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Alchemy Highway 36 Style—Turning Junk to Treasure


It’s clear Americans have a love affair with stuff. Even the tiniest towns have entrepreneurs who build and rent storage units to families and individuals who own more than they can keep at home. Reality TV caters to this crowd with shows such as American Pickers, Hoarders, and Junk Gypsies. Northern Kansas communities that border historic 36 capitalize on this popular trend each September. The annual Highway 36 Treasure Hunt focuses on both buying and selling goods that might include ornate doors and their hardware, pre-war metal wheels that didn’t get collected in the iron drives during WW II, antique furniture, dishes, and glassware, hunting and fishing gear, and oddities too good to throw away.

So, what makes a sought after prize on a treasure hunt? I don’t have the answer, but I know tons of used merchandise lines 36 on the third weekend in September from St. Francis to Kansas’ eastern most border. Based on the number of square, plastic garage sale signs posted, merchants sold out of them this week as folks dusted off heirlooms and junk in preparation for the state’s longest search for loot.

It’s been fun watching locals organize. As time grew closer to the long anticipated weekend, more and more Highway 36 Treasure Hunt signs popped up like  noxious weeds every mile or. Each day as I drove to work, I saw massive efforts as families carefully arranged barns and sheds full of picker delights in big and small locales. Yards ceased to be yards as they morphed into mega flea markets covered by old furniture, metal implements, and other more mysterious objects.

As I noted all the hype and collectibles, it made me think of Mike and Frank on American Pickers. They’d be giddy as junior high boys with a pocketful of quarters at an arcade if they saw the extent of this sale. Their Antique Archeology van couldn’t hold the signs, bikes, and oddities they could haul home to their tattooed diva Danielle. The Junk Gypsies could remodel homes for a decade with raw material they’d harvest during this three day adventure.

On Thursday, it was clear that more traffic than normal had filtered into our rural area. Local and out of state pickups towed empty big and little trailers. By the time I headed home at 4 p.m. on Friday, there wasn’t an empty truck or trailer bed to be seen. Whether shoppers started from east or west, they’d found booty along the way. Some of those loads needed more tie downs to make sure they didn’t lose  goodies turning into to their next stop.

When I did a little garage sale-ing of my own on Saturday, I saw evidence of grass returning in yards that merchandise had hidden buried only two days before. Obviously, a major realignment of goods had taken place. I don’t know where all the stuff went, but I won’t be surprised if shifting that much treasure from one part of the country to another doesn’t trigger a series of earthquakes.

If I survive those impending seismic tremors, I’m building my own collection to add to the fray in a year or two. That many sellers and buyers of good ol’ American odds-and-ends can’t be wrong.