When Elmer Hemphill of Tulsa died in 2016, he left his son John a thriving construction company.
He also left him a three-million-pound scrap heap that reveals another side of his personality: hoarder; on the industrial scale.
â€œHis perfect storm was buying and storing, but never getting rid of anything,â€ says Louis Dakil, a Tulsa auctioneer brought in to get rid of Elmerâ€™s sprawling collection of junk.
The family is featured on the newest edition of FOX Business Networkâ€™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 â€“ buying and selling sheep â€“ when he was just 13 years old.
â€œHe had a mind like a steel trap,â€ recalls his lifelong friend Earl Hart. â€œElmer laid awake nights trying to think of ways to make a dollar. He was just determined to succeed.â€
His son John says he had a simple business philosophy:
â€œYou never know how far a toad will jump until you punch it.â€
In other words, you canâ€™t just sit back and hope things happen, you have to go out and make them happen.
â€œHe was definitely one to punch the toad,â€ John says.
Elmer started an oil drilling company in the 1950s, and later added an aerospace manufacturing operation. In the â€˜80s he got in on the ground floor of a new industry â€“ cellular towers.
Despite his success, he never lost his stubborn Dust Bowl waste-not-want-not mentality.
He refused to throw away anything â€“ from tiny sections of pipe, to thousands of feet of fencing, to huge pieces of retired equipment. Anything left over from a job â€“ bolts, bricks, chains, springs, trucks, trailers â€“ it all piled up.
â€œWe asked no questions,â€ says John, who began working with his father in the 1970s. â€œIt was pretty much known that we just needed to put it where he wanted and live with it.â€
Eventually, Elmer wasnâ€™t just hoarding his own junk â€“ he was buying other companiesâ€™ cast-off equipment, machine parts and scrap metal.
â€œIf it was cheap enough, heâ€™d buy it and say, â€˜Someday itâ€™ll be worth something,â€™â€ says Hart.
â€œHe used to say that if a trainload of pencils was cheap enough, heâ€™d buy it,â€ 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, Elmerâ€™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.
â€œIâ€™ve appraised everything in America thatâ€™s ethical, moral or legal and when I saw Hemphillâ€™s collection I was overwhelmed,â€œ says Dakil. â€œBut I told them if they can organize it, we can inventory it and sell it. Thereâ€™s one saying we have in our industry: â€˜You canâ€™t outlive iron.â€™â€
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.