Keys to a Treasure Chest

(A One Little Word Post - the third in a series.  To read my last OLW blog, click here Living With Mystery)

A box without hinges, key or lid, 
                yet golden treasure inside is hid.  J. R. Tolkien 


The simple life of the Amish has always fascinated me.  Intrigued by an article I'd read in a magazine earlier in the month, I planned a road trip across the state of Pennsylvania, to attend an Amish Mud Sale in Lancaster County. Lancaster is home to the largest community of Old Order Amish in the world.  

The sale had started just moments before.  I'd never been to a public auction, let alone one run by the Amish, and wasn't sure what to expect. I was alone, a long way from home.

I tried to make myself small as I snaked through the crowd, wishing I'd opted to wear my dark peacoat, rather than the raspberry sherbet-colored ski jacket.  I found an open space on the right side of the frosty tent, and perched there.  Standing among the Amish, in their somber shades of black and navy blue, I felt like a beacon on a dark, and foggy winter night.
My choice of coat, didn't mattered much in the long run.  I was hard to miss, with the camera hanging from my neck, it's incredibly heavy 400mm zoom lens protruding awkwardly from my chest.  I know the Amish are prohibited from posing for photographs, and half expected to be tapped on the shoulder, and asked to leave with my camera.  

But, as obtrusive as I felt, it was a man in a bright red jacket standing at the front of the tent, that commanded the crowd's attention. A small boy stood beside him, wearing wire-rimmed spectacles, a brown woolen beanie, and black flannel coat. The man enticed the crowd to bid on items the child held high above his head.  They were an awkward looking pair, but an efficient team.

I'd registered at the auction, but was reluctant to bid. I was simply there to observe, and record with my camera, what I found to be of interest. I'm generally shy, and avoid drawing attention to myself in public, which begs the question, why photography?  Its a little hard to hide behind a camera, even a large one. 

For as long as I can remember, I've been fascinated by vintage photos and items, flea-market finds, and the stories they tell. Where some see a dusty old milk bottle, I see a farmer milking his cow, a uniformed milkman making his rounds, an aproned-housewife peeling the paper cap off a fresh bottle of milk, and a freckle-faced youngster slurping his cereal from a fiesta-ware bowl. 

There's a rhythm to an auction, an ebb and a flow. Each item raised caused a stir of excitement in the crowd.  There was an air of anticipation, and a small celebration with each bang of the gavel.  It wasn't long before I had the urge to get my feet wet.  I tested the water, and bid on a small item, worth only a few dollars.  Before I knew it, I owned it.  I waded in a little deeper.

I spied something I thought really special, a hand painted, caste-iron toy, from the twenties. I decided to be a bit bolder in my bidding.  I had some competition, but it seemed her heart wasn't in it.  Once again, with a point of the auctioneers hand, and a bang of the gavel, I'd won the contest.  

The tide was rising, and I felt a surge of excitement.  An hour into the sale, the items offered were a little more interesting and a bit more unusual. Directly in front of me, propped up against the leg of a table, was a beautiful old oak wall phone.  I imagined it hanging on the wall of an old farmhouse.

I left my perch to investigate the phone further, and found it in beautiful condition.  I tested the hand crank, and the phone came alive with the ring of the bells on its face.  I opened the case to find the interior wires and mechanical parts, all still intact.  I'd never seen another like it, outside the movies or television.  Oh, the history!  Oh, the stories it could tell!

My heart pounded, and the blood rushed to my ears.  The bidding was over in less than a minute or two.  As I turned to leave the tent , the auctioneer stopped me, and congratulated me on my find.  He thought I did well. I thought I did too!

I left the sale that day with a camera full of images of a curious culture, and an armful of obsolete objects. For me, both the images, and the vintage items are windows into which I can peer, for a glimpse of a bygone era.  They're keys that unlock a treasure chest of mystery. If I look closely, and listen well to the stories they tell, I may learn something from them.

The auction I attended was what the Amish call a Mud Sale.  Held in the early Spring, these auctions raise funds for the local volunteer fire departments.  This auction was held in Gap, Pennsylvania (Lancaster County).  The items in the photos (excluding the trunk, which I already owned) were treasures I uncovered at the auction :)


  1. Nice to see the actual items. Very neat! Love the phone and your bravery. Guess you wouldn't get far in the photography world without some bravery. :)

  2. I'm giddy right along with you! How very exciting! Love how you described it all. I lived vicariously through your depictions!

  3. I love it, love that you did it, you bid and you had your camera and took some awesome pictures. Oh that phone, I would love that hanging in my kitchen - the stories....what a wonderful post!

  4. Awesome photos--and I love the phone and the glass. Gorgeous!

  5. What an interesting experience. Thank you for sharing through your beautiful photos and fun storytelling.

  6. What an experience you had, and how brave! Wonderful post!

  7. Awesome photos... I love the phone.

  8. Love your photos and what a great narrative of a very interesting experience! Thanks for sharing.

  9. your adventure is worded in an amazing way. it was a joy to read and experience with you. and what finds found you!
    wonderful post.

  10. Your photos are stunning! Sounds like you had a great time!

  11. Karen,
    I love this post and your photos! It's been years since I went to an auction and I know how fun they can be. Thanks for sharing this!

  12. Good on you for your courage to take action and break out of your box!!! We visited Amish country this summer, it is fascinating isn't it? Thanks for sharing your wonderful adventure!!! xoxo

  13. What a fun post! I loved reading about you taking action. Well done!

  14. I understand incredibly well shyness combined with the love of photography. Perhaps I should invest in a lens stronger than 50mm - that might help some. I love hearing about your field trip and seeing your wonderful photos. Great action item. So fun and it included treasures too. Thanks for joining in on the blog hop.

  15. What a beautifully told story and some wonderful finds!

  16. what a cool way to explore your word this month!