AN AUCTION IN BRICK CITY
HEBRON, NORTH DAKOTA -- Deep veins of clay, burnt umber in color, run beneath the rolling grassland north of Hebron, here in the center of the Great Plains. The veins have been tapped for 100 years, turning out Hebron bricks. Hebron calls itself "Brick City" and the Hebron Brick Company takes the pride a step further. Its motto: Hebron Brick -- What America is Made Of.
A block from the Hebron Brick Factory, a crowd is gathered behind a modest, two-bedroom home on 116 Elm St. The sky is battleship gray; the wind is warm and strong. The auction is underway when I arrive, drawn by a familiar drone.
Coffee pots sell for cheap. Tables and chairs go for a song. And the song is the song of the auctioneer. Got-twotwotwodollahtwodollah...who'll give me threethreethreedollah...
A model '65 Mustang, 1/32 scale, sells for $350, drawing smiles from a crowd that appreciates American classics, no matter how small. But most of those seated in lawn chairs or standing by the brick garage have not come to bid. They are here to watch, to socialize, and as that billboard greeting drivers entering North Dakota advises, to "BE POLITE."
The auctioneer is straight out of central casting. Cowboy hat. Painfully close-shaven. Monotone and motor mouth spewing the music of capitalism at its most Midwestern.
Finally, the auctioneer comes to the biggest item in the lot. The house at 116 Elm Street was not made of brick but it was made possible by bricks. Its owners, Les and Ruth, built the house shortly after World War II. Les made his living laying Hebron Brick, all over town, all over North Dakota. "Anytime you see bricks in Hebron," one man told me, "Les probably laid 'em."
And you see bricks everywhere in Brick City. The school, the churches, the Jack and Jill and other downtown storefronts, and at least half the houses are made of that same burnt umber brick. This gives Hebron the feel of a town built from its own soil.
But Hebron, others told me, has fallen on hard times. Young people don't stay here anymore and older folks shop at the Wal-Mart in Dickinson, twenny miles back. Many brick buildings in Brick City are empty. And the ultimate insult is metal buildings, a dozen or more of them. Even the new town hall is made of metal. Brick City weeps.
When Les died in 2002, Ruth held onto the house. But Ruth died last February. All four children were scattered -- from Dickinson to the Pacific Coast. They might have put the house on the market but, one son told me, they wanted "closure," quick and easy. And so....
Buyers gather 'round! Let's sell a house in HEBRON, NORTH DAKOTA!!! Who'll give 50,000 dollahs? Who'll give 30,000? Who'll give 10,000 dollars and come aliiive? I got tentententen, I got twelve-fiiiive-twelvefivetwelvefiiive - I got fifiteen now -- fifteenfifteen-now seventeen-fiiive.
Rotund men, some perhaps living within Les's legacy of brick, hold up yellow cards, bidding on his memory as much as their interest in the house.
I gotseventeenfiveseventeenfive-seventeenfive-whollgivemetwenny. I got twennytwennytwenny The bidding rises to twenny-two-five... and freezes.
Gottwenttwofive--askin' twennnyfivetwennyfivetwennyfivethousand... Look at the house, folks. It's structurally correct, it's very neat. I got twenntwofivetwennytwofive-askingtwennyfivetwennyfivetwennyfiiive -- Tomorrow you're gonna say 'what the heck was I doin' I could have bought it for that.
Twennyfivetwennyfive...twennythree? Twennythreethousand?...SOLD for twennytwofive.
Polite applause from the crowd. The auction moves on to salt shakers.
I talk to Les's son-in-law who lives near Tacoma, Washington. He's happy with the sale. The family is gone. No ties left to Hebron. This was quicker, easier than the market. Closure.
Just a block away, Hebron Brick is still in business, its long lot filled with pallets of "what America is made of." But Brick City's downtown is half-empty. And here on Elm Street, a two-bedroom house, a box of human life, a home, has just sold for a song. Les and Ruth are gone now. As I walk away, I can't help but feel that they, too, were once "what America is made of."
Thunderstorms are forecast for the evening. Lightning flares the horizon all night but the rain holds off for another day.