Feature: Buy, Sell or Barter

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Thousands flock each week to Collinsville Trade Day, a culturally unique event featuring one-of-a-kind items and just about everything else.

story and photos by RANDY GRIDER

Growing up on rural Sand Mountain, the 20-mile trip to Collinsville (Ala.) Trade Day offered an opportunity to find the necessities of life – camo, rappelling rope, a prop for my old boat and car speakers so I could play my Loverboy cassettes at window-rattling decibels.[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]Strolling through acres of shanty-like booths with tables covered in everything under the sun made Walmart seem sadly inadequate. Rarely did I leave without the sought item or a workable substitute. If I couldn’t find it here, I assumed the last of its kind was somewhere behind glass in a museum.

It also was a place where you often ran into old friends, exes and distant family members you thought had moved away. Maybe they had because Trade Day has a way of getting in your blood. You might move away, but anytime you find yourself in the area on a weekend, the lure is strong to do a little outdoor junk shopping.

It was on a return visit a few years ago that I introduced my family to the tradition. I warned my wife, Olivia, there is a certain area that we could, under no circumstances, allow our children to visit. At the far end of the complex, just beyond the Coon Dog Restaurant, is Animal Hill. It’s a place where vendors will entice animal-loving kids with chickens, ducks, guineas, goats, puppies, kittens and just about any other breathing mammal before you can say Daffy Duck. These people are so good that you are either leaving with a new pet or a sobbing kid you have to drag away with promises of buying something you don’t have to feed.

We arrived late and were driving through the complex with windows down, watching some of the vendors packing up for the day, when a cardboard beer box filled with barely weened Labrador retriever puppies was suddenly thrust into the car. I came within a whisker of buying the entire litter – at a great price, I must add – before Olivia killed the deal. She bought me a pair of socks in an attempt to stop my whining.

Steeped in Tradition
To label Collinsville Trade Day as simply an outdoor flea market would be an injustice. It’s not only a part of the landscape, but also a big part of the culture of the area and its people. Its roots run deep. Its origins began as Horse Swappers’ Day in 1902 in historic downtown Collinsville, where men gathered to trade horses and mules. Soon the wives joined in by putting tablecloths on the ground and selling baked goods and hand-sewn items. Sometime in the 1930s, the name was changed to Trade Day, and then in 1953 it moved to a local church parking lot before moving to its current location just south of downtown in 1955.

Today, the Collinsville Trade Day complex encompasses more than 80 acres boasting about 1,000 vendors. Only open on Saturdays, it draws up to 30,000 visitors each week, making it one of the biggest attractions in north Alabama.

“We get people from all over – all nationalities,” says co-owner James Chastain. “We have lawyers, bankers and farmers all who come here. We have vendors who come just to see and talk to people. It’s like coming home for many people.”

Just as in the early days, bartering and trading – especially among the many older, overall-clad vendors – is a big part of the tradition. Wandering through the rows of wooden stalls, I witness two vendors trading chickens and sacks of potatoes and another bartering a few tools for a chain saw.

Willie Ray Smith of Cullman, Ala., has been trading and selling goods at Collinsville for many years. Sitting atop a trailer filled with large bags of feed and other items, he pulls out a pocketknife and casually cuts a few slices of apple as a quick snack before the next buyer approaches.

“I’ve been to a lot of trade days, and this is the best one I know of,” Smith says. “I’ve traded everything here. I used to be the ‘Goat Man.’ At one time, I traded all the goats here.”

And though his wares are now more diversified, he doesn’t pass up any opportunity to trade or sale whatever he thinks is a good deal. “I bought one goat here this morning and sold it already,” Smith says, laughing. “I’d buy that dog, right there,” he says, pointing to a nearby vendor’s canine, “if I thought I could sell it today.” Motioning to a small cage with two chickens, he adds, “I just bought those chickens over there and I’ll probably sell them before I leave.”

Ray Goble of Crossville, Ala., is another veteran trader, coming to Collinsville since 1961. He has his own, centrally located shed filled with myriad items ripe for the curious to dig through.

“When I was a kid, I liked to trade pocketknives,” Goble says. “I was a surveyor, and when people were moving I would trade or buy their stuff.”

Most of his items are not marked with a price tag. “People find what they want and come out with it and I tell them how much it is. They either buy it or put it back. I reserve the right to price it at my discretion. It has a lot to do with the attitude of the buyer,” he says with a chuckle. “I enjoy it.”

Goble, who is an avid marble collector and seller, says he appreciates the people as much as the trading. “I’ve met people from all over,” he says. “I’ve had people come here and buy my marbles from as far away as the Cayman Islands. You meet some characters up here. It’s more fun than going to the circus.”

Odd Finds
After walking for what seemed like a mile among rows and rows of fishing gear, DVDs, plastic flowers for cemetery decorations and hand-sewn baby dresses, I stumble upon a wooden coffin propped up against a store selling wooden swings, chairs and just about anything you can make from a tree. A woman offers to take my photo in the coffin. She tells me most are bought as Halloween props and such, but she once sold one for actual use to someone needing a cheap funeral for a loved one.

If I had assumed this was the oddest thing sold here, I would have been dead wrong. While I chat with Charles Cook, another owner of Collinsville Trade Day, the subject of weird items for sell naturally comes up.

“Back in the ’70s, before all the dental laws and restrictions, there was a denture place in Pell City (Ala.) where everyone went to get their dentures made,” Cook says. “The owners came here one Saturday with all of their denture rejections in foot tubs and put them out on a table. We watched people all day reaching in the tubs trying on teeth, putting them back and then getting another pair until they found a pair that fit. They sold every pair of teeth that they brought.”

If You Go

GETTING THERE: Collinsville, Ala., is just off Interstate 59 at Exit 205. Collinsville Trade Day is situated along U.S. Highway 11 just south of Collinsville High School. There are two main entrances with ample customer parking for $1 along both sides of the complex and across the highway.
MARKET HOURS: Saturdays, 4:30 a.m.-2 p.m.
CHECK OUT THE FOOD: In addition to fresh produce and Amish goods, there are more than 20 food vendors, snack bars and restaurants – including an authentic Mexican eatery – scattered throughout the complex. Among the crowd favorites are hand-dipped corndogs, funnel cakes, fresh-squeezed lemonade and roasted or boiled peanuts.
SEE NEARBY ATTRACTIONS: Historic Collinsville boasts a wealth of Victorian homes and a quaint downtown with shops and restaurants (collinsvillealabama.net). If you’re looking for some additional outdoor fun, check out Cherokee Rock Village (cherokeerockvillage.org) and Little River Canyon National Preserve (nps.gov/liri) atop Lookout Mountain.
MORE INFORMATION: collinsvilletradeday.com


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