History came alive for more than a thousand people who descended into Pope Valley on Saturday. That’s because the old Pope Valley Store, whose doors had been shut to the public since 1971 – shut and left untouched as an archive by owner Brad Kirkpatrick – were finally opened. And the one word that was heard over and over was simply “Wow!”

The contents of the buildings which included the remnants of a general store, gas station, saloon, post office, brewery, hardware store, card room and hotel — a whole downtown compressed under one roof — were being auctioned off by Sacramento-based Witherell’s Antiques and Fine Arts. The auction grossed $80,000.

More than a thousand people came — the curious, the interested, amateur collectors, serious collectors, and professional antique dealers — who had heard tales of the antique treasures that were contained within. They said they came from as far away as Virginia and Bakersfield, or as near as Middletown and Napa. “Isn’t this something?” said Amanda McIntyre who came up from Palo Alto to visit friends and decided on this outing. “It’s beyond amazing. Wow!”

And though the auction was set to begin at 10 a.m. the preview line at 9:45 to enter the old building was still stretching from the storefront, down the hill and around the corner in front of the old garage. Meanwhile, the bidding line, where bidders could pick up their paddles, stretched far back in the other direction, beneath the live oaks and up Pope Valley Road. Cars were still arriving and across the road, some enterprising kids were charging $5 per car for parking beside the Pope Valley Market.

Other cars were parked up and down Butts Canyon Road as far as the eye could see. Inside the Pope Valley Market the cashier was having a great day, and said he’d never seen such activity. In fact, one wondered if Pope Valley itself had ever seen such traffic.

Inside, the Pope Valley Store itself the scene was chaotic. So crowded were the rooms that people could barely move and the chance to actually inspect the thousands of items spread out on shelves and lining the walls and in the cardboard boxes was extremely limited. But people politely made their way through, in single file, stopping off at the bar to comment – or for old-timers to recollect — or to ask companions if they could guess what this or that was used for. Several people were concerned that the floor boards of the old building – some of which were patched with plywood – might not hold the weight of all the people. Others marveled that the building was as solid as it seemed.

And then there were the auction items themselves. They were not arranged in any order, but were in their original, untouched positions – exactly where Elgy Neil had left them before he died in a car crash in 1971 — with shelves labeled with lot numbers. Bid on a lot and you might win the entire shelf of bric-a-brac. Who knew what might be contained behind the stacks and stacks of items? Bidding would be a gamble. Or an adventure. Or a treasure trove.

Upstairs, in the old narrow hallways of the hotel, entire rooms — still untouched after 40 years — were labeled as lots containing iron bedsteads, dressers, chairs, and chamber pots. The smell of rat urine was strong in the airless passageways, and the droppings littered the linen on the beds. In one room an old telephone plug board – from the days when the store still operated as a telephone exchange – was shoved against the wall, surrounded by stacks of chairs, bed frames, and boxes filled with unknown items.

Outside, people emerged through the rear doors like they were coming out of a carnival fun house. They invariably took a deep breath of the morning air. Then they perused the multitude of more items that were laid out in lots on the tables: farm implements; trays of spectacles; a wooden box labeled “Tillmann Packaged Teas” or “Ferry’s Seeds” or “Injun rocks-Pope Valley”; the piles of deer bones, horse skulls, and snake skeletons (thankfully without lot numbers); a wheelbarrow filled with license plates; tractors and more ancient cars and farm equipment. The variety of items for the auction was beyond characterization. It was, simply, everything that had ever come to rest on the property since the store itself was built in 1875. An archive? A junk heap? A treasure trove? The auction bidders would decide.

The lines by 10 a.m. were still quite long, in part because no one was allowed into the building until they signed a two-page injury insurance waiver. According to Brian Witherell of Witherell’s Auction House, more than 750 people signed the waiver before they ran out of paper. So, at 10 a.m. the auctioneer announced that opening bids would be delayed until 10:30 to permit everyone still in line a chance to stroll through the dark and musty building.

Would they actually bid on the items? The professional antique dealers were mostly after the myriad tin advertising signs. “And maybe a few small items in some of the lots,” said antique dealer Mario Sculatti from St. Helena. “I wouldn’t miss this for the world,” he said. Collectors were there for the memorabilia. Old bottles were what one woman from Santa Rosa was seeking. The antique cars, including a Ford Model T, were also attracting a lot of attention, as were some of the tractors.

By 2 p.m. the auction itself was over. The highest bid went for the Ford Model T, which sold for $10,000. By 4 p.m. most everything was gone. “It was quite an event,” said Brian Witherell. “But we didn’t make it easy for people. You had to go through the store — and it was dark, and smelly, and dirty — and then you had to have your own lawn chair to bid. But,” he continued. “It was worth it to us to be a part of this historic auction.”

Indeed, most people were there for the history.

“I came over from Santa Rosa,” said one woman named Laura, sitting beneath the eaves of the Pope Valley Market across the street. “I thought, ‘What a beautiful day!’ There were hot air balloons over there landing in the field behind the fire department. Then I walked through the old store, and I thought ‘I’ll never see anything like this again!”

A biker then coasted up and asked “What’s going on over there?” “History,” Laura said. “It’s the end of an era.”

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Reporter

Tom Stockwell is currently a staff writer for the St. Helena Star. He is an author of fiction and non-fiction books and has been a working journalist for a variety of technical publications as well as a consultant for numerous wineries in the Napa Valley.

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