When the alarm rang this morning at 5:00, I struggled to imagine an attraction, that – after only a few hours of restless slumber – was worth even eating breakfast this early. I mean, we just had dinner right?
We shushed each other and a tuckered-out Buddy throughout morning chores, and attempted to exit the RV as quietly as possible so not to prematurely jolt the tired local roosters. We didn’t want set into motion a morning that even the Amish locals would cuss about for decades. “Do you remember that time when the freakin’ rooster woke us up two hours early?”
With no time for our silly “take the back roads” rule, we steered the newly oil-panned Volvo onto the nearest 4-lane highway – first Rt. 31 and then Rt. 20 – to head toward the Shipshewana Amish Auction and Flea Market along the Heritage Trail in the heart of Indiana’s famed Amish country. This was the first official suggestion we had taken from the New York Time’s Bestseller “1,000 Places to See Before You Die – a Traveler’s Life List.”
Once we were forced off the highway and back into two-lane travel, it became clear that our destination was quite the local draw. The shoulder of each lane was framed by inch-deep channels extending as far as the eye could see. Not until we thoughtfully swung to the left to pass a horse-drawn buggy did we realize that these grooves are well-worn hoof paths coming to and from the Shipshewana Flea Market. Later, as we drove the remainder of the heritage trail, nowhere were these shoulder divots so deep and worn.
An hour after we began our early morning trek, we pulled into the parking lot and other than the vendors, we were part of a select crowd to arrive so early. This allowed us to grab a $1 cup of hot ambition and tour those random outdoor flea market traders who had already set up. We browsed a booth dedicated to bulk socks, a children’s t-shirts booth featuring glittery prose like “I wouldn’t be so spoiled if someone would spank grandma” and a whole bunch of magnetic jewelry booths – the snake oil for the 21st century.
But, then we visited the booths of George E. and Sheila Borum.
George is a sign maker and folk artist (known as Murob) and Sheila, runs the Possum County Folk Art Gallery near their home in Osceola, Indiana. We were invited to visit their “Fun Spot” fun museum. I should explain that I’m the sucker for these kinds of “sideshow” attractions, I’ve spent as much as $10 to see carnival ripoffs like the frightening snake lady (an African woman with her head through a mirrored box that gave the illusion that below her neck was an unbreathing – i.e. plastic – snake’s coil), the amazing and documented remains of a mermaid (a mummified monkey with old white troll hair haphazardly glued to the butt-end of a fish) and pretty much any sideshow that features a dwarf out front eating fire. So, I still had to convince Victoria that 4 quarters was a a reasonable entry fee.
Inside, we pleasantly found whimsical folk art mixed in with photographs and interactive displays that made the $1 entry fee an absolute steal. At the entrance was paintings of the world’s tallest man, a carnival sign featuring the world’s fattest woman and newspaper articles about absurd human growth and girth. As you turn the corner, there’s a display of beer bottle and soda cap art (all completed by George) that would command top dollar in Columbus’ galleries and the annual art show. Then came the interactive “looking boxes” into which you peered to determine the answers to questions such as “the state bird of Indiana?” (Larry Bird) and a chance to stair into the eyes of the devil (the devil’s painted face with the eyes replaced with a mirror.)
We spent 15 minutes in the museum and another ten talking with Sheila and George at their newer custom-sign booth across from the museum.
After spending some time with the Borums, we headed inside for the main event, the auction would be starting in only 30 short minutes.
The auction barn itself is pretty standard, a simple open structure with high ceilings and concrete floors. Booths are set up in rows of four, approximately six deep.
The vendor booths are a hodgepodge of fare, from valuable antiques and artwork to classic video games, toys and autographed cardboard cutouts of Billy Ray Cyrus in tight jeans holding a half-munched bag of Fritos – not kidding, I have photographic proof. It seems that the there’s a wide chasm in the experience and quality of the boothmasters themselves. Some meticulously label and describe their offerings – “Classic reverse-side painted glass portraits dating to the turn of the century” – while others were lucky to have gotten anything out of their boxes. However as we would see later, their organization and pre-planning had less to do with their success than good old-fashioned presentation and packaging expertise during the auction, as well as the skill of the auctioneer.
We assumed that the auction would be held in the center of the facility, with only the best stuff making its way up on stage. We could not have been more wrong, and that we realized, is exactly what makes this one of the 1,000 things to see before you die.
Each participating booth had its own auctioneer, that’s right, at least eight auctioneers warbling out their auction calls all at once. You probably don’t realize this, but rarely do two auctioneers have the same cadence or rhythm. So, the musical and the traditional mix with the common crowd noises to create a cacophony. It’s the strangest audible experience, it’s strikingly harmonious.
Watching the bidding, we regretted not registering for our bid card. It would’ve only taken a few moments, but we never expected we would catch the fever. Though, I’m glad the bid card was still at the auction office as I could imagine being lead astray by gamble and pride to have me overbidding and walking out with a $250 souvenir- I don’t think my achy breaky heart could’ve taken it.
If you ever find yourself in Northern Indiana on a Wednesday morning, make sure you get a hearty breakfast at a local Amish restaurant and head over to the Shipshewana Flea Market. You definitely won’t regret it – unless Billy Ray ends up in your back seat.
“Two hund’rd, two hund’rd, do I hear two-twenty fi, two twenty fi, going once, going twice, Billy Ray Cyrus cutout sold to the sweaty gentleman in the front row with the angry wife.”