Auction marks the passing of time

The traffic flowing from Lacona, a sleepy town in southern Iowa was unmistakable. Silverados, F-150s and super duty trucks followed each other east out of town in an ad hoc parade of farm trucks.

Two miles east, one mile north and a quarter mile west revealed their destination. It was a farmstead on a ridge overlooking a scenic valley with frozen farmland stretching into the distance. A man directing traffic directed drivers to park in the field and then head to the barn. Snowfall the night before yielding several inches of powder was cleared from the field. Now, nearly 70 trucks were parked adjacent to three parallel lines of assorted implements.

 Men look over tractors before the auctioneer sells them to the highest bidder.

Men look over tractors before the auctioneer sells them to the highest bidder.

A short walk from the trucks to the barn revealed the unmistakable sound of an auctioneer. He rattled off numbers in a cadence that could be mistaken for a song. It was auction day and a large crowd had turned out to find deals, visit with neighbors and pay tribute to a lost friend.

Farm auctions are part of the tapestry of Iowa. According to the National Auctioneer Association, they date back to the 1600s and the arrival of the Pilgrims on America's eastern shores. Auction schools came to the United States in the early 1900s. And for farmers who persevered through the 1980s Farm Crisis, auctions occurred frequently, an oratory reminder of broken dreams and tough times for families next door.

Now, on a chilly February day, bidders flashed their numbers as the auctioneer went from hay rack to hay rack selling extension cords, boxes of bolts and even chainsaws. The warmth of the machine shed provided temporary comfort from the cold before the crowd moved to the frozen pasture for the big-ticket items.

Like some auctions, a heavy feeling hung in the air. While people searched for deals and community members and neighbors visited, it was unmistakable that the gathering was predicated on pain of others.

Change is at the root of every auction. Whether it was a retirement, a bankruptcy or a death, farm sales can be associated with broken dreams and the march of time. Today's auction fit the bill. A conversation between neighbors revealed that the owner had committed suicide.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), suicide was the 10th leading cause of death for all ages in 2013. The CDC also noted that males take their own lives at nearly four times the rate of females and represent 77.9 recent of all suicides. Suicide can have lasting harmful effects on individuals, families and communities.

The reasons behind suicide aren't always clear but depression is often at the forefront. Downward economic pressure in the farm economy paired with tight margins in farming can lead to depression for farmers.

To help farmers deal with depression and stress Iowans can call the ISU Extension and Outreach Iowa Concern Hotline, (800)-447-1985. The Iowa Concern website has a live chat feature as an additional way to talk with stress counselors. Agencies and professionals serving individuals and families can contact local ISU Extension and Outreach offices about Iowa Concern hotline number business cards available for distribution.


As the last items were sold and the auctioneer's voice fell silent the parade of trucks dispersed across the frozen countryside. As one farmer said; auctions are a sweet and sour time where farmers put portions of their life's work up to the highest bidder.

Deconstructing Forest City

A snapshot is often referred to as an image capturing a moment in time. As I sat in my home office in the waning days of 2017, a light snow was falling outside and I had a hot cup of coffee in hand. When the closing New York Stock Exchange numbers scrolled across the television, one particular company caught my eye.

WGO - $55.60.

The three letters signified more than a company to me. WGO or Winnebago Industries was a way of life growing up. Everything I knew was connected to those three powerful letters. Winnebago Industries fed our family, put clothes on my back and helped me through college.

 Main Street in Forest City at the end of 2017. Many in the small town situated close to the Minnesota border are uneasy about the city's future. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy)

Main Street in Forest City at the end of 2017. Many in the small town situated close to the Minnesota border are uneasy about the city's future. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy)

Winnebago was founded by John K. Hansen in 1958. The company built recreational vehicles that allowed members of what is now considered the Greatest Generation the freedom to explore the country without leaving comfort behind.

My dad started working for Winnebago Industries in 1968. He retired in 2004. During that time he held prominent positions in design, concept development, and marketing. He was highly respected and built a comfortable retirement after years of work.

After his untimely death in 2009, I heard less and less about the status of the company. My mother kept me up to date through her lens as a city council member. In 2014 she moved to Central Iowa, and the news I heard from the company was little to none.

Until recently that is.

Lately, the news I hear from friends that live in Forest City and work for Winnebago Industries concerns a corporate restructuring that has moved members of the executive team and central office employees to Minneapolis, Minnesota. A move that by some accounts could signal tough times for my hometown of Forest City.

That is why I decided to chronicle the impact that decisions by the executive team of Winnebago Industries will have on Forest City. 

Many believe there is a divide forming between the success of the company and the vitality of the city. For those that have lived in Forest City, this theory will not come as a surprise. It would seem the fortunes of the town, or lack thereof, have always been tied to the success of Winnebago. However, for myself and others in the community, this point in time feels different.

As a point of reference I will use December of 2017 as a snapshot to paint a picture of Winnebago Industries and the town of Forest City going forward. 

I am calling the ongoing series "Deconstructing Forest City." In the upcoming months, years and maybe even decades I want to shed light on the struggles and successes of Forest City. I hope to do that, by using journalism as a tool, that provides first-hand accounts of what is happening in the North Iowa town of 4,013 people according to the 2016 census.

If you would like to help with this ongoing story or if you have feedback you can leave a message below or email me at

Deep freeze chores

I guess you could call it a "heat wave." After dealing with double-digit subzero temperatures for four days, you would think 8 degrees felt balmy.

But it was hard for Dan Hanrahan, a farmer from Winterset, to buy into that as he hit the door latch and opened the tractor cab door to start his daily chores. Even with a 20-degree temperature change, Hanrahan still braced for the rush of cold air that washed over his face and slowly penetrated the numerous layers of clothes he had on.  Click below to read full story:

Deep freeze chores

Originally published for the Iowa Food & Family Project. Find out more at Iowa Food and Family Project.

Seven in 2017

New Year's Eve is a natural time to look back at accomplishments from the previous year while looking forward to new opportunities. Below is a selection of my seven favorite photos from 2017. 

I have been fortunate to pursue a career in photography and writing that has led me around the world while meeting many people. I look forward to 2018 and all of the new opportunities it will bring.

Here’s to 2018.