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Bargain hunters scratch that itch at region's biggest flea market in Rogers, Ohio

Thursday, July 26, 2001

By Bob Batz Jr., Post-Gazette Staff Writer

ROGERS, Ohio -- As flea markets go, the one at the Rogers Community Auction is a killer.

As in, on a hot and busy summer Friday, it might just kill you.

Especially if you try to do the whole thing, which goes from 7:30 a.m. to midnight just on Fridays. It seems to go forever with as many as 1,700 vendors, whose spaces alone stretch over nearly five miles outside and inside five buildings and three pavilions. Much of the 80-plus acres is just parking, and the cars don't stop streaming in and out unless the traffic jams.

Cleveland's Mike Reddy offers up two photographs of the same woman: One made in 1951, when she was a girl, and the other made in 1967, when she was a nun. Reddy, a real estate agent who sells at the Rogers flea market once a month, said he didn't know anything about the woman. 'I got (the photos) at an estate sale. The family sold them to me. It's their aunt.' (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

It's Christmas-at-the-mall crowded, and instead of snow, there's dust. It forms a film on your glasses and skin along with the smoke and grease from 50-some concession stands cranking out elephant ears and gyros and curly fries and jumbo smoked turkey legs.

This flea market is not for the faint of heart.

At Copper Popper Kettle Korn, propane swooshes like a jet engine and popcorn explodes like fireworks. Worker Jake Whitehead stirs with a giant wood paddle and wears leather gloves, long sleeves and a plastic face shield as protection from stray seeds, which he likens to "getting hit with a welding spark." The passing throng gobbles up free samples of the subtly sweet treat.

As if those sounds and smells aren't loud enough, many concessionaires shout to hawk their wares ("WE GOT LEMONADE! FRESH SQUEEZED! ICE COLD!"). So do many of the other vendors, who sell everything from garage sale rejects to antiques to produce to new merchandise such as the sign on Building H puts it, "Dog Figurines, Wrought Iron, Books, Nuts & Bolts, Pewter & Wood Carvings." Other buildings hold auctions of everything from household goods to live poultry. There's a pony ride. And an ATM.

You can get old stuff like, say, a 1951 Army Signal Corps Korean War generator ($450). You can get a new set of "tires mounted & computer balanced here" or an unfired Bulgarian SA-93 semi-automatic rifle ($700). You can get skinned faces of foxes, raccoons and other critters ($5). You can get one-size-fits-all fringed "tassel" T-shirt dresses ($10 or two for $18) with sayings like "Cowboy Butts Drive Me Nuts!"

"You can pretty much come here and get anything you want," says Rick Allen Whetstone, who's been selling at this "awesome flea market" for 15 years. Now he's selling his own amazing cleaner, Rapid All Wash. It's $10 a bottle, but like practically everything else here, it's cheaper if you buy two, and he's willing to deal. If you doubt how well it works, well, watch him pull grass from the ground, rub it into the jeans he's wearing, and then spray his leg.

"See that folks? Grass stains! It just cuts right through the grass!"

As the sun rises, the crowd swells. It gets harder to move down the rows without bumping or being bumped by someone, especially inside, where everybody seeks a shred of shade. Lines form to the restaurant, to the restrooms, to the porta-johns. Loudspeaker announcements try to reunite lost souls with their families. Radio-toting "Rescue 40" workers patrol in golf carts with bottled water for those who are overcome.

When you do try to leave, good luck: You're likely to be stuck in the long lines of cars that seem embedded in the tar on the skinny roads leading away from this market in the middle of nowhere.

The Rogers flea market is GREAT!

That is, if you like this sort of thing.

More and more of us do, and we're clogging flea markets across the country. The phenomenon gets colorfully covered and celebrated in "A Flea Market Documentary," a national PBS show produced by WQED's Rick Sebak that debuts Monday night.

Rogers isn't in the show -- the only local one is the Antiques Fair at the Meadows in Washington County -- but it bursts with all the classic elements. It is, by far, the biggest in this region, and probably is, as it claims, the biggest in the Tri-State (Tim Byrne of FleaMarkets.com says the only one close in size is Trader's World near Cincinnati).

Just over the Ohio border about an hour's drive from Pittsburgh, Rogers is a great day trip destination. It draws plenty of buyers and sellers from Western Pennsylvania.

It pulls in folks such as 84-year-old P.J. Hutch of Shaler, who used to do metal work for department stores out of his Lawrenceville shop, and who now makes banks out of old postal lock

box doors to sell at flea markets. He also sells "the junk" -- his term -- such as the tong-like tool he's holding. "They sell these for $14.95 on the television, and I sell them for a quarter," he says, explaining how the device was made for slicing roasts. "But I use it for slicing Mancini's bread. Use your imagination. Or use it for a weapon!"

Once you've sold at a flea market, you'll never make fun of junk.

Junk sells.

Hutch is swarmed by customers minutes after opening, including 70-year-old Bonnie Stein of Baltic, Ohio, who hands him $1 for six rectangles of "plastic canvas" that she and a child with whom she baby-sits will use to make a miniature yarn barn. She's already bought a $3 glass toothpick holder that matches her dishes. Her son, Ward, picked up a $5 glass piggy bank just like the ones he gave all his nephews and nieces when they were born, filled with their birth year's pennies.

There's no new child on the way. "I'm just trying to get ahead," Ward says.

The items people buy and sell boggle the mind and get even more interesting when you hear the stories connected to them.

Take that floor ashtray mounted to a cast-iron potbelly stove that Terri Hepler is lugging around. The rural mail carrier from Sagamore in Armstrong County couldn't resist it for $10. Her grandmother had one, she says. "We don't smoke."

She also got a Murano glass bird, some tins and aluminum bowls and a stone bench; her mom, Jackie Christy, got a rusty old barn heater to repaint and use as decor; and her nieces, 14-year-old Erin Hepler and 7-year-old Jennifer Hepler, got a Beanie monkey. And they're on only the second row.

"We brought my truck today, so we're in good shape," says Hepler, making her first visit to Rogers.

Bill Baer, whose grandfather started the market on this swampy pasture in 1955 and who runs it with several siblings, estimates that 50,000 to 60,000 people come through on a good Friday, the only day it's open. The family also does off-site auctions on weekends, and a huge farm auction on the first Tuesday of each month. But the Friday market, which really began to take off in the 1980s, is 60 percent to 70 percent of their business, and it's still growing.

"This place, you can't possibly see it all," says Walter Seal of New Eagle, Washington County. Now recovering from six heart bypasses, the 42-year-old is a town councilman and works as a coke plant millwright. His hobby is going to flea markets, buying and selling military items and other old stuff.

Entire books have been written on why people do this, but they don't say it as well as the look on his face as he shows off the green wool Civilian Conservation Corps hat -- "in mint condition" -- that he just got for $20. It's his find of the day, and tomorrow it could be someone else's: He plans to sell it for $35 at a flea market in Virginia.

Buying a 70-year-old hat that you don't even want on an 80-degree day: That's flea marketing.

For more information, visit the Rogers Community Auction at www.fleamarkets.com/rogers/index.html. To get there from Pittsburgh, take Route 60 north to Route 51 north, which becomes Ohio Route 14; either follow Route 14 to Route 7 and go south, or take Route 251 and Ohio Route 154 west into Rogers. The phone is 330-227-3233.

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