Walter's bird cages

Monday, February 27, 2017
Walter Sehnert dowsing for water, one of his favorite retirement activities. (Courtesy photo)

(Note: Recently there was a story on the radio about two women at an upscale auction house who nearly came to blows over who should have a certain scarce teacup that each needed to complete her collection. It reminded me of a time during World War II, at a farm sale, when a similar situation developed.)

My dad, Walter, was what you would call a fiscal conservative. He took a lot of ribbing from his friends about his closeness with the buck. One time my mother sewed a zipper onto the end of a sock for him to use as a purse -- much to the delight of his buddies at the coffee shop.

I suppose dad came by his conservatism with the dollar naturally. His folks had come to South Dakota from Germany in the 1890s to homestead on land overlooking the Missouri River, at Oacoma. Times were tough. It was dry -- and windy. They fought the battle with the elements for a few years, just holding their own. When some of their neighbors learned that grandfather, Richard, had been a baker in the old country, they persuaded him to start a bakery in Oacoma, which he soon moved to Presho, the larger town in the area. That was where my dad, youngest of eight children, grew up -- working in the family business, which eventually grew to include a restaurant and small hotel.

Four of the five boys became bakers. All four married Presho school teachers, who one by one, convinced their husbands that Presho was too small to support all those families in the family bakery. All four of the boys eventually owned their own bakeries, three of them in Nebraska. The Presho bakery went to a sister and her husband, which they ran for many years.

My folks bought the bakery in Plainview, Neb., in 1930, when I was two years old. In the '20s Plainview had four banks, one on each corner of the main square. By 1930 the bank crisis was almost over -- but not quite. Three of the banks had closed. The fourth, still operating today, apparently was better funded and survived -- but just barely. The folks had not been in Plainview long when there was a "run on the bank," sparked by the rumor that the bank was about to close, and there were long lines of depositors who demanded to draw out their savings.

A few days after that crisis had passed, Ben Saunders, the bank president, came to the bakery and thanked my dad for having trust in the bank and not drawing his money out. In telling the story, dad said that he had so little money in the bank that it really didn't make much difference if he did or did not his draw money out. He said that he didn't know how he would have reacted had his assets in the bank been sizeable.

Anyway, my folks came through the bank crisis and the Depression believing that the only asset that one could really count on was land. Toward that end, one former banker, a wonderful gentleman, Frank Holbert, now in the real estate business, took my dad under his wing, counseled him about the pitfalls of investing (from personal experience) and helped him to buy his first farm.

For the rest of his life, Walter owned a farm, though he never farmed himself, and remained a baker. He loved to visit the farm, and loved to mingle with farmers and take part in their conversations. Over the years he became quite an innovative land owner, introducing new crops, pivot irrigation, new breeds of hogs and cattle, dairy and beef, to the area.

All this interest in farming quite naturally led to his going to farm sales, which were all too common in the '30s and '40s. As an "almost farmer," he took a good bit of ribbing from the "real farmers" and especially Dean Mosher, the leading auctioneer at that time in Plainview. He and Walter were friends and Dean frequently used Walter as the butt of the jokes he told to liven up a sale. One time there were three bird cages on a farm sale. Dean tried and tried, but could not get an opening bid. Finally, in desperation, the said, "Sold to Walt Sehnert, for 25 cents" (the minimum bid), though Walter had not opened his mouth. Everyone had a good laugh, and Walter, ever the conservative, paid the 25 cents, gathered up the bird cages and took them to the farm and stored them in the barn, even though he did not keep birds and had no plans to do so.

After that, whenever there was a bird cage on a sale Dean would make only the flimsiest attempt to get a bid, ending, "Sold to Walt Sehnert, for 25 cents."

The procedure got to be a running gag. Even when Walter was not at a sale, Dean would buy the bird cage himself, to pass it off on Walter at the next sale. The gag climaxed at a sale when there were six bird cages, no buyers and Dean was able to pawn the whole bunch off on Walter for the usual 25 cents.

Then, in 1944, in the midst of World War II, Walter had a farm sale of his own, where he sold livestock, machinery, and various items he had picked up at numerous farm sales. It was a cold day in February, and Dean was hurrying the sale along as best he could. When he was almost finished with the small items, Walter had the men bring out a wagon, completely loaded with bird cages -- 22 in number (I know because it had been my job to assemble them and clean them up for the sale.)

When Dean Mosher saw all those bird cages he burst out laughing, as did the regular sale goers who had followed the gag over the years. Dean's comment was, "Now, how in hell am I going to sell these bird cages when I don't have Walt Sehnert to unload on?" But Dean manfully made the attempt, and started the bidding, at what else, 25 cents.

Sometimes providence smiles, even on a cold day in February. On that particular day, it so happened that a lady from the Creighton area had decided to go into the business of raising canaries for sale to pet shops. Her business had grown to the extent that she needed more bird cages and had heard that there might be some she could pick up at this sale. (It could be that the war when anything made of steel was hard to get -- included even bird cages.) Now, this would have been great, to be able to get rid of some bird cages at all, but wonder of wonders, that day there was also a lady at the sale from Norfolk, who had recently gotten into the business of raising parakeets; and she also needed more cages.

The result was that the bidding got quite spirited -- with just these ladies bidding against each other. Eventually, the bids, per bird cage, reached $5. That was enough for Dean. He felt that he had gotten the bids high enough. He stopped the sale and worked out a compromise, whereby each lady took half the bird cages. They were happy and Dean was able to move the sale to other items.

A few days after the sale Dean Mosher came up to Walter in the coffee shop and said, "You have got to be the luckiest so and so in this county. I'm not going to let you start collecting harness sets. If you do, I'll believe the horse and buggy is coming back into style!

Today, you buy the coffee for the house!" (which he did, happily.)

Source: Growing Up In Plain View, by Sehnert, Gazette photo by Allen Strunk

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