Love of auctioneering keeps locals in business for decades

When asked about stories from his nearly 30-year auctioneering career, Arden “Doc” Johnston, of Dubuque, has plenty to share.

“I could write a book,” he said.

Johnston is just one of the area’s auctioneers who have spent decades selling a plethora of items, ranging from objects found in homes to pieces of land. The job also is part of an industry that has changed quite a bit since Johnston and others began their careers.

Johnston, who retired from the education field in 1988, began H&J Auctions in 1992 with his partner, Ed Hess. Since that time, Johnston said that the Dubuque area has seen the number of auction businesses dwindle.

“There’s a lot of work to it, no matter what it is (that’s being sold),” Johnston said. “You gotta clean it, pack it, haul it, merchandise it. A lot of people say that’s a challenge and choose not to do it, but they choose to come out (to the auction).”

The people who attend auctions are the reason Johnston said he loves his job. He said H&J Auctions have a base of about 180 to 200 people that are faithful followers of their sales.

“We get to help so many people in terms of them saying, ‘What are we going to do with all this stuff?’” Johnston said. “It fulfills the need for people that need help, and that’s our priority.”

He added that the signature auctioneer chant is “the most unimportant thing” about the job.

“I can teach you in 15 minutes how to do it,” he said. “… With the chant, clarity is the most important thing, not speed. People need to understand what you’re saying.”

But learning the auctioneer chant is what got Jesse Meyer, of Bernard, Iowa, into the businesses. Meyer, also a Realtor with American Realty, is a self-taught auctioneer that has worked auctions since 2005.

“My dad (Dennis) and I learned how to auctioneer at the same time,” Meyer said. “He listened to a set of cassette tapes, but I didn’t listen to them and kind of learned at the same time. You learn the numbers and go up and down and backward with the numbers, put filler words in and you get a little faster and faster.”

While Meyer has auctioneered at fundraisers and galas during his career, he said he mostly does land and real estate auctions now. Since he also is a Realtor, he said he can help people with their entire selling process in dual roles.

“I think as far as land auctions go, the auction method really is the best way to achieve the best possible price for the seller,” he said. “It gives everyone a fair chance at purchasing a certain item and gives the best price possible. I think that’s my favorite part.”

Johnston has sold a little bit of everything through the years, from farm equipment to household items. At one auction years ago, he recalled seeing a small, specialty ceramic dog sell for $4,000.

“I knew there were only nine of this known, and two guys really got into it,” he said.

However, things have changed in the auction world since the COVID-19 pandemic began to affect everyday life in the U.S. in March 2020.

“The first four-five months really slowed us down,” Johnston recalled. “We weren’t sure if we could have (auctions).”

Once auctions picked up again, Johnston said rules like mask-wearing were put in place. However, he noted that it can be hard to social distance when people want to see auction items up close.

Tim Slack, of Fennimore, Wis., owns Tim Slack Auction & Realty, which runs its main office out of Lancaster, Wis. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, he said his business has been doing online-only sales, particularly for household auctions, and will likely continue doing so.

“Back when I first started, we drove everything out into the yard, and you’d have weather and sun that would beat down on the furniture,” he said. “Actually, this online-only thing really took care of that problem.”

Slack, who’s been an auctioneer for 35 years, said the online auction sales have also helped the business adapt to changing times, even though it means he’s not performing typical auctioneer duties.

“You kind of miss that part of it, but it’s the way of the world,” Slack said. “Things change, and you gotta change with them, or you don’t survive.”