The Thrill of Victory and the Agony of Defeat

The title of this post comes from ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” back in my younger years. For some reason I associate it with sports pundit Howard Cosell, but Google tells me it was Jim McKay who intoned this every week.

Today is a personal experience reflection about the New Hamburg Mennonite Relief Sale this year–the 51st annual sale held this past Friday evening and Saturday.

Relief-Sale-CoverMy wife, Sue Clemmer Steiner, and I decided we wanted to buy a wall hanging to complement some of the other quilted wall hangings we’ve purchased over the years. We set ourselves a budget and drove out to the sale on Friday night to look at the quilts, get our bidding card and reserve two seats not too far from the front so that we would have a good view of the bidding.

After walking through all the quilts on display, and seeing and talking with many folks we hadn’t seen in a while, we decided on three possibilities.

By far our first choice was a wall hanging pieced and hand quilted by two of Sue’s retired female minister friends. It had a fall theme and colors that would go well in our living room.

Plan B was a wall hanging with a fairly traditional pattern that was machine quilted, but was quite attractive.

There was another interesting wall hanging with striking colors, but it was earlier on the auction list than our first choice, so we decided we’d not bit on it.

After all this careful analysis we stopped for homemade ice cream at one of the food booths before heading home.

The first wall hanging that interested us was about 75th or so on the list, so we didn’t bother to arrive at the relief sale until about 9:30 Saturday morning. We found our seats and settled to watch and wait. The first quilts seemed to be going for lower prices than we remembered in some years, but then things warmed up.

Three spots before the “striking colors” wall hanging came up, a full-sized bed quilt made by women at the Floradale Mennonite Church went for $6250. That seemed to wake the bidders up. Our “striking colors” wall hanging shot past our budget limit quickly, so we congratulated ourselves on our wisdom.

Finally our wall hanging came up. I waved our bidding card when the bidding started at $100. I kept pace until we suddenly were sitting on our maximum bid. But the other bidder kept going to the next level. So we were the disappointed underbidder.

The only consolation was that after the auction’s “feature quilt” sold, twelve lots after the agony of our defeat, the whole crowd stopped to sing “Praise God From Whom All Blessing Flow.”

Then we waited another 18 lots for our “Plan B.” Again I took our bid up to the budget limit, or maybe even one beyond, but again we were outbid.

Wall-HangingSo what to do. Sue went back to look through the items remaining for auction, and found a lap quilt that would help us remember the many cats that had shared our lives for 40 years.

After we had both eaten baked potato lunches carried in from a nearby food booth, we waited for item #168, “Cat Nap” by Dianne Robertson. Finally our lot came up, and our winning bid did not need to approach our budget limit. So we were thrilled.

Before heading home, we stopped and each had a fruit pie with ice cream to celebrate.

We got home in time to hear that the Toronto Blue Jays were winning their fifth straight game.

It was a good relief sale.

How does it compare with your relief sale experience?

Ontario Mennonite Relief Sale

This past Saturday my wife, Sue, and I attended the 49th annual edition of the New Hamburg Relief Sale. Among other things we saw a quilt with African themes sell for $42,000, followed by a rousing rendition by the crowd singing “Praise God from Whom all Blessings Flow.” This has not always been the universal response to Mennonite relief sales.

Relief Sale Quilting

Three women quilting for the Ontario Mennonite Relief Sale at St. Jacobs Mennonite Church in St. Jacobs, Ontario, May 1967. Courtesy Mennonite Archives of Ontario

Relief sales on behalf of Mennonite Central Committee began in Pennsylvania in 1957.  By the time Ontario began its relief sale, seven others were in operation in North America. J. Winfield Fretz, the Conrad Grebel College president, proposed in 1966 that Ontario Mennonites also hold an “ethnic fund-raising festival.” Ward A. Shantz, a successful Waterloo County dairy farmer, accepted the challenge and chaired the committee for fifteen years until his death in 1982. A Mennonite ethnic festival implied food and handicrafts, especially quilts. It also meant the sale relied heavily on women volunteers who created the products to be sold. Fretz asked Margaret Brubacher to help. Brubacher had experience with the Women’s Missionary and Service Auxiliary (WMSA) cutting room, which interacted regularly with congregational women’s groups. She agreed to head the relief sale’s women’s activities committee, and by October 1966 she had arranged for nine congregations to help. Mennonite Disaster Service would erect tables, tents, and chairs. Mennonite women also helped with publicity for the first sale by donating a quilt to Ontario Premier John Robarts two weeks before the sale. On May 27, 1967, the first sale at the New Hamburg arena and fairgrounds attracted ten thousand visitors and raised over $31,000 for MCC. One hundred thirty-six full-size quilts and sixty crib quilts were auctioned that year, though the 1967 sale prices did not achieve the prices of later years. The average full-size quilt sold for just under sixty dollars and the average crib quilt for twelve dollars. The highest-priced quilt was $240.

Relief Sale Cheque

Giving cheque to MCC Ontario from Mennonite Relief Ssale. l-r:Doug Snyder, exec. sec. MCCO; Margaret Brubacher, chair Women’s Work Com.; Elven Shantz, Relief Sale Manager; Ward Shantz, Relief Sale chair, 1968. Courtesy Mennonite Archives of Ontario

Food also became a relief sale staple. By 1968 MCC Ontario chair Aaron Klassen reported sales of thirty-two hundred chicken legs, 260 strawberry pies, two thousand other pies, a smorgasbord for one thousand persons, as well as pancakes, apple fritters, zwieback, and other edible goods. Although the sale continued to grow through the years, it faced criticism. Some Mennonites believed the sale pandered to North American consumerism in the face of suffering in other parts of the world. This criticism returned when the More-With-Less Cookbook, which lauded reduced consumerism, was published in 1976. But the relief sale worked because of all the volunteer labor and donation of goods that would be sold, frequently to members of the Ontario Amish and Mennonite community. Other relief sales also emerged in Ontario, though New Hamburg remained the largest: the Black Creek Pioneer Village Relief Sale held near Toronto (1967), the Leamington-area sale and auction (1970), and eventually another in the Aylmer area (2001). In 1982 an Ontario Mennonite relief heifer sale was launched, following the pattern of the other sales.

John Drescher, the editor of the Mennonite Church’s weekly paper, Gospel Herald, raised concerns about relief sales in March 1968. He questioned the money required for preparation and holding the sales and wondered if the money should be given directly to relief. J. Winfield Fretz promptly responded, saying the sales were a “supplement” to regular charitable giving, not a substitute. Fretz also emphasized the opportunity for inter-Mennonite cooperation.

2015 relief sale

After the downpour at the 2015 New Hamburg relief sale. MCC Ontario photo.

In the last 49 years, the relief sale has changed dramatically. This year raised over $350,000 for Mennonite Central Committee despite being interrupted by a torrential rain storm early in the afternoon. The over 30 food venues included Hispanic pupusas, Hmong spring rolls, Laotian sausage and sticky rice, as well as traditional fare like fleish peroski, vereniki, strawberry pie, watermelon and rollkuchen, summer sausage and tea balls. Two hundred quilts and wall hangings were auctioned, and events included a “run for relief.”

To learn more about Mennonites and relief sales, read In Search of Promised Lands.

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