Flea-Market Friday: Road-Tripping The World’s Largest Yard Sale

Neither the biggest nor the best, but one of the many stops along the route of the world’s largest yard sale. (All photos M.J. Weigand.)

By M.J. Weigand

I had heard legends about the world’s largest yard sale – and maybe you had too, from TV shows like “Endless Yard Sale” and “Flea Market Flip.” Well, we chased the legend. We went there.

It’s not really a “there,” though. It’s 690 miles and thousands of sellers’ worth of yard sales that follow Highway 127 from Addison, Mich., to Gadsden, Ala., in early August.

This vintage propeller actually generated power for rural families back in the 1930s.

There’s usually only a mile or two between sales. While there are hundreds of typical front yards filled with exercise equipment and baby clothes, most sellers are grouped together in church parking lots, fairgrounds, and farm fields. Antique dealers, flea-market sellers, liquidators, and unique junk-loving characters from all over North America are there to buy and sell. Many locations house the same vendors each year, creating little communities of people who become like families.

It’s impossible to shop the entire route – and the route gets longer every year — so my 11-year-old son and I chose Ohio as our starting point. The longest distance we managed in a day was 140 miles, which required skipping many sales. The next day we covered half that.

We had a list of requests from family and friends: fireplace tools, a soccer ball, a trumpet, an acoustic guitar, old guitar amps and tubes, a headboard, vintage video games, a turntable, and tires for our old truck.

The road trip wasn’t just about buying stuff cheap; there were also coffee shops serving fried chicken day and night.

The first sale we stopped at, a block off the route in the cute old town of Van Wert, Ohio, was amazing. They had something from every category of antiques, including some extremely beautiful items. We walked the historic neighborhood, full of huge Victorian and antebellum homes, most of which had something for sale.

Most of our day in Ohio was like that: Small towns with beautiful architecture downtown and stately old homes along Main Street. Stunning furniture, woodwork and hardware. Baby clothes, broken lawnmowers, airbrushed T-shirts, and … a nice set of fireplace tools for $8.

My best find was a vintage voltmeter I had been seeking for years. What made it great was the elderly gentleman who sold it to me was donating all the proceeds to charity, and he took the time to tell me about the fun he had using it to fine tune his Ham radio before talking to his friends all over the world during the early years of the Cold War.

My son discovered his great negotiating skills, and people liked selling to a kid. He managed to negotiate a pair of trumpets for $55. We later found that one trumpet was made in 1918, not far from our home in Wisconsin. The rare antique mouthpiece is worth more than he paid for both horns – and now he’s the only kid in the band playing a vintage instrument.

He wasn’t done. He bought another trumpet in perfect condition, a 1950s high-end stereo system, two skateboards and computer equipment. His flip-and-trade profits are doubling his investment, even though he’s keeping most of the items he bought. Next year he gets to help pay for the gas.

Our second day was spent in Kentucky. We started in a wealthy suburb, where I found some guitar equipment and tools, as well as the soccer ball. Further south, we found rolling hills, tobacco fields, and scenic routes.

Part of the route is along Kentucky’s Barn Quilt Trail, a huge network of scenic rural roads, where the big Victorian homes of Ohio are replaced by farmhouses and mobile homes tucked into steep valleys. We saw a third of an airplane, two nine-foot stuffed monkeys, and some neat antique farm equipment, but nothing on the list. I asked about an odd propeller, and found out it was an early electricity-generating windmill, used for homes too far from the electric lines to be connected in the 1930s and ’40s.

Nine-foot stuffed monkeys were just a few of the wonder available along the route.

At one sale, an older man with a shortage of teeth was picking a banjo. I asked about the banjo, but just couldn’t bring myself to interfere with the huge grin on his face as he played it like his long-lost friend. I considered buying it from him, but I was afraid of insulting him.

We got caught up in the beautiful views, and missed a turn along the Ohio River. In Carrolton, enticed along by the occasional yard sale, we found ourselves 20 miles off the route. We turned east, and saw a mid-1800’s home with a sign: “Music store inside.”

We knocked on the door and found ourselves inside Hazelwood Music Shop, surrounded by band instruments, guitars, drums, violins, and every accessory you could want. The owner introduced himself and showed us the photo of him in full country-western gear. Well into his 80s now, he’s been running the shop since 1962, following a career as a regionally known country singer with his own radio show, and recordings that hit the charts, even if they never made it to No. 1.

As the sale wound down on Sunday, with rain approaching, we managed to buy a guitar amp, some sound equipment, some vintage comic books for one of my kids, and a safe. The vintage Martin guitar I found was too high-priced and highly prized by its owner, who didn’t want to let it go. My friend back home didn’t get a guitar, and our list remained mostly unfulfilled.

But as the drops of rain started to hit the windshield and we turned the car towards home, John said, “There are a few things we could do better next year.”

M.J. Weigand’s latest book, Roadtrip Honeymoon and the Meth Bikers From Hell, is available here.

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