Before there was Potato Head, there was Mr. Potato Head, Mr. Cucumber Head and Mr. Carrot Head.
I know this because all three of them are sitting on my desk, along with Mr. Green Pepper Head and a Parker Pen store display.
The appearance of plastic vegetables with interchangeable parts is an unmistakable sign: Someone has been to the Elkhorn Flea Market. Held four times a year at the Walworth County Fairgrounds, the event has been around for almost four decades. Vendors and buyers come from all over to shop and sell, with the majority of them coming from Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota.
Locals who know about the event might be inclined to keep it under their hat—or, in Mr. Cucumber’s case, his bowler. One woman, who declined to be named, acted as though it was a state secret. She doesn’t tell her family members about it because she wants to “get at the good stuff first.” With more than 500 booths, it’s difficult to imagine how a couple more sisters could make a dent in the shopping experience.
Nona Knapp helped start the flea market in 1982. She and her then-husband enjoyed hunting around for antiques. As a teacher, she had summers off and started small.
It took about 12 years to take off, but when it did, it became the go-to place for dealers and customers.
“Back then, I was competing with a bunch of other flea markets,” Knapp said. “Now they have to compete with me.”
Knapp said raising the bar helped the business thrive.
“We control the type of stuff that comes in,” Knapp said. “It can only be old; it can only be antiques.”
So no dealers with sunglasses, T-shirts, belt buckles or any other newish goods. A handful of vegetable vendors are the exception to the rule.
Knapp’s manager asks vendors what they plan to bring, and crafters are turned away.
Knapp and her husband Skip Knapp make the rounds to all the booths. They don’t mind one or two modern items, but the rest of the booth should be vintage and antique.
And if they’re not?
“Then maybe they won’t get a space next time,” Knapp said.
Another surprising element of their success? Tables.
A number of years ago, Skip Knapp and his son made a number of wooden tables. Designed with the best hardware to withstand tipping and other flea market hazards, the tables allowed dealers to put more stuff in their trailers.
While a few dealers specialized in items such as tools, postcards or vintage jewelry, the majority of booths were a mix of whatever could fit into those trailers.
A quick run through of the grounds took more than an hour. Items for sale included 10-gallon lard buckets, fine bone china tea cups with matching saucers, cottage cheese containers, window screens, church pews, pulpits, headboards, tools, a sign advising that parking was for “McDonalds customers only,” phonographs, record players, costume jewelry, antique furniture, 25-cent buckles, records, old toys, ancient toys, dial phones, toy sewing machines and mid-century modern everything.
Antique and vintage shopping trends wax and wane, Knapp said.
Now, “anything advertising” such as signs and display cases are a big deal.
A couple years ago it was furniture, she said.
Skip Knapp said he saw a hall tree with a bench at its base that would have been worth $2,400 a couple of years ago. On Sunday, it was selling for $395.
As for Mr. Cucumber Head and his pals, let’s just say that their monetary price was reasonable. I mean, when else are you going to get so many hats, hands and noses hands for $15?