Traversing Small Town Iowa And The What Cheer Flea Market

What Cheer, Iowa is stuck in a constant population decline. In the late 1800s, What Cheer was a booming coal town with a population of over 3,200 people. By 2010, that number fell below 650. But three weekends a year, every year, that population turns back the clock, swelling back up toward its 19th century peak. Why? What Cheer’s Collectors’ Paradise Flea Market, one of the largest flea markets in the Midwest and a triannual celebration of used crap.

Now in its 39th year, What Cheer’s flea market is a sprawling web of second hand merchant shops packed into the local fairgrounds. The market truly is massive. Pop-up stands, tents, RVs, and tables encircle the ground’s dirt track, winding back through the middle of the field, spilling over into the half dozen or so show barns scattered across the grandstand area. At only $45 per dealer space, the market is an affordable place to set up shop, resulting in a juxtaposing mix of local amateurs and seasoned traveling professionals, hawking everything from furniture to action figures. Anything you can dream of you can find, in varying quality, for a negotiable price.

whatcheerfleamarket
The What Cheer fairgrounds.

The worst time to go, and the time I’ve gone most often, is the market in early August. At the summit of summer, the Midwestern heat sits on your neck like a despondent child, beating your back with fists caught in the throes of inexhaustible tantrum. The air is thick, palpable with humidity, deep breaths taken with caution less you might drown in nature’s invisible smog.

But it’s also the time that inspires a little Iowan magic, precipitating the allure of small town wanderlust. By August, the market is walled in by a fortress of towering corn, fields stretching out into infinite crop points on the horizon. With the corn high, the market feels sunken in, swallowed low like a hidden valley, an oasis of commerce tucked away in the hillsides of food fields. It’s tempting to allude to the Field of Dreams as the market is a thrift bazar on dirt paths, built and rebuilt every season specifically so they’ll come. They. The masses. The masses that shop. The masses willing to spend. The masses that built this rickety empire on the backs of fluttering George Washingtons and Abe Lincolns.

And yes, the comparison to Dysersville as corny as a lazy crop pun, but it’s also fair. There’s an enduring earnestness to small towns in Iowa, encapsulated bubbles with diluted flows of time, a specific nostalgia that runs through the blood. It’s that feeling tickling up at you when you’re surrounded by a sea of rustic and rusted farm equipment, encompassing everything from needle nose pliers to irreparably broken oil lanterns. It’s that feeling that sits heavier in the pit of your stomach once you see the towering stack of antiquated technology for sale, used Betamax players, VHS cassettes, and working 8-track tapes. It’s that feeling that bursts forth in an audible laugh when the women at the ticket counter shouts out in enthusiastic glee, “Post some photos of the market on our Facebook page!”

whatcheerscrap
A pile of rusted scrap at the What Cheer flea market.

If you go in with the wrong mentality, it’s all too easy to get washed into the tinted greys of depression lingering in the air. You’ll find yourself wandering aimlessly, overwhelmed, adrift in the dilapidated fairgrounds of second hand commerce. But if you attack the flea market with a sense of adventure, an opportunistic pride, you’ll find the experience redeeming and worth repeating. You’ll also find some really cool and weird shit!

Anyway, enough poetic waxing, here’s the awards for Best and the Worst in Show:

Best Use of Calligraphy

whatcheeradmission
There are a lot of hand-written signs at the market, ranging from pathetic poultry pawing to beautiful and deliberate script. This sign is neither crafted in beautiful cursive nor is it pecked together in illegible scrawl, but it does serve a real purpose, making it both functional and understated, a rarity at times. It’s also balanced precariously on a bottomless chair, transforming it into castoff scrap, and therefore the most appropriate sign to represent the entire market. Also, two dollars to get in is a STEAL.

Worst Reminder of Failed Investments

whatcheerbeaniebabies
Remember how your childhood Beanie Baby collection was going to make you rich? Remember how you carefully protected those precious Ty tags, wrapping them in hard, plastic cases? Remember how rare those pesky bears were, impossibly hard to find limited edition trophies? Yeah, well now they sell for the same price as bulk fly swatters.

Best Handmade Object

whatcheerbirdhouses
This is the spirit of the flea market encapsulated into handmade art, birdhouses constructed with rusted and peeling repurposed scrap. The photo doesn’t really do them justice. They’re stunning and imaginative, the type of project that inspires more creation. This is what junkers do, reusing and reimagining, bringing trashed parts and pieces back to life. And it’s why people come to the market, to find the newness in the old around them.

Worst Mouth-Made Object

whatcheercans
Okay, I can totally get on board with the appeal of vintage beer memorabilia. Old beer logos are ornate and look great polished up and on display behind a bar. But this doesn’t feel like a collection for sale so much as it feels like someone forgot to take out the recycling. It screams, “Grandpa drank these, see if you can get somethin’ for ’em.”

Worst Probably Illegal Object

whatcheerhandicapsigns
Granted, I didn’t take the time to investigate how these were acquired, but this is sketchy at best. Those are USED handicap parking signs. I’m sure there are plenty of legal ways to obtain used handicaps signs, but the easiest way is definitely not legal. Plus, handicap parking only became a thing when the Americans with Disabilities act was ratified in 1990, so it’s not like these are antique signs. I’m not even sure 1990 counts as vintage. Whatever. Don’t buy used handicap parking signs.

Best Attempt to Combine Unrelated Niche Hobbies

whatcheercake
Are you a fan of decorative cakes and comic books, but just don’t know how to show it? Well boy oh boy, do I have a product for you! CRAZED CAPED CRUSADERS OF CONFETTI CAKES, BATMAN!

Best Overall Display
whatcheerbestdisplay

The competition for Best Display wasn’t even close. Yes, that’s a photo of a Cupid garden statue sitting atop a vintage glass bottle Coke machine, arrow pointed down in the direction of a legless Marilyn Monroe mannequin, adorned in faux-medieval chain mail, propped up on an antique barber’s chair. You’re only blessed with visual spectacle on that level once, maybe twice, in a lifetime. Like I said… Not. Even. Close.

Worst Overall Display

whatcheerworstdisplay
Unfortunately, the competition for Worst Display wasn’t close either. There’s a lot going on in this photo, so feel free to blown it up and bust out your junior forensics kit to take in all the fine details, but highlights include a can of Chef Boyardee, a burlap sack that one presumes was once (is still?) filled with potatoes, two sleeves of Thin Mints, a worn out family photo, a single empty vintage can of beer, and roughly infinity and half plastic bags stuffed in boxes. So yeah, that.

Worst Overall Item

whatcheerstamps

Like any major flea market in America, What Cheer has its fair share of nostalgic tokens of hate. If you’re so inclined, confederate flags and Nazi paraphernalia aren’t hard to find. Like these German Adolf Hitler stamps, which the handwritten price tag would like to inform you are old, you know, to differentiate from all those new Hitler stamps Germany is producing. Maybe if you’re a fan of genocidal postage, this will speak to you, but it sure didn’t speak to me. Plus, it’s not even a good deal. That’s 5.00 German Marks worth of postage on sale for US $5.75, a $2.97 markup based on historical currency conversion. Get out of here with that bullshit.

Best Overall Item

whatcheercouch

Where do you even start? It’s shocking to find something so well, sexy at a flea market. And a red velvet couch in pristine condition is undeniably sexy. If I hadn’t traveled to What Cheer in the car the size of a pistachio shell, this would have undoubtedly gone home with me. Instead I can only live the red velvet lifestyle vicariously, staring at this photo with longing lust. Forget all the repurposing projects and still-packaged collectibles, this is the Holy Grail treasure you seek at a flea market.

That’s true love right there.

That’s the profit of adventure.

That’s What Cheer’s Collectors’ Paradise Flea Market.

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