The Way We Were

The following article first appeared in "The Low Down to Hull and Back News" in the August 04, 2010 issue. Reprinted with permission.

Historical Society auction fulfills its calling

by Louise Schwartz

What do a unicycle, a mounted. polar bear skin, and a collection of 50 bottles from the bottom of the Gatineau River have in common? They are just a few of the thousands of items sold over the years at the annual Gatineau Valley Historical Society auction.

The Way We Were
A crowd assesses the value of an antique kettle hold by auctioneer, Arthur Davison (1967). Photo courtesy of Gatineau Valley Historical Society.

Arguably the oldest fundraiser of this type around, the first auction took place in August 1963 at the old Chelsea town hall beside the Chelsea Pub. Its 47 year run is unbroken, except for 2002 when the auction was cancelled, with some of the key organizers away, singing with the Castenchel Choir on its Romanian tour.

Every year GVHS members and other Gatineau Valley folks scour their sheds, the backs of cupboards, or under the kitchen sink for treasures to contribute. Organizers recommend collectibles that they know from experience will pique a potential buyer's interest. Horseshoes, feedbags, old farm implements (however rusty) or harnesses might turn up in the barn. From the bedroom might come a bureau or blanket chest. Churns, cooking moulds, or a pine table are prized items sought from the kitchen.

Early on, the auction was almost overtaken by its own success. The 1975 auction report noted that there were almost as many registered bidders (323) as consignors (375). With no auction formula yet in place, the official closing time was 9:57 p.m. accounting for more than 12 hours of steady selling. Indeed, suppertime finishes were standard for many years until a noon closing time was implemented.

Celebrity donations supplement the antiques and collectibles. In 1983 journalist Charles Lynch donated his harmonica, praised as a great promotion for the auction. However, archival records include an apologetic letter sent to Lynch three months later that lamented "life is too short to detain you with details of why it has taken so long to send you your official receipt."

A flea market became part of the event, in order to remove lower value items from the auction. Before then, successful bids had been as low as 10 cents. As well, a concurrent silent auction now entices people to bid on items such as lunch with the Chelsea mayor at a local restaurant.

Over the years, the site of the auction has shifted. In 1975, after several years at the old town hall (now demolished), the auction relocated to the Chelsea Community Centre. For a short period, the venue was the Chelsea Elementary School. Its present home is the grounds St. Stephen's Roman Catholic Church, also on Old Chelsea Road.

Arthur Davison, an early president of the society, was the auctioneer for the first 20 years. After other members answered the calling for a few years, the society engaged professional auctioneers. They usually only charge a modest fee and have quickened the pace.

Five years ago, auction-goers were shocked to read about the death of auctioneer Gerry Lepage, who was killed in a motorcycle accident. His death came only one day after a lively morning of calling at Chelsea. Revel Stewart of Cobden, Ont., has carried out auctioneer duties since then.

Buyers have always been permitted to pay by cash or cheque. In 1972, the GVHS pursued a woman first going through the Quebec Provincial Court, and then the Ontarion Small Claims Court after she moved. They finally wrote off the $174.30 accounts receivable after her trail went cold. However, this case appears to be the exception to the rule.

Over the years, other organizations have helped out. After the 1979 auction, the society sent a letter of appreciation to the National Capital Commission for lending a pit toilet, noting (thankfully) that staff was most helpful in loading and unloading. For this gesture, the NCC received a complimentary copy of the society's annual publication, Up the Gatineau!

To take part in its enjoyable history, head out to the 2010 GVHS auction on Saturday, Aug. 21, beginning at 9 a.m.

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