As the snow fell thick and steady at the Hillsdale Fairgrounds, a crowd of farmers huddled outside around a diminutive figure who commanded his audience with a wooden cane and voice that pierced the biting wind with rhythmic certainty.
“C’mon partner! Do I hear a $320, $325?” the elderly man said as the price of the round hay bale rose by the nodding heads of farmers until it was pronounced, “Sold.”
Martin “Barney” Barnhart of Hillsdale County has been an auctioneer for nearly eight decades. Born in 1920 on a farm in Reading, Michigan, the 95-year-old can still be found every Saturday morning at the Hillsdale Sale Barn selling hay and swine.
In the last year, Barnhart received recognition for a lifetime of auctioneering and community service in Hillsdale. In 2014, he was elected to the Michigan Auctioneers Association Hall of Fame and also received its Lifetime Achievement Award.
On July 14, Barnhart traveled to Texas to be awarded a certificate for being the oldest working auctioneer in the nation.
Barnhart was first exposed to auctioneering as a small boy when he accompanied his father to Iowa for Belgian draft horse auctions.
There, the “golden, musical chant” of the auctioneer fascinated the young Barnhart, an aspiration which became a reality in high school. In 1939, when his senior class decided to make a film of each other’s future careers, Barnhart orchestrated one of his first auctions at the family farm — classmates hung on the outside of a corral while Barnhart stood in the ring holding a Belgian draft horse and called for bids.
Initially self-taught, Barnhart started his auctioneering career right out of high school in 1940 and freelanced auctions while earning a degree in agriculture from Michigan State University. He later went to Redford Auctioneering School in Woodville, Ohio.
“You know Barney, it’s really amazing that you can remember all that you do,” a friend of Barney, Ned Beaver said as they sat talking over lunch at the Fairgrounds restaurant following the Saturday morning auction.
The waitress added, “Hey Barney, are you 96 or 95?”
“Hey now, don’t make it any older!” Barney said.
With 75 years of experience, Barnhart remembers when the Hillsdale Sale Barn was one of the largest feeder pig and swine auctions east of the Mississippi River.
“Everything has become commercialized. There’s hardly any farmers today that have livestock anymore, I know of only two herds of cattle from U.S. Highway 12 to U.S. Highway 20,” Barnhart said.
Crisscrossing the country for sales from Ohio to the Dakotas, Florida to Texas, Barnhart’s largest auction was in Minnesota where he sold an entire logging town, complete with a bank and jail.
“I like to get out before the sale starts and just mingle with the people. You know, how you and I are just talking, that way then I got them on my side and they got some faith in me. Know your crowd and treat ‘em with honesty,” Barnhart said.
The father of five and now a widower, Barnhart’s credo has been life according to his faith.
“Set your goal that you’re going to become something and live each day with faith. Have faith, love, hope, honor, health, and friendship,” he said.
Barney said he will continue to auctioneer until he “takes the last bid.”
“Everybody asks me that question and I hope that’s what I’m doing,” Barney said. “I had one friend that was selling and then bingo, he was gone. If you don’t love what you’re doing, get out of it, because you’ll never make a success out of it.”