentiment echoed by others, it wasn’t just about the money being raised. It was about community.
“There’s a cultural divide between the Amish and the English,” she said, “but they come together for this auction. It’s amazing. It really is.”
It’s a hand-in-hand operation, in other words, and the community spirit lasts all year long.