by Jim Boyle
Leroy Toth’s last ride in Elk River was nearly just as he imagined it.
The lifelong resident of rural Elk River wanted a horse-drawn carriage to carry him from St. Andrew’s Church to the cemetery along Jackson Avenue. This cultivator of the land and famed auctioneer, who crammed three lifetimes in his 87 years, would have preferred his own Morgan horses do the work. But a 16-year battle with cancer led him to sell off some of his prized farm animals earlier than he had hoped.
Toth also wanted an all-female cast of pallbearers to carry him from the carriage to the grave. That quite possibly played out exactly as he imagined it.
“It was an honor,” said Miranda Caflisch, one of the six women called upon after his death on Feb. 5.
The others were Jane Decker, Kitty Kruse, Elizabeth McLeod, Jean Johnson and Marcia Juenemann.
McLeod, who helped Toth over the years with setting up auctions and their billings, also said it was an honor to be a pallbearer. She described him as a meticulous man, who once you got to know him took great strides to care for people. She said he was kind and always had time to talk.
“I knew Leroy for a long time and loved him a lot,” said McLeod, who described Toth as a second dad. “He had touched all of our lives.”
Caflisch knew Toth the shortest amount of time of the six pallbearers, but in the last few years of his life she talked to him daily. Toth served as a grandfatherly figure and a mentor to Caflisch and her upstart family that had purchased an eight-acre hobby farm just east of Pease. The union carpenter who met her husband-to-be, Chad, on a job site was introduced to Toth by a fellow tradesman.
“After we bought a couple cows, we started hitting Leroy up for advice,” Caflisch said.
Then a massive blood clot was discovered in her lung, and very quickly her life of swinging a hammer was thrown into uncertainty and she came to lean on Toth for strength and inspiration.
“I looked up to him,” she said. “With all the pain he was going through with his cancer, he would still get up on that tractor. If he could do it, I could do it.
“I think we helped each other.”
The Caflisch family wants a piece of the American farm family dream. Toth was a “real American cowboy” and had that dream play out for him with his farms and the opportunities afforded him as an auctioneer.
He died surrounded by family. Most noticeably absent were his trademark cowboy hat and his spirit that had been encased by a crusty old exterior that usually hid a softer side that those closest to him — especially the women in his life — got to know.
“I will miss his advice,” said Lori Godin, a daughter of Toth’s. “He could see a problem even before there was a problem. He could steer me clear of potholes.”
Godin said her father had an uncanny ability to read people, which helped him make quite a name for himself locally and nationally as an auctioneer.
His work as an auctioneer began in downtown Elk River at The Main Tap, a bar that he owned and operated in the early 1960s before he went to an auctioneering school in Iowa.
He would hear one guy lamenting how he needed such and such a piece of equipment and a day later hear of someone who needed to unload the same thing appeared at the bar.
“He was a people person and was good at reading people,” Godin said.
Once he became an auctioneer, Toth found himself in a position to become a matchmaker of epic proportions.
He was particularly helpful when farming in the area declined and people were losing their farms and needed to make a new start.
There are a few more auctioneers in the world because of Toth. One is Carl Theoring, who met Toth as a child in the 1970s. His father, Glen Theoring worked with Toth. He was an auction sales manager for Thorpe Sales. He did the clerking, advertising and managed the sales.
Toth was the auctioneer.
“He was interesting guy,” Carl said. “He was a real cowboy. He did a lot in life.”
Toth’s days started early and went long.
When Carl got his start in the business of auctioneering, he helped Toth with auctions. As for Toth’s ability to read people, Carl described him as a psychologist.
“He was half way an attorney and half way a priest,” Carl said. “He could counsel people.
“And that’s the thing with auctions. He had the ability to see if someone was going to bid again or not. Sometimes, if he thought they would bid again, he would bid for them.”
Carl said Toth was a mentor, coach and cheerleader.
“We were good friends,” he said. “We worked hard and played harder. We had a lot of fun, boy.
“Everyone said we should write a book. Hell, no one would have believed it. It would be considered fiction.”
Among Carl’s cherished memories were heading to the Dakotas, Montana or Wyoming on their way to buffalo auctions.
They would stop in a bar or restaurant and hit it off with the locals and make some kind of connection with people, Carl said.
Another memory he has of Toth is watching him work with his eyes closed doing some menial task on the farm.
When he inquired, Toth said he was preparing in the event that he ever lost his eyesight.
Master of auctions
The auctions that commanded the biggest dollars were in Reno, Nev. where he served as the ring man during auctions for the late William Harrah. He broke records for selling more than $10 million on a single auction. In another one, he surprised even the Holiday corporation that owned the antique cars when he got $1 million for a single collector’s car. The bidding on the 1929 original Dueseberg Convertible Roadster started at $250,000.
It was Toth’s expert prodding that helped the price spiral upward. Once it got to $950,000, he told the one bidder ‘let’s get the other guy to pay $1 million.’
The man kept shaking his head, ‘no, no, no,’ Toth recalled for the Oct. 29, 1985 edition of the Star News, until he got the bidder to lash out with $975,000. The other bidder went to $1 million immediately.
The person to go home with the Duesenberg was Tom Monahan, the owner the Detroit Tigers and Domino’s Pizza.
Toth told the Star News there was no shortage of money in the world.
While in Nevada, Toth wasn’t tempted to gamble away his earnings. He once said: “Hell, I gamble every day on cattle.”
Back in the 70s and 80s when dairy cattle got high, Toth could command a selling price of $3,900 to $4,000. It took quite a person to establish those prices.
As for Toth, it made no difference to him if someone was bidding on a $1 million automobile or a $1 hammer, he said.
Rubbing elbows with the most important guy in a place didn’t matter to him. He was as likely to approach the person who might be considered the least important if that person was the real deal.
“I don’t think Leroy treated anyone any different, unless they were a crook,” Carl said.
Toth did his auction schooling in Mason City, Iowa at the encouragement of another auctioneer. His showman style of auctioneering made him one of the busiest auctioneers. He often averaged more than 100 auctions a year.
He credited his success to building faith and trust with the people at auctions. And he could separate the genuine articles from the fakes.
That was true at auctions and in life back home in Elk River when he wasn’t running an auction. It stayed with him well into his later years.
He once told his daughter Lori that he met a man dressed up in a clown suit that could help them, and he wanted her to track him down. Absurd as it sounded, she made an effort.
It turned out that man was Dan Dixon, the head of Guardian Angels, and he did help them out quite a bit late in his life.
Glen Theoring described Toth as a hard working Hungarian who was determined in what he was going to do and very set in his ways.
He said there were only a few people in this world that he listened to. Carl was one them.
“I thought the world of him,” Carl said. “We all have a good points and our faults, but I owe a lot to my dad, Kenny Laska and Leroy.”
Toth married four times, and Elk River was always home.
“He thought if you took care the land it would take care of you,” said his son Leroy, Jr. who is better known as Spike after famous musician Spike Jones.
The Toths raised sheep, horses, beef cattle and crops like alfalfa, corn and oats. Occasionally, they raised soybeans, if Mother Nature would allow.
Toth appreciated people who could stick around until the job was done. He loved to orchestrate the work on the farm, listening to Mother Nature’s cues and trusting his judgement and his alone along with what he liked to call common sense.
“He enjoyed managing the land,” Godin said. “He wouldn’t want to see it sit empty.”
That’s one of the reasons Toth liked to help people live the American dream of farming, which includes raising and caring for the animals and cultivating the land.
“It’s because of him that someday Tyler might be the next generation of farmers,” Caflisch said. “He sure looked up to him. So did I.”
Larry Toth pens poem after the death of his brother and friend, LeRoy Toth
by Larry Toth
Has time changed this place? I wonder what it is that drives us men to think he can rule over the world of nature. Come walk this place where time has ruled, not man.
Where to start I ask those who know and have seen? The high bank is to memory the start of it all. If you know not where you may miss it. A hill, a steep slope, trees and a cow path, but he knew it well. The path leads to the big meadow, to wet to farm yet lush grass covered. A place that has fed many head of cattle and horses. The sand hill cranes live on the clay knoll, where alfalfa grows. Now covered with the white blanket of winter in expectations of spring to come. Look over the next hill there in site is the canary bog that has feed the many things of nature. Gazing to the right stands the old tree with its nest of sticks. Then left to the sand hill that likes more rain then the rest. In this land wends the beloved county ditch that has meant much to those that have walked it’s banks. A peaceful breeze sweeps this land, as have storms of night and day. Move to the south with its ups and downs where each spring God sends a bumper crop of rocks to be picked up by many hands. As we move to the buildings all placed in their proper spots we find the house with the old apple tree in the back yard, that has fed many, still stands. The barns that have housed much over the years.
All the sheds, some times bursting with hay, and cribs filled with corn and grain. Many hours of love and pain have been spent here. The land of green tractors that do what they were meant to do. Two hands can not number them all. Yet there by it’s self in their midst stands the red Farmall. All the land (The Farm) is encircled by a fence built by many hands. Yet engineered by only one. Straight and true and done right. Each post in it’s place with wire of many styles to meet the specs of his plan.
As time has taken his strength yet not his spirit Leroy would each day, when he could, go over to the farm and do his chores.
God gives us the land. Land that never dies. We all come and go yet for a short time we by His grace we can only be stewards of what is there.
Rest in peace his son for you have completed a job well done. You will be missed, but let it be known that when we pass the land (The Farm) that you knew so well, you will be in our thoughts. I thank you for letting me be part of the working of the farm. Now rest in peace my brother and friend.