A sixty-seven year old tradition
I grew up in a small, rural community in Wisconsin. When I was a kid, Reedsburg had a population of fewer than five thousand people, and a billboard on the edge of town proudly proclaimed that we were ‘The Butter Capital of America’.
Things have changed.
The population is now at about ten thousand. The butter title was lost years ago. And the city has fiber optic cable for television and internet.
There’s one thing that hasn’t changed, however: The annual charity radio auction, now in its 67th year.
Oh, some things about the auction have changed. Back in its early years, it benefitted the March of Dimes. Today, it supports the United Fund (not the United Way — more about that in a minute). In the early days, it was broadcast live on the local AM radio station, WRDB. Today it’s still broadcast over WRDB (FM), but now the video is also streamed on the city’s public access tv channel and on Facebook Live.
The concept is pretty straightforward. People in town donate things — baked goods, handicrafts, business services, event tickets — and volunteers auction them off. Bids come in by phone and over Facebook.
This image was captured from the Reedsburg Radio Auction's Facebook stream. It shows three auctioneers: Mayor Dave Estes in the center; retired high school chemistry teacher, Corrine Fish, on the left; and, on the right, Dana Westedt, owner of the city's book store, Main Street Books.
I think there are a couple of things that made the program addicting.
First, there was the sheer Mayberry-ness of it all. I don’t mean that in a disparaging, hick town sort of way (after all, Reedsburg got fiber optic a decade before we did, because the city built it out as a utility). I mean it in a warm-hearted, we’re-a-family sort of way.
Reedsburg isn’t some wealthy suburban bedroom community. When I was growing up, Reedsburg was a farm town. It now has quite a bit of light industry and a major Lands End distribution and call center. I think you could describe it as middle class. So those big cheesecake bids were fun, but they were outliers. Most items sold for fifteen to thirty dollars.
Not a single item went without bids. The person who bought the half-dozen pumpkin-cupcakes-topped-with-maple-creamcheese-frosting-and-candied-bacon, specified that one of the cupcakes should be given to the auctioneer, who so obviously wanted one.
“It’s amazing how everybody comes together,” Mayor Estes says. “I’ve got people already asking about next year. It’s like a family out there. Even the bidding. People circle the date on their calendar.”
The second thing that made it addicting, I think, is the fact that it was live. Today, so much of what we do is asynchronous — we no longer do things together. We stream tv programs on our own individual schedules. We keep up with friends by checking their Facebook posts whenever we have time. And everything we view is edited before we see it.
Watching the auction, on the other hand, was something I was doing together with hundreds of other people — we could even see all the comments and bidding, live and real-time, in Facebook. There’s something powerful in that. There’s also something about watching a live event where the errors aren’t edited out. You find yourself pulling for that volunteer auctioneer who seems to be overwhelmed by all the bid slips he’s being handed while he’s trying to announce the leading bids on all six of the items in his portfolio.
The United Fund
What did this effort earn?
That’s almost $20,000 more than they raised in the most recent, pre-pandemic auction of 2020, when they took in $33,000.
It’s also slightly more than the Fund’s total 2022 commitments to the agencies it supports. And, although the auction represents most of the dollars the fund takes in each year, there are two other events that will boost that total by twenty percent or more. So the Fund is way ahead for the year.
Mayor Estes says that he expects the extra funds to be used in two ways. First, to handle emergencies. “In the middle of the summer, maybe the Boy Scouts will have ten kids that don’t have the money to go to camp,” he says, “and we can pay for that.” Second, he says they will probably give some of their receiving agencies more money than they requested — groups that “desperately depend on the United Fund” — to make up for funds they lost last year, when the auction was cancelled due to the pandemic.
The United Fund is a locally operated non-profit. It was set up back in the 1970s, Mayor Estes says, breaking away from the national United Way organization. He explains that people objected to seeing a portion of the funds they raised locally being taken by the national organization rather than being spent on local needs.
The United Fund has a board of local residents, and each year in November it accepts requests from local non-profit organizations, outlining the money they need and how they will use it. The board decides what it can fund.
This year, says Mayor Estes, it will fund everything.
It’s a big event
The operation is pretty well-organized, as you’d expect for something that’s been running for nearly seventy years.
The video cameras shoot everything straight on. In the foreground are three auctioneers, sitting at a table with microphones. Behind them, you can see four people operating the phone bank. Between those two groups, a team of runners darts back and forth, carrying bid slips.
Off-screen, there are a dozen or more support people — operating the cameras, monitoring Facebook bids, keeping records, organizing shelves full of donated goods, displaying auction items on-camera — and also multiple auctioneers-in-waiting, each one ready to swap seats with one of the three auctioneers currently at work.
The teams change with every session. For one session, the runners were half a dozen uniformed cub scouts. For another session, they were bearded members of a motorcycle club (also in uniform). And the phone bank operators often wore sweatshirts with the logo of a local business or organization emblazoned across them.
According to Reedsburg Mayor Dave Estes, each day’s operation depended on several dozen volunteers.
I caught the event on Facebook, and I was addicted.
It ran for a week — Monday through Friday — a couple of hours in the morning, an hour and a half in the afternoon, and four hours in the evening. I managed to catch part of every session.
I’ve been trying to figure out what made it so addicting.
It wasn’t that I recognized people. Frankly, I’ve been away so long and the town has grown so much, I spotted only a handful of folks I knew. But before long, I felt like I knew a lot of people — or wanted to know them.
For example, who the heck is Tina Sukup and why do her cheesecakes sell for $250 each? What is Rocky and Rusty’s Redemption Rescue and how do they manage to bake so much stuff while running an animal rescue organization? And if they’re spending all day baking, why do they also bid on every baked good they haven’t donated themselves?
I especially loved the bidding war that broke out between Reedsburg Auto Body and Reedsburg Precision Auto Repair over a batch of cookies baked by a high school class. Precision finally won the cookies with a bid of $200 and then, after being declared the winner, called back in to raise their own bid another $25.
Mayor Estes told me that the auction had received, in total, 1,352 donated items. He estimates that about half of those items were baked goods, baked fresh each morning and hand-delivered to the VFW building where the auction was held.
About those two mysteries...
I did, by the way, follow up about the rescue organization and the mystery of the $250 cheesecakes.
Rocky and Rusty’s Redemption Rescue
The rescue organization — Rocky and Rusty’s Redemption Rescue — is located near Reedsburg and organizes fosters and placements in ‘forever homes’. I spoke with Alexis Schaffer, who founded and runs the operation with her fiancé Tim Clark and some volunteers. Their small non-profit organization is five years old and, she says, has rescued over three thousand animals (“We mainly do dogs,” she said, “but we help all animals, if we can.”).
Because the organization can’t always find sufficient foster homes as quickly as they’re needed, Rocky and Rusty’s is in the process of building a facility to house rescues while they’re awaiting a foster. The facility won’t be a kennel, Alexis says. Instead, they’re building ‘tiny homes’, about ten feet by twelve feet in size. The plan is to have a dozen of those homes, and they’ve bought fifteen acres of property for that new facility.
The organization takes on dogs from outside Wisconsin, including, Alexis said, a busload every two weeks or so from south Texas.
As for the baking: Yes, they really did it all -- Alexis, Tim, and their kids.
The world’s most expensive cheesecakes
As for the cheesecakes, I asked Mayor Estes about those.
He says that Tina Sukup is indeed “an amazing, amazing baker”, but he admits that $250 may be a bit high even for an amazing cheesecake.
“It’s kind of a tradition, I think,” he explains.
Jim Feuerstein is co-editor of LNF Weekly; he also designs and manages the website.
What is Rocky and Rusty’s Redemption Rescue and how do they manage to bake so much stuff while running an animal rescue organization?
Some of the world's most expensive cheesecakes, including a $400 batch of mini-cheesecakes. That's the baker, seventh grade math teacher Tina Sukup.