Westminster West, Vermont — John P. Bittner, who just happens to be regarded by some as America's top antique-tool auctioneer, made the less than half-mile trip down the Westminster West road to neighbor Arthur Ranney's white-painted Vermont farmhouse four times this summer.
Each time he returned to his own farm with a full load of country antiques stacked high in the back of his aged 1951 Ford dump truck. Mr. Ranney had quit farming. For over 210 years, six generations of the Ranney family had operated the sprawling southern Vermont farm. Now Mr. Ranney was withdrawing, but he wasn't moving off to a Florida retirement village.
Instead, in the best tradition of the Vermont work ethic, he was moving on to lumbering. Vermonters don't take to inactivity easily. There was the problem of that well-stocked attic, though, and neighbor Bittner seemed the answer.
Mr. Bittner, who at one time owned an antique shop in nearby Brattleboro, was anxious to oblige. He had been considering an old-fashioned Vermont late-summer auction at his farm, and the Ranney estate was just what he needed.
Country-estate auctions have a long and not always illustrious history. Many a historical society possesses yellowed broadsides featuring the sale of the old homestead, and too many say, ''Sold by Order of the Tax Collector,'' or ''To Settle the Estate of the Late Owner.''
That has been the way, for nearly 200 years, of disposing of family heirlooms. Some people have mused that the practice is declining, now that America is reaching the waning years of the 20th century. They say there are no more great estates. But those who think that should take heart. Here in southern Vermont, evidence to the contrary is emerging. The difference is that the heirlooms are being auctioned while the owner is still alive.
As Mr. Bittner explains, ''The Ranney attic lot was pretty amazing. Baskets, pantry boxes, spinning wheels and flax wheels, brass and iron kettles, boxes of unused honey containers, cherry pitters, sleds, chairs, and tables - just about anything a Vermont farm family ever had from the late 18th century on, it all went into that attic!''
It was a windfall, but it wasn't enough by itself. More items, especially in the furniture line, were needed. Jack Bittner started making phone calls and dropping in on his neighbors. The results were amazing.
Sitting in his kitchen three days before the auction, watching a steady, soaking rain pound the rolling fields, Mr. Bittner remembered how it was:
''I was flabbergasted by the good antiques people had. Of course the Ranney farm is only a half-mile away, but look. The wicker all came from the brick house down the road.'' He pointed off to the east. ''There's a major lot from Dummerston, less than 10 miles away. There's more stuff in local farms and houses than I'd imagined. I had to turn down consignments toward the end.''
The day of the auction dawned bright and clear. A large white tent was set up on the Bittner lawn. Soon the cars and vans began rolling in. By noon there were over 400 of them. A crowd of over 600 poked and peered over the offerings.
Arthur Ranney leaned against a varnished bureau and watched. He wore his best work shirt and a shy grin. One could tell he was enjoying the attention, but cameras were out. Finally he consented to talk. What did he think about the prices being paid for his things?
''Well, same's Bittner said, they'll go for more than you expect they will,'' he replied, laughing a hesitant laugh. It was true, the prices were higher than he had expected. The first item up was a Bennington jug, which brought $550. Soon the stack of pantry boxes brought $65 each, or $325 for the lot. Mr. Ranney could only shake his head in disbelief. Some spinning wheels, none complete, brought $90 to $130 each.
Asked about a possible sense of loss on seeing his belongings go over the auction block to strangers, he drawled: ''Naw, you see it collecting dust, and don't use it. Well, don't matter whether it's sitting there.''
But if he didn't plan on missing the family's attic collection, his brother Albert seemed to. He lingered for a few minutes over the family's old tin dishwasher. It bore a patent date of 1912, and he fondly remembered his mother using it on the farm. In pre-jogging days, the exercise was there; users cranked the dishwasher by hand.
Albert Ranney opened trunks, reminisced over the boxes of butter containers, and remembered using the wool press. Under the tent, perspiring bidders bought the jugs and crocks. They bid $65 for a book about John Humphrey Noyes, a Vermont native still remembered with some disfavor in neighboring Putney, and they watched in amazement as a Massachusetts dealer bid $13,500 for a Vermont blanket chest.
By the time the last piece had made its way to the trunks of the cars in the parking lot, or had been pushed into the rear of a van, Albert Ranney had gone. But Arthur Ranney watched on, right to the very end.