- Associated Press - Monday, June 9, 2014

BOX ELDER, S.D. (AP) - Amid the calls of ever-escalating prices, and bidders playing a fervent game of one-upmanship, friendly chats tend to break out at the Wednesday night auctions that Ralph Harter has been hosting weekly for almost 30 years.

Harter last month called his final auction, putting the topper on a career of auctioning off literally tens of thousands of items from almost 40 years first in Sturgis and now at Ralph’s Auctions in Box Elder.

In addition to missing out on the chance to get good deals, patrons who have attended Harter’s auctions will also miss the fellowship that has developed over the decades.

“This auction is more like a family gathering on Wednesday night,” said Ed Eisenbraun, who has been helping Harter for the past 15 years. “People always came to bid, laugh and socialize.”

The day before his final sale at Ralph’s Auctions on Box Elder Road, Harter sorted through an assortment of items he planned to sell off on Wednesday night.

Clad in a Black Hills State University T-shirt, a baseball cap with a Chevrolet logo and a pair of worn jeans, Harter had a sweet smile on his face as he talked about his experience as an auctioneer and his decision to retire after decades in the auction business.

Harter, 73, has seen his auctions increasingly become more about camaraderie than commerce.

In fact, Harter said he’s caught some flak from residents in the town who he said don’t know what they’re going to do on Wednesday nights once he’s retired.

“He’s made a lot of friends after all these years,” said Gerald Bloemke, a Sturgis resident who has attended many of Harter’s auctions.

Auctioneering is timeless, but it has seen changes, too, and in a way, they are driving Harter from his job.

The advent of the internet has challenged the auction business, Harter said. Online auction websites have cut into his business since many people now sell their most valuable stuff on the web.

“Your better stuff nowadays is going on eBay,” he said.

The internet has also removed a lot of the mystery of an item’s actual value since so many people carry iPads, tablets and smartphones and can look anything up immediately. People rarely overpay for items anymore, but the online world has also eliminated any chance for an incredible bargain.

The evolution of the business, combined with his age, led to Ralph’s decision to retire.

“I’m guess I’m just getting old,” he said.

Ralph’s face shows the lines of age, but he has an inviting smile and jovial attitude. He is the type of guy who can hardly go a few minutes without cracking wise.

Possessing the right attitude is critical for an auctioneer, he said. It’s less important to know every detail about what you’re selling than it is to make sure to greet every person who walks into the room before the auction begins.

Harter said he will miss the people who came to his auctions. He pointed to a tray of cookies on a nearby table that a woman recently brought in. Harter didn’t even know the woman’s name, but she brought him cookies and said it was just because she enjoyed the auction so much.

“She refused to let me give her anything,” she said.

Harter’s auction house at Box Elder holds a vast and seemingly random collection of items. Mixed among mundane stock like dishware and children’s toys are a few more unusual sale items.

There’s an unopened plastic bottle of popping corn with Dale Earnhardt’s face on it. The bottle was 10 years old and had never been opened, so (theoretically) the popcorn was still edible, Harter said.

Another example is a Belgian cream-maker that is over 100 years old. The hand-operated machine was used in the late 19th century to separate the cream from cow’s milk, he said.

Even if the items don’t sell, the off-the-wall inventory has value because it gets people talking, Harter said.

Plus, there’s always the chance that somebody will buy stuff, and he never knows what might sell.

“I just sold 200 iron frying pans that were hanging back there about two weeks ago,” he said, pointing to a back wall of his business.

The auction’s inventory comes from a variety of sources, but mostly from people who have accumulated or recently inherited a large collection of stuff but have nowhere to put it.

The business constantly receives boxes filled with things to auction, but the guys there rarely have any idea what’s in them, Eisenbraun said.

“For us old guys, it’s like Christmas every week because you get to open a package and see what’s in it,” he said.

When Harter was growing up, his parents used to bring him to auctions all over the country, which left him addicted to the business. After graduating Colome High School, he served in the Army for several years. He held several odd jobs after he retired from the Army, though he served in South Dakota National Guard until 2000.

Harter held his first auction in 1975 at the Deadwood Recreation Center and continued to host auctions all around the region until he opened his own auction house in Sturgis in 1986.

That business also ran auctions every Wednesday evening until a company that sold T-shirts at the motorcycle rally bought the building sometime in the 1990s.

He moved the auction to Box Elder and, until his retirement, held auctions just about every Wednesday since.


Information from: Rapid City Journal, https://www.rapidcityjournal.com

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