Workday Wednesday: Frederick McMurray Crying a Farm Sale

Frederick A. McMurray, "crying" a farm sale prior to 1929. From an article in the Newton Daily News, Centennial Edition, August 10, 1957, page 27.
Frederick A. McMurray, “crying” a farm sale prior to 1929. From an article in the Newton Daily News, Centennial Edition, August 10, 1957, page 27.

McMurray Family (Click for Family Tree)

“Crying a farm sale” was a term used for what an auctioneer did to drum up interest in an item at an auction to get a good sale price. It took very careful listening to understand the words as a sale was ‘cried,’ since the auctioneer spoke so fast.

Frederick Asbury McMurray (1850-1929) was initially a farmer, but became an auctioneer in 1880, in Newton, Jasper County, Iowa. Farm sales and auctions were common in rural areas back in those days. When a farmer lost the land due to taxes and bad crop years, or when death took the person who worked the land, often parts or all of the land, barns and other buildings, farm equipment, tools, horses, buggies, and even the house and household goods would be sold at a public gathering. Even the kitchen sink could be offered at an auction!

Of course, stores and homes could also be the subject of auction, not just farms.

Apparently Fred had quite a following as he was a very good auctioneer. His job was to command the highest prices for his employer, or the person who contracted with him to cry the sale. “There frequently being a rivalry as to who can first command his services,” Fred kept his calendar filled with auction dates. His headquarters were at the grocery in Newton owned by his son, William Elmer McMurray (1874-1957), and farmers and store owners would come into the store to talk with Fred to engage him for their sale.

Of course, the higher the price that Fred could get for an auction item, the better for him as well as the farmer, as auctioneers generally receive a percentage of the total sales to pay them for their work. “Buyer’s premium” as it is called today, is usually 15% of the sale price, though it can vary. (Could not find out how much the  premium was in the late 1800s.)

Most auctioneers stayed pretty local, but Fred was so popular that he travelled to many other counties in central Iowa, and was well known for his abilities. Around 1903, Fred even cried a sale in Dexter, Dallas County, Iowa. Dexter was about 70 miles west of Newton, but evidently the income from the sale was worth paying him for the time and travel.

In 1902, Fred cried 128 sales, with his average sale being worth $2,100- that would be about $55,000 in today’s money!  [See Note 2.] That was a significant total, and he was at the top of the auctioneer ranks because of it.

Of course, his descendants- Fred was the grandfather of Edward A. McMurray, Sr. (1900-1992)- would like to think his personality made him popular as well as his skill at generating income for  someone hosting an auction. The newspapers of the day did mention that “The secret of Fred’s success is his attention to business, his fairness, and strict fidelity to the interests of his employer…” Fred would “…leave both buyer and seller in good humor and satisfied.”

“His work speaks for itself.”


Notes, Sources, and References: 

  1. Family treasure chest article, “Fred A. McMurray” from The Daily Herald, [Newton, Iowa], January 1, 1903, page 9.
  2. The inflation calculator at was used to determine Fred’s sales. If he received a 15% buyer’s premium, $8,250 in today’s money would have been his average income from a sale in 1902, with his income equivalent for the year 1902 over a million dollars. Fred may have done very well that year, but not likely that well. So it is important to really look at such calculators and use common sense with the math.


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