Something like a traveling carnival, the Wright County Swappers Meet transforms a grassy field into an entertaining exhibition of sellers, shoppers and almost every kind of object you can think of for a few hours each Saturday from April through October.
Then, as quickly as they appeared, the show’s sights, sounds and smells melt away until next time as vendors pack up their tables, tents, goods and profits, and buyers head home with their treasures.
The Swappers Meet is open for its 44th year since Stanley Miller founded it in 1970 on about 40 acres of the family homestead north of Annandale in northwestern Wright County, a stone’s throw from the Stearns County line.
His wife, Gladys, has operated the flea market for more than three decades since his death in 1982, and this year the youngest of their five children, Kevin, will share the job with her.
Jill Boldt of Willmar and her mannequin, Rose.
From its humble beginnings, the Swappers Meet has become a Wright County institution, attracting the equivalent of a small city of sellers and shoppers on sunny summer Saturdays.
But even on a chilly, blustery May morning when Sr. Perspective visited the flea market, well over a hundred vendors set up shop and hundreds more would-be buyers roamed the grounds in search of baubles and bargains.
“I didn’t know it would last this long, really,” Gladys Miller said as she gazed at the site from outside her tiny office at the Swappers Meet entrance. But flea markets are doing well, she added, so it looks like it will be around a while longer.
She and Stanley opened the gates on the first Saturday in April 1970, she recalled. Not afraid to take a risk to make a buck, he had abruptly decided to start the business after a conversation with brother-in-law Marvin Valenta, who had visited flea markets in California, where they’re called swappers meets.
About five vendors and a dozen visitors showed up the first Saturday. “It took a while because nobody ever heard of one,” she said, “but every year it gradually increased. A few years and we had a pretty good crowd already.”
Now Swappers Meet ads boast that it’s “Minnesota’s first and largest outdoor flea market.”
Dennis Erickson and Bird Houses
Gladys and Kevin estimated 250 to 300 vendors show up on an average Saturday and “close to 500” turn out on the Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day weekends, when it’s also open on Friday. Visitors by the thousands fill the parking areas with cars.
The Swappers Meet season has always run from the first Saturday in April through the last Saturday in October, but this year weather delayed the opening until April 27. “We had a lot of snow out here,” Gladys said.
The meet opens every Saturday at sunrise and closes about 2 or 3 p.m. Vendors usually start rolling in at 4 or 5 a.m., Gladys said, though they can start setting up Friday afternoon.
She operates on a first-come, first-served basis, collecting $15 at the gate — $20 on long weekends — and letting sellers choose from over 500 20-by-30-foot lots. “I did start reserving places once,” Gladys said, “but it was too much of a hassle.” Some vendors would take someone else’s reserved spot anyway. “It didn’t work.”
Some flea markets charge admission to buyers, but Gladys said she’s never considered it. “No, that takes money away from the vendors.” It would be expensive for shoppers who bring their families, she explained, and would cut down on the amount of money they give their kids to spend.
Swappers Meet vendors “pretty much sell anything and everything,” Kevin said. “I guess it’s just about anything you want to find,” Gladys added.
About half the stuff — like clothing and bedding — is new, and the other half is old, they estimated.
One seller concentrates on ax handles and hammer handles while another sells only cages for growing tomatoes. One man peddles fishing equipment, another golf clubs.
A Wisconsin family brings produce every weekend. Vendors pop kettle corn and serve up mini-donuts, corn dogs, pronto pups and pork chops.
Kevin shook his head while telling about a man who once hauled a truckload of medium-size rocks from another state “and sold them within an hour. They were kind of cool looking,” he acknowledged.
Steve Dalen and Dodie Kjaer
Most vendors are Minnesotans, Gladys said, and some come from neighboring Iowa and Wisconsin. “A lot of them have been coming here for years.”
Many are senior citizens. “(With) a lot of them, I think it’s just something to do. One guy said, ‘I don’t care if I sell anything. It’s just coming out and talking to the people.’”
“Some are just cleaning out the house, getting rid of a lot of stuff,” Kevin said, while others are moving and trying to sell their furniture.
Similarly, many visitors come out to socialize and exercise, Gladys said, “but they always find something.”
Though dealers sometimes have their differences, the Swappers Meet has never had to throw anyone out, she said. “We don’t have much trouble with anybody. They’re pretty decent.”
Out on the grounds, sleet had fallen earlier and vendors scrambled to protect their wares from winds gusts as the sky alternated between deep gray and bright sunshine. Larry Dalton of Eden Prairie lugged packages under both arms after a couple hours of shopping with his wife, Isabel, and son Robbie. And he’d already loaded some purchases into his car.
Dalton, who runs Aurelia’s Mexican restaurant, estimated they visit the Swappers Meet 15 to 20 times a year, buying vegetables and bread for the eatery, among other things. He grew up in the nearby Kimball area and first visited the Swappers Meet when he was 11 years old four decades ago.
“I think it’s a great place to come out,” he said. “I love it out here. … It’s hard to believe all the stuff they have out here. It’s like a giant outdoor mall.”
A well-dressed mannequin named Rose was the star of a booth run by Jill Boldt of Willmar. “I sell used stuff and I sell new stuff,” Boldt said, listing a variety of items including jewelry, mugs, bandannas, flags and records. And even Rose was available for $150.
She ranked the Swappers Meet among the best flea markets she’s seen “because there’s always traffic and there’s always people,” and the food’s good too. “It’s like a carnival atmosphere.”
Mike Esty of Buffalo presided over a motley assortment of collectibles ranging from used compact discs to vintage issues of Playboy magazine.
He likes to sell at the Swappers Meet “because people are more apt to buy” and “there’s kind of a camaraderie” with those who come often.
“The haggling is what I really like, the bantering,” Esty said. “(Buyers) really have fun with it. They really like to deal.” Steve Dalen of Cokato found a pair of Ernie and Elmo dolls at Dodie Kjaer’s booth.
“I usually come out here once a month,” he said, just to look around or to hunt for something specific. Dalen said he’s also been a dealer at the Swappers Meet, selling things like tools and clothes after cleaning out his shed.
Kjaer, of Fair Haven, said instead of having garage sales at home, she’s been bringing children’s clothes, toys, books and household items to the Swappers Meet every spring and fall for 15 years. “You get more exercise” and “people are friendly.”
Duane Purtilo’s stand featured large carvings of totem poles, fish and the Ford Mustang horse emblem. “I’m a woodcarver, a chainsaw carver,” said the Howard Lake retiree, who’s been woodworking for a decade and coming to the Swappers Meet for two or three years.
“Most people go to the Swapppers Meet to buy things for a real bargain,” he said, so he sells his carvings for 50 percent to 75 percent less than at a craft fair. “It’s close and convenient” and the crowds are good.
Dennis Erickson of Buffalo wasn’t bashful about the birdhouses displayed at his booth. “It’s the design that really sells them,” he said, and “as far as design of birdhouses, I’m the best.”
Erickson said he’s been making them for 22 years out of recycled wood decorated with doodads like an old drill bit, beer can, barbed wire or license plate.
He sells them at the Swappers Meet — which he called the premier flea market in the area — during May and on the July 4 weekend, attending fine arts and craft fairs the rest of the time. Erickson’s shoes were wrapped with electrical tape, but he said he dresses better for the arts and craft shows.
Back at the office, Kevin Miller, who at 41 is two years younger than the Swappers Meet, said he’s spent much of his life there mowing the lawn, picking up garbage and helping out along with other family members.
But for the first time this year it will be his full-time job. “This is my first year not going back to road construction,” he said, after 15 years working at that.
“Kevin’s going to do most of it,” Gladys said of their shared duties. Will she ever retire? “Maybe someday, some year,” she said, adding it could happen “anytime.”
“Age is only a number,” she said, refusing to divulge hers and having a laugh at a sign that hangs in her office: “I’m not a senior citizen. I’m a recycled teenager.”