Bertram Boyum grips a cardboard box with his big, leathery hands and gives it a curious look.
“What’s this?” he asks in his rich Norwegian brogue, peering at the label on the side.
A copier/scanner, he’s told.
“Well, whatever that is, somebody’s going to own it,” he says, turning to the audience. “Now, who’ll give me $10?” he calls out in a clear, deep voice.
With that, Minnesota’s oldest auctioneer is pushing the merchandise again.
Boyum, who will turn 99 in September, is a legend in this corner of the world where Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa meet. He’s worked thousands of auctions in the area since leaving the family farm 51 years ago for a midlife career change.
“I would say I’ve sold the Earth and everything on it,” he said.
But Boyum is known for more than auctioneering. If there’s a church supper within 50 miles, he’ll be there. If there’s a polka band playing anywhere from Winona to Galesville, Wis., to Decorah, Iowa, look for Boyum in the crowd.
He’s a walking encyclopedia with a century of local knowledge between his ears, as well as an endless supply of Ole and Lena jokes. He recently won new fans with a memorable appearance in a commercial for the Minnesota Lottery that’s gone global.
Sometimes, after he’s had his daily breakfast with pals at the Subway in Rushford and his afternoon coffee at the Norsland Lefse factory, Boyum makes the half-hour drive to Lanesboro for some people-watching. He cheerfully points out that his driver’s license is good until he turns 101, and he fully expects to be renewing it.
“He cannot stand to be home for a day,” said his daughter, Loretta Semmen, 74, who lives in Lanesboro. “There’s not a day when he doesn’t go someplace.
“Everybody knows him,” she added. “No matter where he goes, somebody comes up and says, ‘Hi, Bert.’ To me, he’s almost like a permanent fixture.”
At the Tenborg Community Center, where he has lunch daily — (“I have to visit my harem,” he jokes)— Boyum keeps everyone on their toes with gags and teasing.
“He’s always up to something,” said Merry Berg, another regular diner.
Asked what keeps him going, Boyum just shrugs: “Looking out the window gets old fast.”
Aunt gave him a nudge
Boyum has spent his whole life around Rushford, a city of about 1,700 people 140 miles south of the Twin Cities. “I never had any desire to go anywhere else,” he said.
Born on a farm with no electricity or running water, he milked 20 cows every day before going off to a one-room schoolhouse. After high school, he got married (he and his brother wedded twin sisters) and raised three children on the farm.
But all the while, he itched for a different line of work.
“I kind of always had it in the back of my mind that I’d like to do something else,” he said. “But how could I leave the farm?”
As he approached his 40th birthday, he volunteered to handle the auction for a church charity bazaar. He liked it, and started doing more.
“One day my aunt said to me, ‘Bertram, you should be an auctioneer.’ And that was all it took,” Boyum said. He bid goodbye to farming and went off to auction school in Mason City, Iowa.
The right stuff
Boyum has definite views on what makes a good auctioneer.
“You have to have a good voice. I was blessed with a pretty good voice. It carried pretty well,” he said. “You have to control the crowd.
“And you have to be understood. These young people, you can’t understand them. It’s a disgrace to the auctioneer profession.”
His preparation is minimal: “You glance at the merchandise, and then you get started selling it.”
The strangest thing he’s sold? A birthing chair from Tanzania.
Sometimes he sold the land and possessions of a failed farmer “while the owner sat there in tears.” That’s a tough job, he said, but it comes with the territory.
Patter and polkas
In addition to three children, Boyum, who has outlived two wives, has nine grandchildren, 13 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild. His son Murton, now 70, followed him into the business and is a well-known auctioneer in his own right.
In 1995, Boyum was elected to the Minnesota State Auctioneers Association Hall of Fame.
“He does it with a smile on his face,” said Frank Imholte the association’s executive vice president. “People part with their money a lot easier when they’re smiling.”
These days, Boyum handles only an occasional auction, mostly for charitable causes.
On this recent July morning, he’s auctioning an array of donated goods to raise money for Rushford’s senior dining program. About 30 people are on hand, including the regular diners as well as some local businesspeople who’ve come to join the bidding.
Dressed in a straw cowboy hat, a Western shirt with pearl snaps, a bolo tie and a brown leather vest, Boyum seats himself on a stool and slings a small loudspeaker over his shoulder, engulfing the microphone in one giant mitt while gesturing with the other.
He kicks off the auction with an Ole and Lena joke, then moves briskly through the sale. He keeps up a steady patter but doesn’t dally; as soon as bidding lags, he rings up the sale.
A basket of picnic goods: “Oh, this basket is so heavy you can hardly hold it.”
A bottle of wine: “We’re not selling the wine, just the bottle.”
A handmade quilt: “A beautiful piece, you’ll never find another one like it. Will you give me $150?”
When the auction ends about 40 minutes later, Boyum’s work has helped raise $1,152 for the senior center.
With the bidding done, it’s time for lunch. Then Boyum consults his pocket planner to see what’s coming up on his schedule. In addition to his daily routine of meals and coffees, he’s got a dedication to attend on Saturday and plans to catch Mollie Busta’s polka band on Sunday in nearby Peterson, Minn.
It’s a busy schedule for someone even half his age, but that’s how he likes it.
“People say, ‘You don’t look 98,’ ” he said. “And I tell them, ‘Well, how am I supposed to look?’ ”