By Barry Adams, the Wisconsin State Journal
Dozens upon dozens of new socks filled old banana boxes just beyond the fence of a softball field. Under the roof of a pavilion, Amish jams and jellies crowded a table while across the aisle baseball caps topped with fuzzy fake hair and an assortment of hardware and tools including drill bits, small clamps and sockets awaited buyers. Elsewhere there was fishing tackle, jewelry, sun dresses, beer glasses, vintage license plates, antiques, lawn decorations and thousands of buttons.
Before the Internet, a flea market was a place to find a little bit of everything. But trolling the World Wide Web doesn’t compare to walking through the Saint Germain Flea Market. The market, which runs each Monday from Memorial Day through Labor Day, is one of the biggest single-day markets in the state and helps to fund several local civic organizations. It’s also part of a circuit that features flea markets every day of the week in this part of the North Woods.
On Tuesdays, the action moves to Boulder Junction. On Wednesdays, it’s Rhinelander and Three Lakes. There are markets in Land O’ Lakes, Manitowish Waters and Rhinelander on Thursdays, Minocqua on Fridays and Saturdays, and Lake Tomahawk next to J.J.’s Sports on Saturdays and Sundays. The routine starts over on Mondays at St. Germain Community Park, where you can play tennis, softball and baseball, have a picnic and scrounge for wants, needs and the unusual. The market is overwhelming and brimming with people selling, buying and just looking.
On Memorial Day, 530 spaces were rented at $20 a pop, but other Mondays can easily top 450 spaces. The money goes to the Saint Germain Fire and Rescue Department. The volunteer organization last year netted $80,000 from the rental fees but is not the only beneficiary. The Saint Germain Lioness Club has been selling slices of homemade pie, bars and pieces of cake for more than 25 years. Over the years, the club has added sloppy joes, brats, hot dogs and pretzels. In 2012 the group raised $23,000 that went to more than 30 nonprofits, including scouting groups, the Vilas County Food Pantry, a homeless shelter in Rhinelander and a local mitten tree at Christmas. It also helped fund a first grade field trip and the Plum Lake Library. “I think the community would be hurting heavily without it,” Sue Kessro, president of the Lioness Club, said of the flea market. “I don’t think most people realize how much of it goes back to the community.”
The flea market was founded in 1975 by the Women’s Service Club. The first market featured six vendors who set up shop between Camp’s Supervalu and what is now Knocker’s Pizza Co. After bouncing around to different locations, the women gave control of the market to the fire department in 1984. The firefighters moved the market to the park and in its first year there it earned a $2,000 profit, which included food sales.
In 2003, the fire department formed an association to handle fundraising activities, including the market. Over the years, proceeds from the market have been used to purchase major pieces of firefighting equipment, including a ladder truck, rescue squad, heavy rescue unit, defibrillator units and a 50-foot Pierce Telesquirt fire truck. All from what is essentially a massive, well-organized rummage sale.
“There’s nothing better than this place,” said Steve Bolles, 58, a hardware vendor clutching a stack of cash in his right hand. “The Monday market is such a good market. You have vacationers.” Bolles is a full-time flea market vendor and does 38 major markets a year that can last anywhere from two to six days, but he always makes room for Saint Germain on his schedule. The Minnesota native met his wife, Mary Jo, here while she was helping park cars and he was selling near her work station. They married in 1998 and now live less than a mile away. “There’s just something about the area,” said Mary Jo, who grew up in the Milwaukee area. “Saint Germain just gets in your heart.”
Rummaging and scouring flea markets has taken a hit in recent years from the likes of Craigslist, eBay and other Internet-based selling sites. But when you shop in person at a flea market, you know who you’re buying from and you get your item right away. It also forces both buyer and seller to interact face to face, something that’s becoming a lost art in the digital age. When I strolled the grounds of the Saint Germain Flea Market earlier this month, people were as much a part of the experience as the products they were buying or selling.
There are characters like Mike “Woody” Salli, a wood carver from Wakefield, Mich., who is quick to throw his signature “two thumbs up” at you. “You just take your time walking around,” said Salli, who has been featured on American Pickers. “It’s in a good location. You’re between a lot of towns and it’s beautiful here.”
Pat DeYoung also made the trip from the U.P. The 72-year-old drove 63 miles from her home in Ewen to sell vintage fabric and buttons of varying sizes and colors. Some were made from clam shells, others brass and plastic. “There’s a lot of things I like about (the market),” DeYoung said. “The one thing I like about it is that I make money here.”
I also ran into legendary fishing guide and author Leon “Buckshot” Anderson, a Saint Germain resident since 1939. He was selling his books on hunting and fishing and had a few rods and lures for sale. The flea market is part business but primarily social for Anderson, who was inducted into the Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame in Hayward in 2001 and has been selling at the market since 2005. “I get to see some of my neighbors,” Anderson said. “I don’t get to see them if I don’t come here.”
Richard Villarreal was born in Chicago, raised in Mexico, lives in Woodrich, Ill., and sells Amish food products. He worked at Rockwelll International and for the village of Hinsdale, Ill., before retiring and now has a camper trailer on a lot near Conover, six miles north of Eagle River. Villarreal, 80, and his wife of 53 years, Maria, 83, have been selling at the market for 15 years. “There’s a lot of people and a lot of variety, more than anywhere else,” Richard said. “It keeps us going.”
This article originally appeared in the Wisconsin State Journal and has been republished with permission by Barry Adams.