Don Jenkins and his wife Marie had several tables of merchandise for sale at the US 127 yard sale, but on Friday afternoon he was taking one item out of circulation. Don, a retired automotive worker from Portland, Tenn., had picked up the serving fork at an estate sale in a $5 boxed lot. With its deer-stag handle and silver band, he thought it might bring $20. But when a shopper pointed out some engraving May 20, 1887 Jenkins, perhaps with visions of Antiques Road Show glory, decided to conduct a bit of research before turning it loose. "It's paid for," he says, "and it ain't gonna eat nothin'."
Jenkins frequents estate sales and has a part-time junk store at home, and the couple that their friends call Donnie and Marie set up at car and motorcycle shows and three multi-state yard sales a year, driving up to 300 miles each way and accompanied by their King Charles Cavalier Spaniel, Jenks. Don deals primarily in old tools and knives. "I was born with rust in my blood veins," he says. "I like rusty stuff." Marie peddles glassware, particularly from pre-occupation Japan, which she said is sought-after and affordable. Don said the activity is good for his wife, who has multiple sclerosis.
It's their third year selling in the Route 127 sale an annual event, billed as the World's Longest Yardsale, that stretches 675 miles from Alabama to Michigan. A friend told him about this location, a 12acre farm that abuts the highway a few miles outside Harrodsburg, Kentucky's oldest town. Louise Smock, who owns the farm, told TIME she and her husband William joined the sale about 12 years ago after she bought a friend's selfstorage stash to get at a grandfather clock and then had to get rid of the rest of it. At the suggestion of vendors, she finally began charging for space three years ago, and this year she rented 80 booths at various rates typically $100 for the duration of the sale.
Jenkins said he researches employment figures before choosing where to set up: lower rates of joblessness make for better sales. Mercer County, where the Smocks live, had 11.3-percent unemployment in June, according to preliminary figures released by the state, while Anderson County, the next county north, nearer Interstate 64 and the state capital of Frankfort, was at 9.9 percent. South of Mercer, Boyle County and Russell County are at 12.1 percent and 10.4 percent, respectively.
Jenkins said the sale seemed slower this year, with more tightfisted buyers and more haggling. He'd typically make $3,000 in a similar weekend, but was projecting about half that total. "I talked to a friend in Crossville, Tenn., and he was having a much better sale than I am."
For Louise Smock, who worked 32 years at a Corning Glass factory, the event is more about camaraderie than cash. She exchanges Christmas cards with vendors and has repeat customers, including a woman who travels from Australia and ships her bounty, and three women from New Jersey who once drove home with four cast-iron chairs and a table tied to the roof of their car. "My husband told them to get up there with the chairs and they'd look like 'The Kentucky Hillbillies,'" Louise said. "They did, and we still have the picture."
She doesn't sell; she's too busy playing field general, taking a golf cart to help a Pennsylvania man haul 48 quarts of old Quaker State oil to his car or cautioning drivers pulling into her farm against parking on the shoulder. That used to be a major problem, she said, but flashing road signs warning of large fines and towing seemed to have kept it to a minimum this year, she said Friday. By Saturday, however, the crowd seemed to have doubled, and the traffic "was gonna have the highway patrol hopping," she said. "It looks like a tornado came through."
Jenkins agreed that traffic was up significantly on Saturday, but reiterated that there "more lookers than buyers."
Sightseeing was part of the appeal for Kelly Miller, Christina Dean and Michelle Grewlich, all 33 and from Lancaster, Ohio. They paid $179 each to charter a ""Fun Bus" out of Junction City, Ohio, a package that included two nights at a Holiday Inn and three meals. They'd met the bus at 4 a.m. that morning and were exhausted but having fun. "We thought it'd be a good girls trip," Miller, a social worker, told Time. They were keeping an eye out for antiques but so far hadn't bought much. They were also curious how much the 36-person bus could store, and impressed by the driver, Chuck Parmiter. "He drives this thing like a car," Dean said.
A couple miles south of the Smocks' farm, Ann-Margret and Kevin Perkins of Harrodsburg had set up with two other families in the lot of a vacant auto dealership, which her husband's company recently bought. Among their items for sale: two Mercedes Benz convertibles a red 1967 SL-250 for $17,500 and a light-grey 1986 560 SL with 30,000 original miles for $21,500. They belong to her father, a collector, and so far they'd drawn serious interest but no one ready to buy.
Ann-Margret, an interior designer, told Time she was also looking to move a doll house she bought on eBay for $500 but then replaced with with one she liked much more. She had $375 on it, firm. She was also looking to move family items. "We've been blessed with awesome grandparents who left us a lot of neat stuff," she said. "We're kind of getting past the stuff and holding on to the memories." But she admitted that an old wooden chair her grandfather had repaired, with legs cut off as if for a child, had a high price for a reason. "I don't know if I want to give it up yet," she said, "but if I do, it's for 30 bucks."
After spending 10 hours along the route on Friday, one veteran 127 shopper observed that the sale seemed stunted this year, with fewer booths, fewer sellers and higher prices. "I would guess about 40% less booths," Stephen Pacciano of New Albany, Ind., a self-employed carpenter specializing in historic renovations and antiques, told Time. "In the genre of items I look for, they were way over-priced. Grandma's 1940s lamps were $7 last year, as many as you wanted. This year, I saw five pair as interesting, but they were $50 to $60 each."
But he said the scenic drive, with "log cabins, horse farms, ponds with cattails, tobacco and folks selling produce," is "rewarding even if you have other things to do." He's already looking forward to next year, because the area's barns, sheds and basements are rich with the items he likes. "These are frugal times for everyone, including yard-salers," he said. "Maybe next year I'll let go of a little bit more money and quit pinching that penny until it only has one side."