Whirling into a carnival of collectibles

Collectors’ Cornucopia
A shopper looks over items displayed by Ski Country Antiques of Evergreen, Colo., including Scandinavian ice racing sleds. Sellers and buyers come to the Round Top fair from across the nation.
(Betty Tichich / Houston Chronicle)
Special to The Times

We started off in the middle of a sweaty Dallas rainstorm, a huge spring downpour that darkened the sky and pounded the top of our rented Chevy Suburban like fists against the window of a closed Krispy Kreme.

Our goal lay 300 miles south in the bucolic cow country of Texas, a usually sedate corner of Fayette County that transforms itself every April and October into a sprawling city of circus tents packed with trash, treasures and the transcendentally odd.

The antiques festival is centered on the tiny bend in the road where it all began 35 years ago -- Round Top -- even though antiques fever has since spread into a handful of neighboring towns. All in all, more than 30,000 people attend.

I had come to this collectors’ mecca with my sisters, Mary, two years older, and Peggy, six years younger. We collectible-crazy women were on the prowl. Our prey: old radios, garden wicker, vintage games, purse banks, underpriced bark cloth and prints by R.A. Fox.

I’d first heard about Round Top three years ago from Mary, who lives in Dallas. Acres and acres of antiques, she said. Millions of hard-to-find items spread out before you in the brilliant Texas sun, all at negotiable prices.

Round Top is the willowy younger cousin to the beefy Brimfield show, held three times a year in Massachusetts. Brimfield is bigger, brisker and known for its die-hard collectors, some of whom gather before sunrise, wearing miners’ lamps to illuminate the goods while keeping their hands free. But Round Top exudes a down-home Southern charm. Martha Stewart shops at Brimfield; Aunt Martha shops at Round Top.

As did my family.

Mary had come to Round Top four times in four years, each visit marked by some legendary find: a primitive dough bowl, an Art Deco loving cup, a pristine ‘30s bread tin. Peggy had been here once, returning home to Seattle with an exquisite painting of calla lilies in a pie-crust frame and a grocery bag full of vintage fabric.

I wasn’t after early American this or late French that, but I did have collections to fill out: 1940s cookbooks, lively kitchen chalkware and, if I were truly fortunate, an old accordion. In antique parlance, I went for “smalls.”

Sure, I could probably find most of these things on the Internet, but in my book that would be cheating. True antiquing is all about the hunt.

Fighting off the fever

Outside Dallas, the pounding rain let up and we were driving through swaths of bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush, passing kitschy Texas truck stops and barbecue joints.

After a few hours we were deep in the heart of Texas, our gigantic Suburban flying past dilapidated barns, fields of goats and grazing longhorns.

Turning onto a small country road, I noticed people’s yards had suddenly filled with cabinets, quilts, wagon wheels and turn-of-the-century tools. Hand-lettered signs and waving children invited us to stop and shop. My sisters and I grinned as we passed a sign indicating Round Top was just a few miles away. We could almost smell the Restor-a-Finish in the air.

Cresting a hill, our stomachs fluttering with anticipation, we descended not into a peaceful patchwork of quaint antiques booths but a monstrous traffic jam. The Suburban came to a stop behind a U-Haul truck with New York plates, and we stared at the serpentine of cars, vans, campers, trucks, trailers, pickups and flatbeds spread out before us. Round Top seemed days away.

“Don’t worry, it goes fast,” Mary said.

“I’m starving,” Peggy said, then sat bolt upright. “Say, is that a Fox print?”

I glanced to my right but couldn’t see the Fox. All I saw were piles of elaborate iron gates, mounds of quilts, shelves full of pottery. Leaded glass windows were stacked by the dozen. Antiques -- or something resembling them -- were everywhere. Piled on tables, spilling out of the back of trucks, cluttering the pastures like the aftermath of a very neat tornado. It was overwhelming.

The pressure inside the car built.

“Can we just park here?” I asked, gazing longingly at a table heaped with smalls. “I think I see some chalkware over there.” Plaster-of-Paris chalkware, whose cartoonish images were popular in the ‘30s, crumbles like dust and is hokey, but I am a sucker for the stuff.

“Yeah, and I’d like to go check out that print,” Peggy chimed in. Suddenly two men jumped out of a car ahead of us and made a run for a tent. Peggy and I struggled with our door handles.

“Stop it! Stop it!” Mary yelled, locking us in. “You’re not going anywhere! Not until we get to Round Top!”

A meal and a feast

Forty-five minutes later, we ditched the Suburban in a field of cars and stormed into the historic Rifle Assn. Hall of Round Top, population 81, where founder Emma Lee Turney first set up shop 35 years ago.

We descended like the three Furies, flying past old hooked rugs, flawless Amish quilts, burnished mahogany radios and a frightening set of chairs made out of cowhide, hoofs and horns.

At the back of the building we found what we were looking for: a monstrous kitchen serving an old-fashioned barbecue of chicken, potato salad, corn on the cob and German sausage. When the 80-year-old man serving us asked whether we wanted a “leg” or “white meat,” we tried not to snicker at his modesty. In this part of Texas, apparently, not even chickens have breasts.

We ate outside under a tarp, surrounded by Texas women in stiff glittery denim and diamonds the size of glass cabinet pulls. The air was twangy with accents, the chicken tangy with sauce.

Cleaning up with a few dozen napkins, we threw our plates in the trash, wiped the corn off our cheeks and headed for the tent to our right.

It was time to shop.

Within half an hour, my big sister bought a 200-pound cement Art Deco urn, immediately justifying the rental of the Suburban. Next she found a woven wicker chair from the ‘20s.

Overwhelmed, I stumbled through the sawdust aisles behind my siblings, peering at a staggering collection of highboys, hobbyhorses, pie safes, perambulators, moose heads, ventriloquist dummies, political buttons and books.

After a while, the merchandise grew so obscure that I began to wonder whether I was hallucinating. A magician’s trunk, a stuffed hippopotamus head, a deep-sea diving suit. Everything began to blend into a sea of wood and wool and metal and flesh, then the sea slowly began to churn.

“Come on,” my older sister said, prying my hands from a tent pole. “We’re heading up to Marburger’s.”

We were on the road again, the Suburban nosing toward a city of circus tents a half mile in the distance.

The Marburger Farm Antique Show set up shop a few years ago on a 23-acre patch of pasture just down the road from Round Top. We parked in a crowded field and ran toward the nearest entrance, grilling a baffled elderly man at the gate like one of the pieces of chicken at the rifle club.

“Closing time? Oh, in about a half hour,” he said, jumping out of our way as we ran shrieking past him. Stumbling through the door, I surveyed a vast plain of collectibles. It would take days to look at everything in this one tent. And outside were a dozen more like it.

I felt like a native of Pompeii, trying to figure out what to grab before disaster hit. There was too much to look at, too much to absorb. It was wonderful. It was hideous. It is what happens when Texas holds an antiques show.

My sisters were yards ahead of me, racing up the sawdust aisles like contestants on “Supermarket Sweep.” One glanced to the right for a second, then ran straight into a tent pole. I hurried to join them. The hunt was on.

We had reservations that night at the Lonesome Pine ranch outside Bellville, a bed-and-breakfast/dude ranch and one of the area’s only available lodgings.

We were spent from a hard day of traveling and shopping, so we decided not to take advantage of the ranch’s horseback rides or quail hunting. We did enjoy a lazy walk around the grounds, though, and the nickering conversation of horses in the fields beyond the barn.

Our room was on the bottom floor of a turn-of-the century farmhouse, a cozy respite packed with ornately carved furniture, including two narrow twin beds that Peggy and I tunneled into immediately after dinner. Mary made herself comfortable on a daybed in an anteroom. In the morning we dined on muffins, fresh fruit and cereal in the great room at the back of the house.

The quest resumes

We were soon back on the antiques trail, this time snaking our way through the tables, booths and barns of nearby Warrenton. Here a carnival atmosphere prevailed, complete with booths selling corn dogs and giant turkey drumsticks. We wandered amid the crowded tables and shacks, stopping to examine stacks of chenille bedspreads, antique games, abandoned diaries.

By then I had managed to clandestinely purchase a turn-of-the-century baby book for Peggy, who was expecting, and a 1930s chalkware fork and spoon for myself. I was finally getting into the swing of things. In fact, I felt as though I could go on for days. “Hey, let’s check out that barn,” I called to my sisters. “Hey, let’s see what’s in that shed. Hey! Where are you going?”

“Come on,” Mary called over her shoulder as she limped toward the parked car. “It’s time to go home.”

Just like that, my Round Top adventure was over. We piled into the Suburban one last time, arranging ourselves around the cement urn, the vintage table linens, the wicker chair.

Driving away, I watched the fields of dressers and wagon wheels and mirrors become meadows of bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush and bluebells once again. Soon the bluebells became gas stations and strip malls and suburban gallerias filled with slick items found in a hundred stores and a hundred thousand homes across the country.

I reached for the newspaper rolls that held my fork and spoon, thinking of their goofy, hand-daubed faces, their clunky charm, a charm that had whispered to me above the din of thousands of Round Top treasures. Next year, I told myself, I would listen even harder.

Diane Mapes is a freelance writer living in Seattle.