CAMP NELSON — Don Carter's philosophy of life is this: If people helped the needy within their sight, there would be no need "because everybody would be helped."
That logic might seem odd coming from Carter, whose roadside junk stand helps many people he never sees.
For decades, in all kinds of weather, Carter has sold or given away toys, shoes, clothes, pumpkins, gourds and any number of odds and ends by the northbound lanes of U.S. 27, just south of Camp Nelson National Cemetery.
The "better junk" is displayed on top of a 1995 Lincoln Town Car by the road. The "old junk" goes on top of a 1981 Cadillac Coup de Ville behind a fence line a few feet away. If the stuff on the Lincoln doesn't sell, it's relegated to the Caddy.
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The jawbone of a cow, marked with a suggested retail price of $7.50, might soon be headed for the Cadillac. If that doesn't interest customers, Carter's other items include a telescope and tripod, a romance novel, and magnolia leaves that would make a nice garland for the holiday dining room table. His inventory is replenished through donations or stuff that he acquires.
Carter operates on the honor system. Visitors are asked to pay what they think an item's worth, and to put their money in a rusty coffee can that sits atop the Cadillac.
"You more or less set your own price," Carter said. "But it's basically do as you please. If you see anything you like, take it. If you want to leave a tip, you can. If you don't want to leave nothing and you're in need, you just take whatever you need."
Carter, 74, is retired from the Nicholasville post office, and he continues to raise beef cattle, so he doesn't sit by the junk all day. But he has tended the junk long enough to make some observations about the economy.
"Where people used to leave a dollar, they'll leave a quarter or nothing now," he said.
With unemployment still hovering at 10 percent, and people running out of jobless benefits, Carter said it seems that shoes disappear more quickly than they have in the past. "I had a lot of good-quality tennis shoes, and I'm down to almost none," he said.
Carter sees more trucks on U.S. 27 pulling trailers with bulldozers, cranes and other heavy equipment, and other trucks carrying steel. That tells him that construction is picking up. (He might have something there. In a report released Nov. 23, Associated General Contractors of America said construction employment expanded in 29 states between September and October.)
"I think the economy is improving, but it is improving very slowly," he said.
Over the years, people from the Middle East and Russia have visited his junk stand. Carter has visitors sign logbooks; one Palestinian man wrote a long note in Arabic that Carter is having translated.
"You meet so many people, and they all have different ideas," said Phyllis, Carter's wife.
One bitter winter day, Carter took a notion to go to the roadside when it was 6 degrees and there was a foot of snow on the ground. So he donned his "real Army issue" hooded parka and his boots, checked his cattle, and went to the roadside.
"And this lady pulled up on the edge of 27, not too heavily clad, but with long, pretty blonde hair and high heels," Carter recalled. "I thought it was Dolly Parton. I made her some good tracks in the snow so she wouldn't get snow on those high heels.
"So she come down and seems like she bought $6.40, if I can remember correctly. She handed me $6.40 and she said, 'That's not all you're going to get.' And she pulled that hood back and kissed me on the cheek. And then I got her back in the car. So I come back to the can, and there was a $10 bill lying in the can."
For a couple of holidays after that, Carter found a $10 bill in the coffee can, so he suspects the Dolly look-alike made return visits.
Since 1906, Carters have had roadside stands of one sort or another where they sold pumpkins, cushaws, corn, fish and beef. To this day, Carter puts out a few Irish potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, pumpkins and goose-necked gourds at his stand. He puts out a little canned food during the holiday season, too.
Carter, who was born during the Depression, said he had a good childhood, even though his mother died when he was a boy. His own childhood memories of Christmases include those in which he received a Swiss Army knife and a Daisy air rifle.
"All the farmers down here had plenty to eat, even during the Depression," Carter said. They might not have been able to purchase sliced pineapple in a store, but "the river was full of fish. And the forest was full of game. So all you had to do was have a little energy and you could live good."
He and Phyllis have three grown daughters, Donna, Jackie and Robbin. Carter said he plans to continue farming until he's 80, and then he will devote his time to the roadside wares.
"My main thing is, just don't get too excited about life," he said. "Just take it easy. I know the young people, they try to set a goal of getting out of college in four years, and I tell them, 'Don't worry about when you get out; worry about getting out.' When you get my age, you won't know if you went four or six years."