By Daisy Hutzell-Rodman
Auctioneer Earl Thies sits on a chair inside a brick building east of Glenwood on Highway 34. It’s an old structure that’s serving its last days as an auction house. Thies, 83, is retiring. An auction on Saturday will be the last of a career that’s covered six decades.
In the 1950s, Thies had been in the Army during the Korean War, earned a degree in agriculture from Iowa State University, married and farmed for a couple of years, but he needed to do something different.
“In 1954-1955, the farm business was terrible,” Thies said. “I sold hogs for $8-$10 per pound. Right now, they’re about $65 per pound. That’s why I quit farming.”
That something different was auctioneering school.
“You learn a lot of the business end of it,” Thies said. “They also teach you to talk fast and plain.”
Following auctioneering school, Thies began working with a farm auctioneer in Ames.
“When I started, I was 23, and I looked like I was 16,” Thies said.
Thies also had a real estate office and built houses for 10 years. The interest rate spikes in the late 1970s caused him to quit building houses.
“I got out of that business when interest went to 20 percent,” Thies said. “My brother-in-law had four brick houses at that time, and they didn’t sell. He tried to give them to the bank, and the bank wouldn’t take them.”
Real estate is often a large part of auctioneering.
“I’ve had a real estate license since the 1960s,” Thies said. “I think if a guy’s going to auction real estate, they should have a license.”
A real estate license is necessary in Thies’ mind, because without one, state law says an auctioneer can only establish the time, place, and method of an auction; advertise the auction and cry (call) the property at the auction. The actual sale is completed by a licensed real estate agent.
Selling land, Thies said, is lucrative.
“It’s a lot of work ahead of time, but it pays real well,” Thies said.
His business was part of an operation that sold six farms in two days during the late 1980s.
Thies said another lucrative area of auctioneering is purebred livestock, but he never got into that.
“The livestock business is totally different because prices are so set on that stuff. The business is so precise.” Thies said. “When we sell livestock, the bids start within a couple of hundred dollars of where it’s going to land.”
He auctioned livestock for many years at the Mills County Fair.
All around his auction house lay boxes of Barbie dolls, light fixtures and other assorted collectables, signs of a life devoted to the auctioneering business.
Thies served on the board of the Iowa Auctioneers Association, performing every role except secretary. In 1976, he was inducted into the Iowa Auctioneers Association Hall of Fame, He’s been a member of the National Auctioneers Association for 50 years and has been to every National Auctioneer’s Convention for the last 35 years.
Thies continued to work solely in Ames until the late 1980s. His wife died in 1983 of Lou Gherig’s Disease, and his two boys, Galen and Dallas, grew up.
Thies bought his auction house at 61362 U.S. Highway 275 in 1987, and for 10 years, he traveled weekly between Ames and Glenwood.
“I’d drive down here Thursday night and have an auction Saturday night. Then I’d go up to Ames and have an auction on Monday. I had payroll employees in Ames. Down here, the only time I have help is during an auction.”
Thies runs his auctions with the help of six other people – Three people to show and pass out merchandise, a cashier and someone serving food. His longtime girlfriend, Margaret Bloomer, keeps the books.
For many years, the Saturday night auctions drew crowds of 125 to 150 people. The audience included everyone from farmers to bankers to college students.
The community members came together on weekend evenings to look at, and bid on, merchandise. They came to visit with their neighbors and snack on sodas and snacks.
Selling food never made significant amounts of money, but Thies always makes sure it is available for people, and it is always reasonable.
“I’ve heard of some places recently where a hot dog is $5,” Thies said. “With us, hot dogs are a dollar, pop is 50 cents.”
The farmers and bankers still come to auctions, but the college students have disappeared.
“I had a lady who called in June and said should I wait until August when the students come back?” Thies said. “I said the students don’t come to these anymore, and she called me later and said ‘you’re right, the students don’t buy from auctions.’ ”
The business is also changing due to Internet auctions, which Thies prefers to stay out of.
“One of my brothers (Duane Thies) works for Big Iron,” Thies said. Big Iron Co. is a nationwide online auction company. “That’s a big thing anymore. You go to the national convention and they have all this information about computers and stuff.”
Although he is retiring, Thies plans to continue helping with the auction for the United Methodist Church in Glenwood, which he attends, and he’s proud the National Auctioneer’s Association supports St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
“A large part of the auction business is working charity auctions,” Thies said. “Auctioneers develop millions of dollars for charities each year, free-gratis.”
After nearly 60 years of calling auctions, Thies is ready for retirement but that doesn’t mean he’ll sit still.
“I’ve got plenty to do,” he said. “I’ve got 11 tractors that I play with. There’s upkeep on the house, but I don’t know how much of that I can do any more – Margaret walks with a walker. Both of us are doing pretty well for our age.”
Before Earl starts tinkering on tractors or home improvement, he has one final sale. Saturday, Aug. 16, Thies Auction will open to sell the office equipment, trailers and refrigerators that have been a part of his life since 1987.
“I’ve sold about everything,” Thies said of his business. “I haven’t sold an airplane, but I’ve sold about everything else.”