The Road to Somewhere Else (FINAL CUT / World’s Longest Yard Sale) from Logan Jaffe on Vimeo.
I’m sitting cross-legged in the living room of a house not too far west of the main road off Highway 127. The house belongs to Mikki Klavich, a lifelong resident of Crossville, Tennessee, who owns a small frame shop in town. She has spent the day along 127 trying to sell some small housewares, a white, shabby-chic farm table, and a box of sci-fi paperbacks infused with the smell of her mother’s cigarettes.
We met earlier at the yard sale and she has already offered me her guest room to sleep, even though I brought a tarp for camping, which I might’ve been able to set up between trailers.
She hands me a book that tells the story of what’s happened here over the last 100 years. It was written in 1956 by Mikki’s grandmother, Helen Bullard—who besides for being a writer—was a doll maker and a crafter of perfect, spinning wood tops.
The story starts with a road, the road to somewhere else. These are Bullard’s own printed words. “The Road to Somewhere Else,” is the title of the first chapter of this carefully churned history about her birthplace and heritage. This part of Tennessee—about 100 miles north of Chattanooga and a stone’s throw south of Kentucky—was left untouched by the Native Americans and unclaimed by the early settlers. The first people of Fentress County had made their way here because they sought space and quiet and knew the value of their isolation.
Part of why I’m here is that I want to understand how this road to somewhere else became the world’s longest yard sale. It’s been over two hundred years, and not much has changed here at all outside of this highway. And, to be clear, this highway is a two-lane road surrounded mostly by fields and farmland.
How did Fentress County maintain its way of life as surrounding towns industrialized? How did it not change, even if it wanted to?
* * *
I grew up in a suburb of Miami, Florida. But my mother’s side of the family has deep, southern roots. Every summer we’d pack up the van and head to my granny’s house in eastern Tennessee to reclaim them. We’d drive all night and wake up where the grass was different and my mother said “y’all.” My granny would have biscuits and gravy on the table. She’d have a shotgun and a cuckoo clock in the living room. At night, she’d sit by the pond and sip her glass of scotch until the lightning bugs died down. During the day, she’d yard sale.
Two years ago, though, my granny’s house was sold and she moved into a nursing home in Florida. I realized I’d never visit my granny in Tennessee again. I vowed that one day I’d move out here, set up camp near Roan Mountain and have some goats or bees or maybe a garlic farm with a drive-in movie theater. But until then, I’d have to find another reason to visit Tennessee. And somehow (or, “as fate would have it …” my mother would say) I found the World’s Longest Yard Sale.
* * *
Before I met Mikki, I had arrived in Chattanooga on the first of August. I met Debyjo Ericksen at a local hotel—Debyjo was a seasoned yard-saler who agreed to let me document part of her yard sale experience. She told me that she had come to this year’s sale with two missions—to find an antique ladder, and to learn enough about how to start a similar event in her own town of Joliet, IL. I found out that back home Debyjo was an operations manager of the Will County Land Use, which was one of the first Midwest towns on historic Route 66.
She drives me along the sale route in her Buick and she tells me that the Yard Sale on 127 should be used as an example of how to revitalize America’s back roads. It’s an interesting proposition, a way to stimulate local economies that have been either divided, isolated or forgotten by America’s Interstate system. And, though 127 visitors can travel the backcountry the whole four days of the sale, most of them still won’t see the impoverished local community behind all the professional tables set up by the antique dealers and sellers of inauthentic bulk.
Some stretches of 127 are totally empty. Some stretches, though, are an Antique Apocalypse. There are fields full of tents and tables full of freakin’ anything. There are butter knives and pocket knives; fishing rods, flamingo quilts, scrap metal pinwheels and pinball machines; stuffed rattlesnakes, grilled rattlesnakes, broken Barbies, boiled peanuts, salt shakers, dream catchers, cast irons, Clinton buttons, buncha trinkets n trifles n knick knack bric-a-brac give a dog a bone. There’s too much, you could say—or not enough—depending on why you were there.
I leave Debyjo and walk the fair. I meet a man selling cookies and Confederate flags who says he don’t mean ‘nothin by it. And Orwell James in overalls, who’s selling fishing rods because it’s something to do when you retire. And Doreen, who sells cheap things to rich people on Amazon and lives the American Dream online, and is happy to tell me so. Or Don McBay, who saves shotgun cabins from bulldozers and has tried to save the world. And Sarah Robbins, who hunts for “meaningless charms” for her “meaningless charm bracelet.”
Through them, I learn that this sale has no rules. No taxes. No sense of how many cars pass through or why all these folks decided to show up in the first place. And buy. And sell. Everyone is here to satisfy their own local craving - or at least get some good stories along the way.
When I meet Dixie Rose, she is painting the details of a long, pale beard on a wooden plank. The beard happens to belong to a man kneeled against a Ford pickup, which she’s also just painted. And the man just happens to be Popcorn Sutton, she tells me. This is the first time I’ve heard this name, but it’s not a name or a story that I will soon forget. “He’s a moonshiner. Was a moonshiner,” she says, sounding like a tiny, tired honeybee—if honeybees could talk. “But he’s no longer with us anymore,” she says regarding his passing in 2009. This is how he died. When the feds had finally caught Popcorn after a lifetime of him moonshining and being Popcorn, he waited until just two days before he was supposed to show up for his Federal prison sentence behind bars for the illegal brewing and firearm possession rap they got him on—and that was when Marvin “Popcorn” Sutton asphyxiated himself in his Ford Fairline. And this is the same mottled Ford that Dixie is painting now. “He’s a legend around these parts,” she continues. “A local hero.”
Dixie says she paints Popcorn to keep his legend alive. This is a man who left behind over 800 gallons of moonshine, countless instructional videos on how to make it, and an autobiography called, Me and My Likker (Shockwave Books, 1999). This is also the man who, after his death, inspired an exclusive line of whiskey you can buy for $29.99 a bottle - and a label that reads: Popcorn says “Drink responsibly.”
And, even though I swore I wouldn’t buy anything, I bought the painting from her. But, in a way, Dixie Rose expected me to. “I can’t hardly get through painting him when somebody wants to buy him,” she says.
In her trailer, Dixie makes us bologna and cheese sandwiches on white bread. “It’s a generation that’s not with us anymore—the old worn out eyes and the wrinkles and … country people,” she says. “People with soul.”
* * *
I still didn’t know where I was going to sleep, or set up camp, or now, how I was going to carry this sizable wooden painting across the country, but I did continue to make my way around yard sale.
I meet Jeffrey Hood outside of the Cumberland County General Store. I have a small knife and can of mace in my pocket in case things get weird. He’s lived in Crossville, Tennessee, a town just over the Fentress county line for most of his life. He’s wearing perfectly mismatched socks and a red polo shirt. He asks if I mind if we take the back roads. “I thought this all was the back roads,” I say, adjusting my grip on the sharp thing in my pocket.
This is when I learn that, here, there are back roads to the back roads, and then there are back roads to those. We’re driving now. It’s still hot like August in Tennessee. The highway is crowded with shoppers and pickups and trailers so we exit and start winding through valleys, crossing over rivers and under small bridges. People call Jeffery the Yard Sale King. I ask him why.
“I have an unusual ability to walk into a room, look at thousands of objects and pick the one authentic thing or thing that’s worth a lot of money,” he says. “It’s uncanny.” He shows me what he’s found so far. I show him Popcorn Sutton. “Sad story,” he says.
Somewhere in Florida, I once saw a sign that read: “God loves yard sale people.” And as the sun starts setting in the Tennessee hills, and I’m cruising with the windows down, gushing over Dolly Parton with the Yard Sale King, I totally believe it.
* * *
The yard sales of Fentress County started long before 1987 when the 127 Corridor Sale was founded. It was a way of life for a poor economy—to take your things out of your attic to the road and try to sell them at your leisure. The idea of designating these four days, where visitors would come and travel along a 350-mile stretch of the two-lane, Highway 127, between Chattanooga, TN and Covington, KY, was supposed to be an anti-interstate experience for visitors, and as one writer has described it, the chance for Americans and outsiders to see “Americana at its best.” And if the admittedly poor economy of Fentress Country was rich in anything, it has always been gangbusters in Americana. The appeal was there from the beginning and the state-long yard sale proved to be a quick success.
In only a few years after it started, the sale had stretched another 100 miles south to Gadsen, Alabama—and then another 200 miles north to the Michigan border. And last year, the highway yard sale reportedly operated along 690 miles of American asphalt—from Gadsden to Addison. It has grown (practically) by itself into the world’s longest yard sale, most yard sale officials would agree.
* * *
But now, along the windy Fentress road, Jeffrey Hood, the Yard Sale King, is telling me about the 127 Highway Improvement Project, and I get a little curious. The state wants to expand the two-lane highway into four lanes, he says. For some local people, the project comes with a lot of promise. Because there’s a lack of local jobs here, about a third of Fentress County’s workforce commutes to other counties for work. They hope that by enriching the highway that it will attract big businesses to Fentress who are looking for space and quiet and new land.
But for people like Jeffrey Hood, the project comes with a slew of problems. “The winding road we know today will soon be a thing of the past,” he says. “I don’t know if [the yard sale] is going to fade out, but it certainly will be different if the state doesn’t allow vendors to set up along the highway. I worry about the future.” He says that he doesn’t see as many local people setting up in their own yards anymore. “Maybe they’ve sold everything they can part with.”
From most local people though—there actually hasn’t been much fuss. During a public hearing in 2011, the vast majority of people voted in favor of the highway improvement project. According to the minutes taken, some people were asking for a larger five-lane expansion, or if they could extend the project past Jamestown.
While people here care about the future of their local businesses, no one’s fighting for the future of the 127 Yard Sale. In fact, no one even mentioned it at the hearing. There’s no trace of it in any of the state’s social, economic, or environmental assessments of the improvement project. But that doesn’t surprise Walt Page, the executive director of the Fentress County Chamber of Commerce.
“It may affect the Sale, but the reality is the highway project makes it so much better for the economic development of Fentress County,” he says. “And, in my mind, that outweighs the benefit of the Yard Sale.” Even with all the tourism and the attention that has come with the 127 Sale these past twenty-five years, Fentress County still has a poverty rate that is higher than the state’s average, and is now on Tennessee’s radar of distressed areas.
Part of me finds it a little funny that the same people who created the World’s Longest Yard Sale to get people off the interstate are now welcoming the new highway developments.
But the thing is, the intention of the Yard Sale and the intention of the improvement project is the same. They’re both ways to improve a failing economy, and they could both have very similar effects on Fentress County. Much like the improvement project could attract more Dollar Generals and Cracker Barrels to the area, the Yard Sale could attract more antique dealers and auctioneers. It’s the same old story of commercialization, just on different scales.
People want to buy stuff. It doesn’t matter if it’s on Amazon, in stores or next-to-nowhere. People buying cast irons at a yard sale have a lot in common with people buying Presto Bacon Cookers at Walmart. And which is more American?
My feeling is The World’s Longest Yard Sale could not have become so massive had it not been for our current backdrop of mass consumerism. And, like anything that grows too quickly or quietly, it’s hard to keep track of how it happened. Or who’s benefitting.
Before anyone was trying to make a profit or a career at a yard sale with things they found in someone else’s attic, people were just trying to get by. And this struggle isn’t new. At the end of the first chapter of Helen Bullard’s book, she writes:
“The forests and streams which have always been here for the mountain man to use at his pleasure have in these enlightened times become the once-a-year objective of the concrete- and traffic-jaded city dweller. Maybe the mountaineer has had the best of it all along. The mountaineer thinks so.”
That was in 1956. Now, Walt tells me, you can watch a segment about the World’s Longest Yard Sale every year on HGTV. He laughs into my camera as he says that this year there’s a TV crew that flew in from France. “I’m not much of a yard-saler myself,” Walt smiles.
* * *
When it’s past dinnertime on Sunday night I start walking to the Greyhound station. I think about the jar of unopened peach moonshine in my mother’s closet. The sale’s over, for now. Most of the tents and tables are gone. The grass is left in trampled checkerboards. Fentress County feels a lot lighter. At the top of the bypass where Highway 127 intersects I-40, a woman in an SUV pulls in front of me.
“M’am, are you okay?” she asks me.
“Yes, m’am, I’m doing alright.”
“Have you eaten today?”
I tell her I just ate at the Cracker Barrel. I see her looking at the wooden thing pressed between a bungee cord and my backpack.
“What’s that strapped to you?” she asks.
“That’s Popcorn Sutton, m’am.”
“Thought so. Any chance I can buy him off you?”