Creston Auction Celebrates Semicentennial

From humble beginnings as a fire department fundraiser, the Creston Auction and Country Fair has grown over 50 years into a community cornerstone

By Clare Menzel
Creston fire chief Fred Heim, left, and Harold Yaeger. Courtesy photo

Creston Fire Chief Gary Mahugh, who grew up a few yards from the Creston Grange Hall, remembers watching a man sell 100-pound sacks of potatoes from the building’s steps. The deal was part of the Creston Auction and Country Fair when Mahugh was a small boy likely no more than 100 pounds himself. Mahugh, whose father was also a firefighter in Creston, has attended every single auction in the event’s 50-year history. He’s watched the fundraiser grow from a small community gathering where every face was familiar to a multi-day event that draws some 7,000 people from around the country on the first weekend of April.

The 2016 auction will be held April 1-3 in Creston, 12 miles east of Kalispell on Montana Highway 35.

Like many traditions held dear to a small community, the Creston Auction has changed and in many ways stayed the same over the years. While the trappings, the scale, and the items on the auction block look a little different than they did in 1966, this year’s event will be the same celebration of community that the Creston Auction has always embodied.

In the 1950s, the Creston Fire Department was established by a handful of men who had a desire to lend a helping hand to their neighbors, a Chevy truck with an irrigation system, and a shoestring budget that came primarily from the volunteers’ own wallets.

The firemen’s wives — the department’s support team — brought food and coffee to fires and began holding small auctions and other fundraisers, selling baked goods, crafts and produce. In 1966, the fire department families organized the inaugural Creston Auction in the late fall, after the harvest was over. That first year, no more than 200 people showed up, and they raised $533. There was only one auction sale, and it lasted just a few hours, wrapping up by Saturday night. Every year since, the crowds have grown in size, and it didn’t take long before all of Creston, not just the fire department, was involved.

“Once people come, they come back and they bring their friends,” Mahugh said. “The thing I look at is how back then a couple hundred people was a big event and how incredible the growth has been… First it was just the fire department’s families, but we couldn’t do that any more, so they reached out to the community.”

In 1976, the auction was moved to the spring. Hundreds of folks turned out, raising $4,500, much of which went to the purchase of road signs for the district. By 1988, the auction was drawing over 4,000 attendees, and in 1990, organizers decided to expand to a two-day event, with the rummage sale and general merchandise auction on Saturday, and the equipment sale on Sunday.

The Top Hog drawing, which started in 1974 with a donated hog, is no more, and the women don’t sit in quilting circles for weeks leading up to the event as they once did. But there’s still a quilt raffle, and they continue to bake Lefse, a traditional soft Norwegian flathead. One big change is that the organizers have had to hire security in recent years now that the event attracts such large crowds from beyond the local neighborhoods.

In 2015, net proceeds for Creston Fire totaled more than $39,000, about 20 percent of the department’s operating budget. With annual proceeds weighing in between $25,000 and $45,000 since the late 1980s, the event has raised over $1 million.

While the fire department relies on the fundraiser, it’s worth much more to the volunteers and people who call Creston home.

“We could each donate a thousand bucks and probably raise the same amount of money without organizing all this,” Mahugh said, “but that’s not what it’s about… People come at 8 a.m. and stay until it’s dark. I look at it and shake my head at what we’ve created here. We joke that we could cancel it and people would still come for two or three years if we had coffee and maple bars.”

»»» Click here to read about a well-known auctioneer at the Creston Auction.

Plus, the auction has developed a reputation as a standout event on the auction scene, with five concurrent Saturday auctions and regular attendees that hail from across the Northwest and beyond.

“People come from across the country to see how we pull it off, and with less than a half dozen complaints,” said Jim Marshall, a fireman EMT and the current president of the Fireman’s Association. “This probably wouldn’t work in a lot of places that aren’t as community-oriented.”

Mahugh says the number one question they get is why they don’t host multiple auctions throughout the year, but it’s a massive undertaking for people that have day jobs and fight fires on the side. Planning starts around Halloween, and organizing kicks into high gear when the new year runs around.

As for the future, Mahugh says he hopes that the next generation will continue to organize the event, especially as people become more disconnected and online shopping displaces face-to-face commerce.

“It will be here until the times change around it—auctions are kind of going away, period,” Marshall said.

“There’s not many things like this anymore,” Mahugh said. “We’ve retained the tradition and the character.”

Friday, April 1, starting at 7 a.m. is Consignment Day. The opening ceremony is the following day at 9 a.m. There is no entrance fee for the auction, though bid tickets cost $5 on Saturday and $10 on Sunday.