When Elmer Hemphill of Tulsa died in 2016, he left his son John a thriving construction company.
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He also left him a three-million-pound scrap heap that reveals another side of his personality: hoarder; on the industrial scale.
“His perfect storm was buying and storing, but never getting rid of anything,” says Louis Dakil, a Tulsa auctioneer brought in to get rid of Elmer’s sprawling collection of junk.
The family is featured on the newest edition of FOX Business Network’s Strange Inheritance with Jamie Colby. It premieres on Monday, March 20 at 9:30 p.m. ET.
Elmer Hemphill was born in 1935 on a farm near Tryon, Oklahoma. He started his first business – buying and selling sheep – when he was just 13 years old.
“He had a mind like a steel trap,” recalls his lifelong friend Earl Hart. “Elmer laid awake nights trying to think of ways to make a dollar. He was just determined to succeed.”
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His son John says he had a simple business philosophy:
“You never know how far a toad will jump until you punch it.”
In other words, you can’t just sit back and hope things happen, you have to go out and make them happen.
“He was definitely one to punch the toad,” John says.
Elmer started an oil drilling company in the 1950s, and later added an aerospace manufacturing operation. In the ‘80s he got in on the ground floor of a new industry – cellular towers.
Despite his success, he never lost his stubborn Dust Bowl waste-not-want-not mentality.
He refused to throw away anything – from tiny sections of pipe, to thousands of feet of fencing, to huge pieces of retired equipment. Anything left over from a job – bolts, bricks, chains, springs, trucks, trailers – it all piled up.
“We asked no questions,” says John, who began working with his father in the 1970s. “It was pretty much known that we just needed to put it where he wanted and live with it.”
Eventually, Elmer wasn’t just hoarding his own junk – he was buying other companies’ cast-off equipment, machine parts and scrap metal.
“If it was cheap enough, he’d buy it and say, ‘Someday it’ll be worth something,’” says Hart.
“He used to say that if a trainload of pencils was cheap enough, he’d buy it,” recalls John.
The trainload of pencils never came in, but he did buy boxcars full of tractor seats, file cabinets and office chairs.
By the time he died, Elmer’s stuff filled multiple warehouses and littered 40 acres of land surrounding the Hemphill Corporation headquarters.
John assigned his daughter Kristin to get rid of it all. She came up with an idea for an online auction, run by Dakil.
“I’ve appraised everything in America that’s ethical, moral or legal and when I saw Hemphill’s collection I was overwhelmed,“ says Dakil. “But I told them if they can organize it, we can inventory it and sell it. There’s one saying we have in our industry: ‘You can’t outlive iron.’”
The August 2016 auction lasted two days. Some items sold for as little as 50 cents. The biggest sale was an old drilling rig designed by Elmer, which fetched $4,000. All told, the auction brought in $175,000.