In yearly Pennsylvania tradition, Amish communities hold spring auctions to support fire departments

Estimated read time 6 min read

GORDONVILLE, Pa. (AP) — A couple hundred used buggies — horses not included — were lined up and ready for the auctioneer’s gavel last weekend when day began at the Gordonville mud sale, a local Amish tradition dating to the 1960s.

Mud sales are country auctions that benefit volunteer fire departments across what the Amish community refers to as the Lancaster settlement, located some 70 miles (113 kilometers) west of Philadelphia where the devout Christian group began to settle about 300 years ago.

They don’t sell mud, although a cold rain brought plenty of it. The name refers to early spring, when wet fields have begun to thaw but may not be ready for the plow. Gordonville’s mud sale, one of at least a dozen being held this spring in the region, drew thousands of bidders and was expected to net the fire department about $100,000, about 10% of the total proceeds.

Amish people make and donate much of the food and sale items and are the buyers of most of the buggies and the array of horse-drawn farm equipment. They organize and run sales, often serving as auctioneers.

Michael and Kristen Dean, a couple from Oxford, Pennsylvania, said Saturday they were enjoying a fun day of mixing with Amish people in hopes of finding a bargain on used fencing. The Deans are regulars at Lancaster County mud sales and a week earlier had purchased a greenhouse at the Bart Township Fire Company mud sale in Quarryville.

“It’s bigger than you think when you’re trying to get it on a truck bed,” Kristen Dean said.

George Olivio drove about 90 minutes from his home in Rosenhayn, New Jersey, to seek deals among the tools and hunting gear. As he carried chicken corn soup, horseradish and shoofly pie to his vehicle, Olivio recalled how the Amish people seemed less welcoming at his first Gordonville sale about 40 years ago.

“When I first started coming, they were very standoffish. Now most of them are pretty doggone friendly,” Olivio said.

Gideon Fisher, who chairs the Gordonville mud sale committee, said that as more fellow Amish people have sought work off the farm, there has been a shift in interactions with others. He sees it as a good thing.

“You know, 50 years or 100 years ago, probably most of the Amish were farmers. And now today there’s a lot of them going out — roofing, construction, all kinds of other jobs,” Fisher said. “It’s becoming more usual — we’re mingling.”

The first mud sale was apparently held in 1965 by the Bart Township Fire Company, roughly 6 miles (10 kilometers) south of Gordonville, according to Steve Nolt, director of the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at nearby Elizabethtown College. Within about a decade, similar sales had sprung up in Gordonville, Farmersville, Strasburg and Gap.

The social aspect of the event is unmistakable, with Amish adults greeting old friends warmly and discussing the price of milk and the relative merits of used scooters, rusty wagon parts and fresh doughnuts. Clusters of children roam the grounds, some pulling wagons to help buyers move heavy goods to their cars, others swarming stands selling candy and baseball cards.

From inside a trailer built by her bishop, the title of local Amish church leaders, Sadie S. King’s wares included scrapple, homemade bologna and six quarts of her own horseradish. She lives about a mile and a half from the fire hall and has plenty of reasons to support the cause — Gordonville firefighters have helped put out her own shed fires.

A hand-drawn sign advertised catnip for $1 a bag. “Oh yeah, I sell a lot of that,” King said.

Among the bidders on Saturday, Amish buyers were concentrated in the open field where some of the used buggies that can run as much as $16,000 new were going for a few thousand dollars. Amish people from Wisconsin bought 15 of the buggies, and on Monday they removed the wheels as they loaded them and other purchases into a tractor-trailer to ship home.

A more mixed crowd of Amish and non-Amish bidders were wedged into tents selling tools and other farm goods, with prices like $200 for a leather harness and $10 for an old pitchfork. Sale items included a row of 12 forklifts, industrial sized air compressors, a small sea of lawn furniture and, in the crafts tent, handmade wooden birdhouses of every size and description.

Near the fire hall were auctions of antiques, used furniture and plants — and mostly non-Amish bidders. About 400 quilts and a variety of books were auctioned off in the fire hall’s main vehicle bay. Downstairs in the basement, Amish women were doing a brisk business in $2 hot dogs, $4 breakfast sandwiches and seemingly every flavor of pie.

In recent years, Gordonville’s sale has grossed more than a million dollars.

It no longer sells used firearms and the sales of horses and other animals ended during the COVID-19 pandemic. Organizers also needed more parking, so they pulled the plug on games of corner ball, a dodgeball-like sport enjoyed by Amish boys and known as Eck balle in the Pennsylvania Dutch language.

In booming Lancaster, among the fastest growing counties in Pennsylvania, large Amish families and the cost of farmland has put pressure on the traditional lives they prefer. Weak milk prices are also forcing change.

Jeff Stoltzfus, a Penn State Extension educator, said that over the past 15 years, some Amish farmers in Lancaster have traded in dairy farming to focus on vegetable farming.

“I would say of our commercial vegetable farmers in the state, probably 60 to 70% are probably going to be plain community folks,” he said.

There are signs the Amish people in Lancaster are determined to remain amid their half-million neighbors in Lancaster County. The Lancaster settlement extends into neighboring Chester County with smaller numbers in Berks and Dauphin counties in Pennsylvania and Cecil County, Maryland. It has grown from 95 church districts and more than 16,000 people in 1990 to 257 districts and 44,000 last year, Nolt said.

The rules that govern Amish life and interaction with the wider world vary from group to group, although the wearing of plain dark clothes and the use of horse-drawn transportation are widely observed. Amish people are now in 32 states and Canada, with a total population approaching 400,000, a majority living in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana.

Nolt said that in recent years, four clusters of Amish groups from the Lancaster settlement have established themselves in Bedford County and Littlestown, Pennsylvania; Points, West Virginia; and Farmville, Virginia. Together they may total about 500 people, during a time when the Lancaster settlement grew by about 8,000.

The modest changes, Nolt said, show “that out-migration is not the principal demographic story here, but rather most Amish are staying in the Lancaster settlement.”