Auburn estate readies for new residents amid historic sale

THURMONT, Md. — Estate sales are not just about mossy mansions and hopeful heirs. They are sometimes living auctions, which either garner ready cash or clear out extensive collections to make way for more.  

When professional auctioneers Bill Howze and Wes Pace partnered to manage the estate sale of Auburn, a country manor built in 1808, they were completely overwhelmed. They discovered a  house chock-full of more than a century’s worth of intact items. Auburn, which appears in the U.S. National Historic Register, was a collector’s dream come true.

“We found great treasures in every area of the house, in the third-floor attic, the basement, the kitchen area, in virtually every room, every drawer, every closet, and every piece of furniture that we checked,” enthuses Pace. “The house was a time capsule, a wonderful museum depicting the lifestyle of influential families of the past.”

In its early years, Auburn — which boasts 12-foot ceilings,  thick stone walls, a fireplace in each room, servants’ quarters, and an outdoor kitchen — hosted countless family celebrations, square-dances and masquerade balls. When the property passed into other hands, however, this opulent home fell on hard times.

“Weeds grew up over the windowsills…. grain was stored in the bedrooms and slaughtered beeves [sic] and hogs were hung from the stair landing …”

When Dr. William McPherson, who made house calls on horseback, acquired the property in 1850, he not only restored Auburn to its former glory, he also furnished it with cherished family heirlooms, like the set of Hepplewhite chairs that had graced his childhood home.

During the Civil War, due to connections with both the North and South, McPherson families and home emerged unscathed. Indeed, following the nearby Battle of Gettysburg, the mistress of the house  provided biscuits and apple tarts to stragglers, Blue and Gray alike.  

After McPherson’s death, Auburn suffered a series of fires that destroyed a number of its treasures, including a 48-piece, 18th- century set of Cantonese china. Most of Auburn’s other furnishings, which the current owners have lovingly preserved since 1960, have survived until today.

Howze and Pace spent more than six months appraising and cataloging their discoveries. They began with a jumble of everyday items, like pottery and glassware; antique soda, beer and whisky bottles; pewter and cast iron kitchenware. Along with trunks crammed with vintage clothing, textiles and quilts, they also came across a selection of first edition books and a 19th century black Knox top hat in its original case.  

The pair soon realized that Auburn’s families had lived very gracious lives, wanting for nothing.

On occasion, they evidently dined on Spode china and drank from Waterford crystal. Along with a cabinet of music and glasses imported from England, the family owned a circa 1920 windup Victor-Victrola record player complete with a set of original Victor-label records. They lined their walls with original oil paintings, especially commissioned portraits of themselves, furnished their home with antiques and trod on Oriental carpets.

Some of Auburn’s owners also enjoyed other expensive indulgences. One day, Howze, elated, found “a stash of sterling silver in an old junk suitcase and an old wicker lockable chest that was buried under some other old chests. It was about 25 pieces and weighed almost 30 pounds. Most were from the 19th century.”

He and Pace also came across some 50 pieces of jewelry: rings, necklaces, pins, cuff links, and bracelets that date back to the 1840s.

“The most impressive piece,” Pace recalls, “was a huge diamond and emerald ring. I’m guessing that the diamond was between one-and-a-half and two carats, and the emerald? It was even larger. When we left that day, Bill and I felt like jewel experts, or maybe, like Ali Baba.”

Auburn has also revealed some of its owners’ interests and pastimes. Dr. McPherson’s brittle 1848 medical school diploma turned up in a rusty container atop an old dresser, along with his medical books, surgical tools and antique medicine bottles.

A well-traveled 19th century family member, it turns out,  once collected postcards. Another — if a 24-inch-by-24-inch carton bursting with stamps is any indication — was an inveterate philatelist. Navy uniforms, a naval clock and posters displayed on naval ships indicate dedicated military service.  

A baseball fan nostalgically framed the American League Opening Day souvenir program from Philadelphia’s Shibe Park. Henry Jewett Orth, an engineer on Alaska’s Copper River Railroad between 1909 and 1910, assembled a commemorative album featuring nearly 200 captioned photographs of Eskimos, totem poles, scenery and tents. And someone, with an eye to the future, squirreled away a priceless single-digit 1918 license plate that had once belonged to Robert J. Cunningham, Pennsylvania State Highway Commissioner.

The house itself is up for sale, too. Howze and Pace expect to offer its new owners first crack at a handwritten  ledger that, though exposed to decades of heat and cold and yellowed with age, still remains legible. This  priceless historical document, aside from a few gaps in time, describes daily life at Auburn — seasonal farming activities, chores, like stone quarrying and hauling ice and wood, and  matters pertaining to its slaves — from 1848 through the 1940s.   

How does it feel going through someone else’s belongings to find items of value?

“It’s like exploring a great-grandparent’s home that has never been touched. That’s how someone will feel going through my stuff when I die. These people were pack rats,” Pace muses. “Just like me!”

Howze and Pace estimate that Auburn contains, all told, between 4,000 and 5,000 items. They will offer this bounty in three consecutive historical living estate auctions, of 500 to 600 lots each, at the Auburn house in Thurmont, Md., from June 25-27, 2010.

The public is cordially invited. Check out for further details. ?

Photos courtesy Wes Pace, and Bill Howze, The Renaissance Auction Group,

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