An earlier version of this article appeared in Unravel the Gavel (Laconia, N.H.), Oct. 7-Nov. 17, 2005. The current article appears under "Antiquing Vacations" in Golden Past Antiques. That site also offers "Tips for New Collectors" and "Sophisticated Recycling."
Antiquing with a Pro
Perhaps you go antiquing on weekends, the occasional holiday, or just by chance. Have you ever thought about taking an antiquing vacation? Just wandering around with a friend or two in an area that's rich in antiques and collectibles? Enjoying the shops and the countryside? If you try it, you're likely to find it a delightful adventure.
In 1976 an antiques-dealer friend from New Hampshire, Elaine Miller of Golden Past Antiques, told me she was thinking of a buying trip in West Virginia. While she bought antiques mainly in New Hampshire itself (and still does), she thought it would be nice to have regional variety in her shop. She wondered: Would I like to go along for the ride? And, if so, how about the next fall? It sounded fine to me, and the 1977 trip turned out to be great fun. Starting from Maryland, Elaine and I did some antiquing in West Virginia and then kept driving until we reached East Tennessee. We were charmed by the antiques shops, the rolling green hills, and the friendly people there.
A yearly antiquing trip and vacation of ten to fourteen days has been our custom ever since. It's one that we recommend heartily to others. Perhaps this description of our experience will give you ideas for your own adventures. While the photos here are mainly from Maryland shops we have visited, we have seen great finds in many other states.
We start in early November, after Elaine has closed her shop for the winter, and we always do sightseeing on the side. It ranges from the elegance of Colonial Williamsburg, to the awe of Kentucky's Mammoth Cave, to tiny museums in out-of-the-way places. The Candy Americana Museum in Lititz, Pa., was a good stop. So was the Hopalong Cassidy museum in Cambridge, Ohio.
Both the antiques and the sightseeing enrich our understanding of American history, which we find endlessly fascinating. On one trip we saw Underground Railroad sites in Ripley, Ohio, just across the Ohio River from Kentucky. Ripley was the home of John Parker, an ex-slave who helped many others escape slavery, and of Rev. John Rankin, an abolitionist who harbored fugitive slaves in his home. The modest Rankin home still stands high on Liberty Hill in Ripley and offers grand views of the river and the countryside over in Kentucky. You can imagine Rankin's walking the hill and keeping an eye on his adversaries across the river.
Visiting Charleston, S.C., one year, we took a boat out to Fort Sumter to see where the Civil War began. On another trip, in Appomattox Court House, Va., we saw where it ended. On a visit to Gettysburg, Pa., we saw the great battlefield at dusk. Several reenactors--the women in hoop skirts and the men in Union-blue uniforms--happened to visit at the same time. It was like being there in 1863.
We have visited more historic homes than we can remember, and at times have felt "housed out." But there is plenty of variety out there. We have seen historic ships in Philadelphia and wild ponies on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. We have toured an old state prison in West Virginia and also the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill in Kentucky.
We love factory tours, although they are not easy to find these days. Once, though, we had a fine tour of the Harley-Davidson motorcycle factory in York, Pa. We also enjoyed touring a doll factory in Ohio. The tour of the Homer Laughlin China Co., Newell, W. Va., which makes Fiestaware, is so good that we have taken it twice, on different trips. An extra benefit of factory tours is that they usually are free.
Our early trips were all in the South, and Elaine had trouble at first with Southern accents. ("If I kin h'ep y'all, just holler.") Sometimes she asked me to translate, but language barriers never kept her from buying. She was like a giant vacuum cleaner, scooping up spongeware and butter churns everywhere. Many Southern dealers had no idea how much New Englanders prized these items, so Elaine was buying at bargain prices. In later years, though, we found fewer bargains because antique malls, national price guides, and E-Bay tended to homogenize prices at higher levels. Recessions like the current one, awful as they are, have one silver lining: Because they depress antiques prices, they are a good time to buy, both for dealers and for collectors.
It is hard to find wooden butter churns anymore, except ones that are oversized and lacking in grace, or ones whose lids and dashers do not match their bottoms. On our first trips, by contrast, churns seemed to be everywhere, especially in Tennessee. In Knoxville, we found a magnificent Shaker churn; and in Murfreesboro, we came across a striking Pennsylvania-Dutch one. Elaine bought both, of course, and I suspect she is still sorry that she sold them soon after.
On one trip, she had a commission from a friend in Boston who was opening an antiques shop and wanted a pretty mantelpiece for displays. We found a good one in North Carolina for a very reasonable price. Elaine had it strapped on top of her car, where it jutted out on each side. One slight problem: whoever was driving tended to bang her head against the mantel whenever leaving the car. After sustaining one near-concussion, Elaine muttered that the price to her friend was going up with every thump.
One joy of our trips is that we never have a schedule and usually have only a vague destination. Because we travel off-season, motel rates are fairly low--and even lower when we remember to pick up motel coupon books in restaurants or state welcome centers. We don't need reservations and thus don't feel pressed for time.
If you are thinking of an antiquing vacation in the summer, you're likely to need motel reservations and to pay higher rates. (Be sure to pick up those coupon books!) The good news, though, is that you'll find more shops and tourist sites open. Sometimes we have missed places that are closed in the off-season.
Elaine deals mainly in "smalls" such as kitchen items and craft tools, porcelains and woodenware, toys and advertising. She also looks for Limoges china, Fiestaware, and political memorabilia. She has to keep collecting fads in mind, too. There was a time when school lunch boxes featuring old television shows were quite popular, and often wildly over-priced. Acting on a yard-sale tip in Chattanooga, we contacted a man who reportedly had an outstanding collection of lunch boxes. We arranged to meet him the next day in a restaurant parking lot near our motel. "I feel like we're doing a drug deal," I said to Elaine in the morning as we waited in the nearly-deserted lot. The guy pulled in and opened up his trunk to show a fine collection, including an early Roy Rogers. But his prices were so high that Elaine didn't even make a counter-offer. No hard feelings, though; he showed us a good route out of the city.
While I'm always happy to help my friend spend her money, my own interests lie more in books and Vernon Kilns commemorative plates (Vernonware). Or odds and ends, costing $10 or less, for my kitchen walls: a wooden-framed Hop Ching Checkers Board, for example, and the silhouette of an old railroad engine against a red-cloth background. These are collectibles rather than antiques, since a true antique is at least 100 years old. But they are colorful, cheerful, and much cheaper than a kitchen renovation.
We often visit antique malls, finding that they vary greatly in quality and that some have ridiculously high prices. And in some, collectibles tend to drive out true antiques. (We like to see both.) If we visit too many malls in one day, we have a feeling of super-saturation. For variety and lower prices, we look for yard sales, thrift shops, used-book stores, flea markets, and junk stores.
We also look for old-fashioned antiques shops; but we generally avoid the ones with prices so high that you clasp your hands behind your back for fear of touching anything and speak in whispers as though you were in a cathedral. On one trip, we happened on a large shop with splendiferous furniture and paintings--and prices so high that they were stated in code. "I don't think they're gonna have lunch boxes," I whispered to Elaine. They didn't.
When we are tired of antiquing, there are always interesting places to see. An old gold mine in North Carolina? Right down our alley. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthplace in Atlanta? Delighted! The utopian Ephrata Cloister in Pennsylvania? Just our cup of tea.
We have the occasional adventure that gets our adrenalin flowing. Once we were driving along Virginia's Blue Ridge Parkway in the late afternoon, looking for a road off the mountain so we could find dinner and a motel. As it got darker, we finally found a side road that seemed to go in the right direction. We started down it--and soon found pitch darkness, hairpin curves, and debris in the road. "Whomp!" went the car after hitting a branch we couldn't see in the dark. I was driving, and beginning to wonder if we would reach the bottom in one piece. We finally did, but only to find a washed-out bridge. So we had two choices: 1) camp out there in the car overnight or 2) drive back up the scary road in the dark. I was much relieved when Elaine, accustomed to mountain driving in New England, offered to drive back up. "That's all right, Rusty," she said to her car as she patted it on the dashboard. "You're just a mountain goat, anyway."
Toward the end of every trip, we head for my home with a fully-loaded car. When I lived in Rockville, Md., we used my place there as a base for day trips in the middle and eastern parts of the state. We especially enjoyed the famous Crumpton auction on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, with its Amish restaurant, auctioneers-on-wheels, and huge outdoor sales. Now I live in the old pioneer city of Cumberland, a great base for trips in the mountains of Western Maryland and Western Pennsylvania. Both areas have good auctions (and lots of pioneer history to investigate).
After the final Maryland stop, Elaine goes north to a winter of buying at auction, cleaning, polishing and pricing. In April, when even New Hampshire is thawing out, she turns on the wood stove in her group shop and, with help from the other dealers, puts things in order for the May 1st opening.
If you are thinking of an antiquing vacation between May and October, New Hampshire is a great place to go. It's one of very few states that have no sales tax--a real boon for buyers. New Hampshire dealers sometimes buy out houses where the same families have lived for many generations. You can imagine the treasures they find in those attics.
The Lakes Region, where Elaine has her shop, offers historical sites and museums that provide good background for the antiques. Any lover of Shaker design will want to see the Canterbury Shaker Village near Concord. Then there are the New Hampshire Farm Museum in Milton, the Wright Museum in Wolfeboro (covering World War II history), the Libby Museum in Wolfeboro (natural history and Abenaki Indian items), and the New Hampshire Boat Museum in Wolfeboro Falls.
For those who want to combine antiquing with outdoor sports, the nearby White Mountains offer great hiking options, and there are plenty of golf courses around. On Lake Winnipesaukee, you can go swimming or fishing, boating or water skiing. You can cruise the lovely lake--the largest in New Hampshire--on the Mount Washington or the Winnipesaukee Belle.
Be sure to stop by Golden Past Antiques in Center Tuftonboro and see what Elaine found on our latest trip. Please give her my best and tell her that I still think we should consider an antiquing junket in the West. I know that people don't go to her shop to buy old cowboy stuff, but it would be fun to see some. And even deep-dyed Yankees might enjoy having old cowboy boots, cooking items from a chuckwagon, or wagon wheels.
For more information, please see Golden Past Antiques.