Miss Kitty and I first heard whispers about it a couple of years ago at the Antique Festival in Midland, Michigan. “Are you going down to Portland this year?” “Yeah, ya gotta go to Portland. Indiana’s kind of on-the-way. Then, depending on the weather, I might head back to Florida…” Flea market shoppers (I won’t call them ‘Junkers’…I prefer ‘Treasure Hunters’) will sometimes be secretive about the places they find great bargains, akin to the fisherman with a favored fishing hole.
I struck up a conversation with a vendor later in the day. I loved his stuff and couldn’t afford any of it. But he was one of those people who is in the re-sale business partially because they love talking to a friendly face. I timidly asked, “I’ve heard a rumor that there’s a FANTASTIC flea market down in Portland, Indiana.”
He responded, “That’s not a rumor.” He explained that it was smack-dab in the middle of a Tractor and Gas Engine Festival (no word on whether there was a falling-out with ‘those diesel engine bastards!!’), a show held a couple of times during the summer, “but you have to go to the August show. THAT’s the big one.”
It took us a while to get around to it, but this year the stars aligned and we overpaid for an eighty-dollar motel room to be twenty miles away. I reserved late, my own fault, but there doesn’t seem to be TONS of lodging in the area. It might pay to book early. There is a good-sized motel right next door to the fairgrounds that sits derelict.
I will take most of the blame for missed opportunities, but, that said, there is little work done to draw a crowd to this show. Signage was negligible. It was almost as if someone said, “If I have to explain it, you don’t need to know.” The information we got from the motel was about a street full of vendors “just past the Arby’s on 27.” Again, no literature. The desk clerk told us all she knew, stating that she hadn’t lived in Portland for twenty years, but “If you live in Portland, you didn’t want to be there THIS weekend.”
It was a wide open, open-air grouping of garage sales mixed in with the pros I recognize from Ann Arbor and Wyandotte Art Fairs, as well as the firmly-priced ‘marts’ of cheaply made, new imported goods. Oh, and a lot of Trump stuff. One booth was nothing but. The hats were ubiquitous on the heads of shoppers, but hundreds more awaited purchase on tables all the way down the street. It is an extremely conservative area.
We picked up a few bargains, a Packers jersey sporting Rodgers at $10 being the highlight. Overall, it was disappointing. The trend in selling to the end user continues unabated, though the folks selling out of the garage are not cleaning and repairing their goods before insisting on a full price they read about in a collectibles guide. I had a women tell me she was asking twenty-five dollars for her dirt encrusted 354 Tonka because “no one’s ever played with it.” There was nowhere near the 150-200 vendors that I had heard about, and I had no clue why ANYONE would think this sale was elite level.
It bugged Miss Kitty as well. The difference between us is that she is able (and willing) to whip out her iPhone and puzzle it out. There WAS indeed a flea market in the midst of the tractor show, in addition to the ad hoc sales that took place up against the back gate of the fairgrounds. You know, “…over by the Arby’s.”
Going in on the Saturday of the show, we were able to cruise into the free parking about ninety minutes after the gates opened. Kath and I have never been gate crashers at the flea market. Everybody’s looking for different things and, as I stated earlier, I’m a treasure hunter. You don’t look for a thing. You just look. You aren’t after anything in particular. I am continually shopping for both myself and my small re-sale business. I don’t buy things based solely on logic. I will only buy something when my Spidey-Sense is tingling. If you approach me when I have picked up one of your wares, I will certainly engage you about the item. Whether I buy it or not, I will thank you for your time. I don’t know how the introverted vendors do it, but I see them all the time, sitting in the doorway of their mobile home or on the tailgate of their truck, looking like they can’t wait for sundown.
The good news, fellow flea market shoppers, is that there is a terrific flea market in the middle of a Tractor Show. There were bargains to be had and we took a few of them home. It appears that the craze over early 20th century school desks is over, as the prices for finished product is less than twenty dollars. I don’t know how long it will take to sell all of these synthetic sunflowers…but I fear I won’t live to see their demise. Sets of China flood the market. All those times we told Grandma to use the good stuff and she blew us off and served dinner on the Melmac? Yeah, WE were right, Granny was wrong. If you are in an estate situation or cleaning out an old house, do your due diligence (of course!) in terms of research, but put no value on the China sets. I would be willing to bet that most of the China cabinets that are re-sold these days are now displaying action figures rather than cups and saucers. The restrooms were clean and not too widely spaced (even for people in their fifties!). The concessions were excellent (for a flea market) with more than just hot dogs and popcorn. Local fraternal organizations run the booths and proceeds benefit the community. Kath and I both thought the food was good.
The bad news is the community around you may chafe at your arrival. In the Portland area, there are 8,000 Amish and 4,000 English. I had no quarrel with the Amish folks, trying to give them as wide a berth as possible when passing on the road, so as not to spook the horses. I saw more than one skittery nag that must dread this time of year as it was forced to pull a buggy partially on a soft, grassy shoulder because of a shithead in a muscle car. The folks from town were another matter. It seems likely they can spot a local at fifty feet and they respond with…eh. Not mean or confrontational, no one glared at us. I wasn’t worried about someone keying my truck or pushing us around. There was just a general closing of ranks, where they let you know your place. One of the restaurants we went to on Friday night decided to close an hour early and simply COULDN’T accommodate us. A young lady raced to the door to tell us this. When we landed at a truck stop, open 24 hours a day, suddenly that hot grill slowed way down. In a half-full dining room, we waited forty-five minutes for a cheeseburger and the special of the day. We still tipped twenty percent and wished everyone we saw a good evening. I will caution further that the presence of pickaninny sculpture and signage is replete. No doubt, African-American treasure hunters are as used to this as one can be used to a direct insult, but the general lack of dark-skinned people was notable. Kitty and I saw five African-Americans in four-plus hours. Two were vendors.
It is possible to do the whole flea market area in a day if you are in good physical shape. Kath and I, knowing what we like and what we don’t, cruised through in about 4-1/2 hours. As always, get a motel that serves breakfast and eat your fill. Take snacks like granola bars and push lunch off as long as you can, so you can make decisions about dinner depending on how soon you think you can get out of the parking lot.
Miss Kitty and I remain aware that we are visitors in the communities we visit. We are middle-aged hippies in a world that is uncertain about a lot of things. We tried to respond to the indifference we met with a guarded kindness. Portland, Indiana? I want to love you…but as every singer/songwriter in the 70’s lamented, you just won’t let me into your heart.