HILLSVILLE, Va. — Scott Hoke drew more than a few curious stares Friday as he trudged up a crowded West Stuart Drive in Hillsville toting a strange-looking contraption on his back.
Despite the antique wood and metal item appearing to be somewhat heavy, the perspiring, red-faced visitor from Hickory, N.C., still wore a smile that mirrored the satisfaction he was feeling over his new-found prize.
Hoke quickly explained the reason for this to one onlooker:
“Have you ever seen a snow sled with a steering wheel?” he asked. And it was plain to see, an implement that resembled any other childhood sled — except for the unusual, and probably handy, addition of the steering mechanism.
Hoke explained that such antique sleds are rare, but he was able to find one for $65 Friday along with “a couple of BB guns,” as the VFW Flea Market & Gun Show kicked off in Hillsville.
Such is the spirit of buying and selling to be found at the event held every Labor Day weekend which is now in its 45th year. The flea market continues today and will run through Monday, with the hours typically 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. each day.
Fun To “See What’s Here”
An observer might find it easier to list something that CAN’T be found at the flea market than to include everything which is there. But a quick rundown would include guns and antiques of all kinds, furniture, jewelry, tools, baseball cards, clothing, books, cosmetics, old signs and pictures, glassware, sports equipment, comic books and various gadgets hard to identify — such as a sled with a steering wheel.
“It’s just fun to come out and see what’s here, whether you buy anything or not,” said Amy Thornburg of Mount Airy, a longtime flea market attendee. Thornburg first went there as a child with a cousin, Lisa Lankford, when the girls were accompanied by an uncle.
Those two were back on Friday as adults, along with Thornburg’s husband Jeffrey. They were encountered during a lunch break eating chicken on a stick from a nearby vendor of Chinese cuisine, just one of the many outlets offering virtually every kind of food and non-alcoholic beverage known to man this weekend.
The trio from Mount Airy had been at the flea market since 8 a.m. Friday and were fortifying themselves nutritionally for more browsing that afternoon.
“One day’s all we can take,” Jeffrey Thornburg joked.
As far as the eye can see, something is for sale in Hillsville, a town of less than 3,000 people. However, it is swelling by many times that size during the flea market, which had estimated attendance of 650,000 in one recent year.
Rows and rows of vendors in “tent shops” are set up in a large parking lot of the Veterans of Foreign Wars facilities on West Stuart Drive along with adjoining fields and streets. Hundreds of yard sales are occurring in the area as well.
The gun show and flea market is said to be the biggest Labor Day event on the East Coast and tends to attract people from 30 states. Vendors and buyers have been reported from such locations as South Korea, Germany and Africa.
Dr. Cecil Hopper didn’t come that far, but he did journey from Sumter, S.C., along with a buddy, and has been doing so for about 10 years.
“It’s a five-hour drive for us,” added Hooper. “Usually, we like to be here on Friday.”
He is a veteran collector who especially was on the hunt for antique toys and Civil War artifacts, but was open to other items. “You can find stuff up here that you can’t find anywhere else,” Hopper agreed.
He also commented on a phenomenon that flea market veterans have long recognized: While Friday is the best day to get the jump on many choice items, it doesn’t usually bring the lowest prices. That generally comes on Monday, when vendors might be wanting to rid themselves of inventory before heading home.
“If there’s something that you really want, you can negotiate for it,” Hopper said.
That idea of buyers and sellers dickering over prices is as old as the U.S. itself, and one almost expects to see the stars of the “American Pickers” television show at any minute during the Hillsville flea market.
After all, the wheeling and dealing that goes on there over the course of one weekend would seem to make it their kind of place. The two travel the back roads of the country looking for “rusty gold,” as the introduction to their program states.
Although Mike Wolfe and Frank Fritz were nowhere to be found Friday, Hopper said they recently had checked out his various collections in Sumter, S.C., for an episode that was shown on The History Channel about two weeks ago.
“They bought a bunch of stuff,” Hopper reported.
While the flea market grounds and nearby streets seemed crowded Friday, there was some indication that those attending this year are a little more reluctant to make purchases due to the economy.
Jesse Kirby, a resident of the Carroll County community of Hebron who was selling knives as well as items such as antique tobacco cutters, termed his sales “medium” compared to previous years.
But the annual event is a show in itself, as first-time attendee Brenda Roberts of Norfolk personified while strolling the grounds with her husband Victor in search of coins and glass items. She seemed in awe at the grand scale of everything on display.
“We’re really enjoying it,” Roberts said as she stood beside 6-foot-tall lighthouses made of wood.
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or email@example.com.