The Lincoln Highway Buyway: The Great American Road Trip and Yard Sale in One

Yesterday, on picture-perfect Midwest afternoon, I had the pleasure of cruising along an old road in a little red convertible with, crème de la crème, America’s tune Ventura Highway guiding the way.

…Ventura Highway in the sunshine…

My thoughts drifted to three weeks earlier. Then, it was a red SUV tooling along the Lincoln Highway across Ohio for the annual Lincoln Buyway sale, and I remember the hearing those same lyrics early in the day. It was audio icing to a perfect roadtrip. Here I was at 10AM, already stocked with mid-century treasures and had many more sales and miles yet to go.

…where the days are longer, the nights are stronger than moonshine…

What do you say about a yard sale spanning 4 states and over 800 miles? It’s the great American road trip with an antique lover’s treasure trove built into the journey. The annual sale takes place on the 2nd full weekend in August, spanning Thursday through Saturday, and is one of the country’s longest yard sales.  It also follows a multi-state course (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa) of one of the most historically significant roads in the country, the Lincoln Highway.

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This year was the 13th running of the sale, which has been wowing shoppers since its inception in 2005. No matter where you start, nor whether your path is east or west, you’re graced with mile upon mile of sales, offering everything from antique furniture to baby toys to great “junque” you can turn down.

The highway’s fame is part of what makes the event so enjoyable; it’s not just a country road. The Lincoln Highway was built in 1913 as the first paved intercontinental road in the U.S. It eventually spanned 3000 miles from New York to San Francisco. Carl Fisher, a pioneer in the development of automobile headlamps, conceived the idea for the route. He believed the success of the automobile depended on a network of good roads. Henry B. Joy, who was president of Packard Motor Company at the time, championed the idea of naming the road as a memorial to President Abraham Lincoln.  

Eventually, much of the Lincoln Highway became pegged to U.S. Route 30 when the numbered U.S. highway system was created. By then, the Lincoln had scored the nickname, “the Main Street of America.” That Saturday, my travels took me on quite a few Main Streets in little towns and small cities in north-central Ohio.  Across a 10-hour day, I followed alignments of old U.S. 30 and other stretches that make up the original Lincoln Highway, including SR 430, U.S. 42, and even a stretch simply referred to as the “Old Lincoln Highway”

Regional yards sales like the Lincoln Buyway provide almost endless opportunities to pull over and shop. Sometimes it looks as if every house and every parking lot have something to offer.  Perhaps that’s why, at one point, it took me nearly 6 hours to traverse a mere 35 miles!  

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There is a charm in driving such a historic route, but that blossoms even more when you get out of your car and actually experience small towns you’d probably otherwise overlook. Whether it’s a vintage RV transformed into a pop-up vintage clothing store, or the local church hosting a bake sale, there’s an adventure to be had at each stop.

Trying to figure out which sales deserve a stop is part of the excitement.  Sometimes, clumps of tents will draw you like a magnet.  Your radar will be up for balloons and signs, and you’ll probably kick yourself when you bypass what could have been a gold mine. More than once, I found myself turning around for a sale because I was simply driving too fast to stop!  Smoke from a BBQ always begs for a stop; and, seeing the words Barn Sale” is a sort of siren call, beckoning you with the hope of scoring some country primitives.

In the end, it’s all about the thrill of the hunt, inasmuch as you’ll never know what you’ll find. One stop netted a collection of vintage cameras for $5 each.  Last year, it was a mid-century Paul McCobb desk that ended up having a retail value of over $800, snagged with its original chair for a mere $10!

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All along the Buyway, you’ll run across shoppers who’ve traveled impressive distances. Don’t be surprised to meet shoppers from as far as Florida and Texas, who’ve often planned to hit all the states along the sale. Some drive RV’s for their overnights. Others drive pickups toting trailers and will book lodging at a vintage motel along the route.

In between picks, you can dine on hamburgers at VFW socials, grab lemonade and brownies from a young entrepreneur; or, if you’re watchful, you’ll come across a vintage dairy bar and grab a real-deal milkshake, handmade by a local high-schooler.

Eventually, you begin to realize that all the wonderful items you picked up withstanding, that the treasure is truly not the stuff – it’s the people you meet along the way.  For me, it was octogenarian Bob Bowlen who opened his nostalgic farm complex near Hayesville, Ohio – six buildings filled with everything from farm implements to art pottery and country collectibles. As soon as I stepped out of the car, I landed in the limelight of a “historic” log cabin sitting next to a barn painted with a full-height Mail Pouch Tobacco sign. Both, by the way – along with everything else there – was either Bob’s creation or part of his lifetime collection.

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Bob is a Korean war veteran. He and his late wife Marta were married just before he was sent overseas. After he returned from the war, the couple settled in the area and eventually bought the farm in 1963. That’s when their love for collecting began. After his wife passed away, Bob realized it was time to thin the lifelong collection. So, he opened his complex during the Buyway for browsers and buyers alike to enjoy and maybe find something to adopt into their own family

About an hour after I stopped at the Bowlen farm, I decided to call it a day. My informal precept on these sales is; I keep going until I either run out of money, room in the vehicle, or steam.  After ten hours, despite a good amount of remaining cash and space, energy got the better of me. Plus, I knew I still had a two-hour drive to get back home.  It was late afternoon and the temperature had come down, so I opened the sunroof and buzzed the windows down for the ride back.

…Cause the fee wind is blowing through your hair, and your days surround your daylight there….


William Flood is a freelance writer & photographer specializing in travel, local business, articles of historical interest, and heritage tourism. He’s been called an “evangelist” for retro Americana, promoting the icons of 20th-century popular culture to those who love them. His work has profiled a treasure trove of historic road trips, old diners, vintage motels, glowing neon, classic trailers, abandoned gas stations, home-town theaters, bowling lanes, space-age architecture, and even exotic tiki.  He can be reached at whflood@yahoo.com

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