Reuel Colt Gridley "The Auction Man" January 23, 1829 - November 24, 1870
Missouri native Reuel C. Gridley had served in the Mexican Wa r before journeying in 1852 to California, where he worked as a miner, newspaperman, banker, and auctioneer, among other occupations. In April 1864, he was part owner of a general store in the little silver-minig town of Austin, NV. To pay off a bet he had lost on a local election, Gridley carried a 50 pound sack of flour through town accompanied by a brass band boisterous miners. While celebrating afterward in the local tavern, Gridley conceived the idea of auctioning off the sack of flour for the benefit of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, a private relief agency for sick and wounded Union soldiers. His great inspiration was that each successful bidder would return the same sack of flour, enabling it to be auctioned off again and again. In essence, bidders were simply competing for the privilege of donating money to the cause.
By the end of the day, Gridley had raised $3,500 from the local miners. Buoyed by his success, Gridley took his sack of flour to silver towns throughout western Nevada, raising more than $20,000 before moving on to California. Gridley traveled around auctioning the same sack for five months; at the end of that time he had raised around $150,000. His success gained him recognition all over the country, and the Sanitary Commission urged him to come east. Carrying his sack of flour, Gridley arrived in New York City in January 1865 and crisscrossed the North until the end of the war. The sack of flour was sold for the last time at the Sanitary Fair at St. Louis, MO, in April 1865.
The year of traveling around the country had ruined Gridley's health, and when he returned to Austin, he found the mine played out and his store close to bankruptcy. Two years later Gridley and his wife and four children were living in poverty in Stockton, CA. Upon learning of Gridley's plight, newspaper editors in California and Nevada raised $1,400 to buy him a house and small farm, but Gridley's health continued to decline. He died in 1870 at the age of 41.
Fascinating Fact: Mark Twain wrote about Gridley's exploits in his 1872 book Roughing It. In 1876, Stockton veterans sold thousands of miniature sacks of flour to raise money for a monument to Gridley.
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