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.
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!”
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: Continue reading Traversing Small Town Iowa And The What Cheer Flea Market