Every month, this town explodes in size when it hosts the world’s largest flea market.
For 317 days a year, the tiny East Texas town of Canton (pop. 5,147) is a sleepy country crossroads, anchored by a stately limestone courthouse and historic square. The streets are lined with mom-and-pop stores, homey B&Bs and cafés that still close on Sundays. But 4 days a month, Canton is invaded: Traffic jams threaten the single four-way stop, and the population swells to more than 400,000. All of these rummage-sale pilgrims come for a crack at the best bargains the 150-year-old flea market has to offer.
First Monday Trade Days Flea Market, once a modest row of merchants set up outside the courthouse on the first Monday of every month, is now the world’s largest flea market (in continuous operation). Despite its name, the fair moved to weekends to attract more visitors, and today has more than 5,000 stalls on 500 acres of ranchland.
Trying to catalog the wares is impossible. As one vendor put it, “if you can’t find it in Canton, it ain’t been made yet.” Here’s a loose guide to some of our favorite old-time, out-of-the-ordinary and just plain interesting stalls, stands and vendors.
Travelers eager for a taste of cowboy culture should start their day at B Saddlery, where John “the Saddleman” exhibits his hand-tooled chaps, canteens and custom saddles, “guaranteed to fit your horse & you” (as his business card notes). Over the past 22 years, he has built some 1,000 Western saddles for ranchers, rodeo champs and Texas celebrities like George Strait. Hunting enthusiasts flock to Harry White, “the Cowboy,” a 6-foot-4-inch man sporting a handsome mustache, beard and cowboy hat. He has more than 1,000 hunting rifles and antique knives, mostly locked in glass cases.
Two jewelry vendors stand out for their well-curated collections. Saikou of SK USA Import Export Inc. sells beads from all over, including rustic necklaces made from colorful sea glass carefully selected in Nigeria. For estate jewelry, visit Donna Bookout of Bookout Antiques, who’s only missed two trade days in 40 years. Ask to see her 1810 Georgian ring with an oval ruby, or a swath of mine-cut diamonds set in white gold.
Joyce Nicoletti of Ole Yeller Barn Antiques carries a vast selection of “hard times glass” from the Depression era. Shabby chic decor continues at the Gypsy Pearl, where Fort Worth native Pam Burnett has French country furnishings and rare pieces of antique lace.
If metal works are more your speed, David Lowry at String Bean’s Blacksmith Shop sells striking iron candleholders, pot racks, headboards and tables, forging some on site. Next door, Phil and Tina Rice make furnishings out of discarded metals, such as barstools built from tractor parts. For antler chandeliers and cowhide rugs, visit Wild Bill, who also sells wooden swans he makes out of driftwood from Louisiana’s Ouachita River.
HEAD INTO TOWN
The Atrium, or food hall, on the market grounds sells delicious roasted corn, sausage dogs, turkey legs and funnel cakes. But a walk into Canton proper makes for a pleasant escape from the crowds. The first place to open every day is Donut Corner, where the counter is laden with donuts fresh from the oven. For cappuccinos, head over to Come Together Trading Co. on the main square. It also sells toys, clothes and souvenirs through Ten Thousand Villages, a Fair Trade retailer. If you can excuse the frilly interiors, the Tea Room on the Square is worth a visit for sweet almond tea and a slice of chess pie—a traditional Deep South dessert.
Happy hour fans were thrilled when the Texas Roads Winery opened last summer, pouring only Lone Star State wine. The Winery’s own Sweet Freedom is a refreshing white for a hot afternoon. Two doors down is the Soda Jerk, a 1950s-style jukebox diner serving thick chocolate malts made with Texas Blue Bell ice cream. For 40 years, Ochoa’s has been known for its salsa, grilled skirt steak and tamales. And the best barbecue is only a short drive from town: Backwoods Bar-B-Que, for smoky brisket and spicy pork sausage.