Standing along Lincoln Highway east of Van Wert, Ohio, Jean Mozingo hugs an armful of scratched and damaged dolls. Matted hair partly covers one dolls head; one is missing arms; another's rubber body disintegrates at the touch.
"I got eight for 80 cents," says a beaming Mozingo, 70. "No one wanted them because they're in such bad shape. But I'll fix them up, and they'll bring $50 or $100 apiece on eBay."
Mozingo and her husband, Mel, a license plate collector, discovered her treasures in Van Wert (pop. 10,690), located at the intersection of two multi-state yard sales: the Lincoln Highway Buy-Way Yard Sale, along U.S. Highway 30 from Illinois to West Virginia, and the Highway 127 Corridor Sale, which stretches from Ohio to Alabama.
The Benson, N.C., couple are among collectors, antique dealers and bargain hunters who drive mile after mile along the sales routes looking for gems among other people's junk. Along the highways and buy-ways, they browse crocheted hand towels and slightly stained Tupperware, grandfather clocks and grandmothers' jewelry, carpenters' tools and riding lawn mowers, Victorian lamps and used VCRs, and tables piled with second-hand toys, shoes and clothing.
"I just look for things that call to me," says Lisa Beattie, of Carlyle, Pa., en route to the Highway 127 Corridor Sale to celebrate her 50th birthday with her husband, Doug.
Frank Kernen traveled to Van Wert from his home in Weirton, W.Va., looking for fishing and hunting equipment. Instead, he bought a Lionel train set. "Garage sales are a scream," he says. "You never know what you're going to find."
Yard sales, garage sales and flea markets are an American phenomenon rooted in the economic downturn of the 1930s. "Having survived the Great Depression, people hoarded things," says Bruce Littlefield, author of Garage Sale America. "By the '40s and '50s, they realized they had too much stuff and had to let some go."
Littlefield estimates that $3 billion exchanges hands each year from the sale of unwanted household items. "Every 15 seconds a garage saler puts up a sign," he says. "People make about 500 million stops at garage sales in a year."
Littlefield's been hooked ever since his grandmother began taking him to garage sales at age 10. He furnished his New England home with castoffs purchased at the granddaddy of multi-state yard sales: the Highway 127 Corridor Sale.
The original multistate sale
Established in 1987, the Highway 127 Corridor Sale was the brainchild of Mike Walker, an official in Fentress County, Tenn., who hoped to lure tourists off the interstates and on to America's scenic back roads. Today, the sale, headquartered in Jamestown, Tenn. (pop. 1,839), extends 654 miles from Gadsden, Ala., to West Unity, Ohio.
Similar sales soon followed, and today dozens of multi-state yard sales crisscross the country each year between April and October. Once a sale date is set, anyone along the route can participate. Homeowners set up tables loaded with unwanted items on lawns, and landowners lease space to antique dealers and merchandise vendors who pitch tents in large fields and parking lots.
"You can still find that little couple who discovered something in the garage and drug it out in the yard," says Todd Burnett, 41, of Banner Springs, Tenn. "And you'll find truly professional antique dealers." A Florida couple made $35,000 selling furniture this year.
Burnett has participated in the Highway 127 Corridor Sale since 1990 and built a 4,000-square-foot building a decade later to display his antique furniture and glassware, used tools and electrical equipment during the four-day event. "I make a little money," he says. "I make a lot of friends and have a good time."
Multi-state yard sales draw hundreds of thousands of shoppers—who arrive in cars, vans and U-haul trucks—looking for items to decorate their homes, expand a collection or sell elsewhere at a profit.
Joe and Barbara Kovelesky, of Middleton, N.J., discovered the Highway 127 Corridor Sale through a television special in 2005. "We planned our honeymoon around the yard sale, recalls Barbara," 50. "It was something we both could enjoy."
The part-time antique dealers head to Kentucky each year in search of Derby glasses, Louisville baseball memorabilia, vintage jewelry and Shaker furniture. "If you research online beforehand, you get a sense of where everything will be," says Joe, 66.
The Koveleskys mix bargain hunting with vacationing. They shop early, then sight-see or attend area theaters. "The locals are just wonderful," Barbara says.
Bigger and better
Many multi-state yard sales are organized by civic organizations to encourage tourism. Others, such as the Great U.S. 50 Yard Sale, originate with a personal mission. "I wanted to repeat something from my youth—get individuals to do something together instead of relying on organizations or committees," says Tom Taylor, of North Vernon, Ind., who launched the coast-to-coast sale along U.S. Highway 50 in 2000.
Patricia McDaniel, of Dublin, Ind., started the Historic National Road Yard Sale along U.S. Highway 40 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the first completely government-funded road. The Lincoln Highway Buy-Way Yard Sale was started in 2005 to publicize the first paved transcontinental road.
"It worked," says Mike Hocker, executive director of the Ohio Lincoln Highway Historic Byway, noting that yard sale traffic last year increased by more than 200 percent.
Nancy and Ron Ripley have sold discarded items from their driveway near Van Wert each year since the inaugural Lincoln Highway Buy-Way Yard Sale. "Each year it gets bigger and better," says Nancy, 56. "For a while, it cost more than we made, but we were having so much fun we had to keep doing it. You meet so many good people."
With 25 tables and a small barn to display their castoffs, the Ripleys last year tallied $1,600 in sales from 1,715 shoppers. "All those quarters and dimes add up," she says.
During an economic downturn, yard sale proceeds often become spending money. "People immediately go out, eat and buy things in stores," says Taylor, founder of the Great U.S. 50 Yard Sale. "The money's recycled in the local economy."
Van Wert resident Vicki Bidlack, 53, bought a new 37-inch widescreen TV and a riding mower by selling her Christmas decorations, scrapbook materials and mismatched dishes. "It's a great way to get rid of stuff," she says. "I'd much rather have people haul it away than throw it in a landfill."