Tom Eblen

I found more than I expected at the World’s Longest Yard Sale

Abandoned dolls await a buyer at the U.S. 127 Yard Sale in Mercer County.
Abandoned dolls await a buyer at the U.S. 127 Yard Sale in Mercer County.

My wife and I try to find a few hours the first week of each August to drive between Lawrenceburg and Harrodsburg and catch a small section of the World’s Longest Yard Sale.

It’s not that we need more junk. We have too much already, which is why we have our own yard sales every few years.

But this four-day flea market, which will stretch along U.S. 127 between Gadsden, Ala., and Addison, Mich., through Sunday, is more than a place to buy low-end antiques and a mind-boggling assortment of stuff. It is an museum of American material culture where everything can be yours for a price.

The booths of more than 2,200 vendors show a lot about who Americans are, who our ancestors were and what tools, trinkets and treasures our society has used and valued since the late 1800s.

I have bought a few things there over the years, such as the antique lamp on my desk. But I mostly go to look at stuff I have no interest in owning.

There is little of the fine furniture, silver and glassware you find in antique shops. Think instead: cast-iron skillets, old hand tools, your grandma’s everyday dishes and glassware that may have come from the grocery with jelly inside.

Some vendors pedal their handmade woodcrafts, leather belts, painted gourds and creative lawn sculptures welded together from scrap metal. Looking for a six-foot steel rooster for your front yard? You’ve come to the right place.

Remnants of America’s mechanical age are everywhere, from wooden pulleys to cast-iron wrenches. There is even the occasional hand-wringer washing machine or grill from a 1930s Model A Ford. Think of anything your parents or grandparents owned and there’s probably one like it here. Somewhere.

If you want to know what people read, watched or listened to for entertainment during every decade for the past century, you can find it. Pulp novels; comic books; windup photographs; Atari games; eight-track, cassette and VHS tapes and their possibly functioning players.

Nostalgic memories pop in my head when I see toys that were part of my childhood. Increasingly, I also see toys my daughters played with, way back in the 1980s. From Shirley Temple and Barbie dolls to G.I. Joes and Power Rangers, they’ve all come here to retire.

The worn stuffed animals and half-dressed dolls always strike me as sad, because they were obviously once loved by a child. I have less sympathy for the Beanie Babies, who were bought because some fool thought they would hold their value.

Even sadder are the old, unidentified photographs. There are happy families on vacation or posing with their new car. People are dressed up for graduations and weddings. They are all somebody’s forgotten ancestors, whose hard-earned diplomas can be yours for just a few bucks.

Remember the old roadside signs offering Texaco or Sinclair gasoline for 41 cents a gallon? They are here now, propped up against a fence for the weekend. Vintage commercial signs have become valuable collectibles, so some vendors do a brisk business in reproductions and naughty parodies.

It seems that virtually everything we buy in stores now is made in China. There’s a lot of cheap Chinese junk here, too. But at least the old campaign buttons are American-made, often with a union label: America’s Hope: Wendell Willkie; LBJ for the USA; For the People: Wendell Ford.

I saw stacks of old tobacco sticks and flat baskets upon which hand-tied bundles of burley were brought to market before a Kentucky way of life suddenly disappeared.

Whether or not I score a few treasures, I always leave the World’s Longest Yard Sale with a new appreciation of how possessions have always shaped Americans. They are the things we covet, save for, enjoy and then discard. We are a nation of stuff, one step ahead of the flea market and two steps ahead of the landfill.

Tom Eblen: 859-231-1415, @tomeblen