Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

My Day at the Harrisburg Auction: Millions of public dollars were squandered buying Wild West artifacts. I wanted one small memento.

TheBurg_auctionI had my heart set on the spittoon.

I had no practical use for it, being neither a chewer nor a spitter. But it was the one item at last month’s artifact auction that actually pertained to Harrisburg, manufactured by the city’s own F.H. Cowden Co. sometime in the late 19th century. That was why I wanted it.

Estimated sales price: $40 to $50.

I hoped the small stoneware vessel would get lost amongst the 5,500 or so other lots up for grabs at the (mostly) Wild West auction held on City Island. Apothecary bottles, Indian-style rugs, butter churns, sheriff’s medals of dubious provenance, creepy religious statues.

A spittoon manufactured in Harrisburg, Pa.? Who’d want that?

To me, it was the perfect symbol of this singularly bizarre episode in Harrisburg history. Over a dozen or so years, former Mayor Steve Reed and his minions crisscrossed the country, quietly spending some $8.3 million in public money to buy tons of stuff for a “National Museum of the American West” he hoped to build.

In central Pennsylvania.

There was never any solid path or plan to getting this thing built, little more than the surreal notion in Reed’s head that what was needed was a Wild West Museum.

In central Pennsylvania.

For years, Reed used his appointed board at the Harrisburg Authority to OK his debt-fueled buying sprees, stuffing his treasures floor-to-ceiling into a warehouse like some publicly elected version of Citizen Kane. And, on this day, the results of that failed project were listed in a 23-page brochure as the action commenced on a steamy morning inside the Carousal Pavilion next to Metro Bank Park.

And amidst the old-timey bathtubs and old-timey oil lamps and old-timey chamber pots, there was but a single item that I saw with some connection to this city where I lived—the stoneware spittoon—and I wanted it.

Fair Warning

About a half-hour before the 10 a.m. start time, I had set off on foot from my Front Street house.

I took the river route to City Island, walking across Riverfront Park (overgrown grass, rotting tree limbs), down the ramp (missing railings, groundhog infestation), onto the river walk (cracked pavement, washed-out stairs), past the river steps (weed-choked, disintegrating) and over the Walnut Street Bridge (lights out again).

I arrived just as a guy with Guernsey’s auction house was laying down the ground rules for in-person bidding. Speaking above the roar of several industrial-strength fans, he explained that there were no reserve prices, so the highest bid would win the item, regardless of its perceived value.

I was in.

I took some pictures, said “hi” to city COO Bob Philbin, chatted with TV news guy Dave Marcheskie, claimed bidder ticket #112 and had a seat.

The crowd was sparse, maybe 50 or 60, but I wasn’t certain what to make of that. Guernsey’s said that more than 7,000 people had registered for the auction, so most of the action was going to come from Internet bidders. And, in fact, a long table occupied the entire right side of the pavilion, where Guernsey’s staff hovered over a line of computers to track and call out Internet bids.

A bit after 10 o’clock, the auctioneer took her position behind the microphone and announced the first item: an antique wooden yarn winder. Estimated pre-auction value: $60 to $100.

A picture of the item flashed on a screen beside her, at the front of the auction area. It looked like a long wooden stick with handles on either end, but the projected image was vague in the daylight and difficult to see clearly.

“$100,” the hopeful auctioneer called out.  


“$75,” she said and paused briefly.

“$50,” she barked out.

Still nothing. She took a breath. The bidding was going the wrong way.

Then some hope. A staff member manning one of the laptop computers had an interested bidder.

“$25!” he yelled out.

“$25,” repeated the auctioneer.

“Thirty, thirty,” she said, trying to juice the crowd into bidding more. “Thirty. Do I have thirty anywhere?”

Faces looked up blankly, and no auction numbers were raised.

“I have $25,” she said, drawing out the number. “Fair warning . . . “

“Sold! To the Internet bidder! $25!”

And so started the long-awaited Harrisburg artifact auction, with a sale of an item at less than half the estimated sales price.

Much of the rest of the morning would proceed in a similar way. There were a few bright spots, such as the beautiful National brass cash register, which an Internet bidder paid $600 for (estimate: $300 to $500).

But most of the items ended up more like the $30 paid for “primitive farm implements” (estimate: $40 to $50); the $80 paid for the “large wooden ox yoke” (estimate: $100 to $200); and the $60 paid for the “Oliver Standard Visible (Type) Writer No. 9” (estimate: $300 to $400).

Other items fetched more or less their pre-auction estimates, while a bunch received no bids at all and were passed over.

And Sold!

As I waited for my spittoon to come up, I struck up a conversation with a guy sitting next to me, who, as it turned out, grew up on Allison Hill, but now lived with his family outside Mount Gretna.

His name was Darnell Pemberton, and he had come to bid on several African-style masks, meaning he had a long wait ahead of him, hours still, in the steam bath posing as an auction house. He also was interested in one of several western wagons that wouldn’t be up until the auction’s next-to-last day, Saturday.

“I’ve always wanted to own an old wagon,” he said matter-of-factly, as if this were a common hope.

He asked me why there were African items at an Old West auction, and I told him that Reed dreamed of building other museums in Harrisburg, including a world-class museum of African-American history.

He looked at me and chuckled, as if I had just said the most ridiculous thing.

“Who would come to Harrisburg for a museum when they can just go to Washington?” he asked.

I then explained how we all had come to be there that day, that Reed had spent years and millions of dollars in public money accumulating this stuff, which was now getting sold off at a rate of an item every three-or-so minutes, most below estimated value.

“Weird,” he said, and I nodded.

But that wasn’t going to stop me from making a bid, and my spittoon was due up next. I grabbed the cardboard number from my bag and nervously got ready to shout out my bid.

“Number 1086: F.H. Cowden Harrisburg Spittoon,” said the auctioneer, and the vague image of the stoneware vessel appeared on the screen. I leaned forward to try to see it more clearly.

“$50,” called out one of the guys following the Internet bidding, before I could say a word.

$50? The spittoon already was selling for the top of the estimated range. Oh no.

“$75. $100. $125,” cried the auctioneer, happy she finally had an item selling over predicted value.

Clearly, a few other locals were jumping on the only Harrisburg-related item in the auction, and I was being outbid into stunned silence.

“$150? Do I hear $150?” said the suddenly hopeful auctioneer.

“I have $125,” she said. “Fair warning . . .”

“And sold! To the Internet bidder! $125.”


Sure, I had lost out, but at least hadn’t gotten suckered into paying too much for it. Researching Cowden pottery before the auction, I learned there’s a ton for sale on eBay for less than $100, which was my upper limit for the piece.

I stuck around long enough to bid on another lot I had spied at the auction preview the day before in a warehouse at the incinerator complex. My girlfriend liked a set of 10 old-timey glass lamp shades, said they’d look nice in a house we’re having renovated in Olde Uptown.

Estimated value: $100 to $150. I paid $40.

As I made my way back across the Walnut Street Bridge (lights still out) and over to the adjoining plaza (badly damaged planter) and back to the office through the streets of Harrisburg (potholes, cracks, no striping), I wished that my money would be spent well, but knew it would go only to covering a fraction of the massive debt Reed had amassed. Money that, years ago, should have gone to fixing Harrisburg.

Continue Reading