THE SMALL CITY OF CANTON, TEXAS, ON First Monday Trade Days may be the only place in the nation where you can buy a designer western lamp and a live fighting cock at the same time-all while eating cotton candy or a “gourmet” tamale smothered with chili and cheese.
A sprawling, bustling bazaar where farmers in overalls hunting for discount tools brush up against Ralph Lauren-clad matrons scrounging for good deals on Fiestaware, First Monday is the largest and longest-running trade event of lis kind in America. It started in 1850, when farmers and ranchers began bringing their extra produce and animals to sell on court days in Canton, about 55 nines east of Dallas. As the sales got bigger, the city provided land for booths where sellers could put out their wares.
The event has grown to such an extent that during the trade days, Canton swells from a population of 3,000 to up to 200,000, and even more in the months before Christmas. About 7,000 vendors come from all over the United States to participate. Sellers and buyers alike show up in thousands of recreational vehicles to make a weekend of it. Plan ahead if you want to spend the night; the handful of motels and the 57 or so bed-and-breakfasts in Canton are usually booked well in advance.
For years, loyal shoppers from Dallas have made a monthly pilgrimage to Canton to browse for antiques, load up on seasonal crafts, buy a puppy, and paw through tables of other people’s household junk. But Canton is not just a giant garage sale. Dallas designers and savvy decorators make a point of hitting First Monday as soon as it opens. Before the hordes of shoppers arrive, they snap up unique furniture, antiques and artisan-made accessories that sell for twice as much in Dallas stores.
“We just got wiped out by a store in the Galleria,” says Lana Hightower of G&L Trading Co., who sells horseshoe toilet paper holders, lamps and western collectibles at Canton, explaining why her inventory was low on a Friday in April.
Jamie Elizabeth Huizenga, known in Dallas for her floral shop Dr, Delphinium, has opened a store called Hermitage in an old white building in Canton that was formerly a church. It features ecclesiastical art, antique garden ornaments, ancient pottery, artifacts from Israel and antique furniture, carvings and stained glass from Europe and South America, at prices ranging from a few dollars to hundreds of dollars. Huizenga, who lives with her husband Luit on a ranch near the town, says that Canton was a logical place to open her new store. “People come here to shop,” Huizenga says.
In addition to home furnishings, shoppers looking for fashion can find unique clothes, jewelry, leather goods, and-well, just about everything. “If you can’t find it at First Monday Trade Days, chances are it doesn’t exist, ” Smithsonian magazine declared a few years ago.
But where to start? The First Monday Park, with open-air booths and food kiosks, covers 150 acres; but that’s not all there is to shopping Canton. On trade days the Canton Civic Center on the west side of the grounds is filled with fine antiques and collectibles. This is always a good place to hit about 2 p.m. on a hot day because it’s one of the few fully enclosed air-conditioned buildings on the grounds. Most of the booths offer china, silver, glassware, furniture and collectibles too precious for vendors to risk exposing to unpredictable Texas weather.
Canton’s town square, with sit-down restaurants and quaint shops, is located near the main gate to the trade grounds. You’ll find handmade lace, cowboy boots, new and vintage quilts, clothes and gifts. These stores are open all month, not just for trade days.
The30-acre “Dog Town” is two blocks away off Highway 64. Many of the booths offer items you’d find in a yard sale, but the attraction here is the animals-puppies, kittens, guinea hens, button quails, ducks, geese, parrots, Japanese koi (fish), iguanas, pythons, llamas, ducks, goats, cattle, potbellied pigs and, yes, fighting roosters. There’s even a petting zoo. Horseback riders will find all sorts of rope and tack.
Across Highway 64 is the Old Mill Marketplace, a group of six covered pavilions. (We discovered metal artist Troy Thompson here; for $65 we took home an unusual, handcrafted metal sundial for the garden.) Adjacent to the Marketplace is another shopping area with a twist: Wild Willie’s H Mountain, on a hillside off Highway 64, created by Dwight “Wild Willie” Martinek, a metal sculptor-turned-developer whose long gray beard makes him look like a Forty-Niner. A visit to Wild Willie’s is like stepping into a spaghetti western, complete with a jail where “transgressors” are locked up.
Martinek, who might be called “the Texan who went up a hill and came down a mountain of gold,” began coming to Canton 12 years ago. He quickly found he could sell more of his work at First Monday than in an art gallery-even though his metal sculptures cost up to $9,000. Canton, he realized, was no flea market.
Last year, Dwight and his son Dustin began developing the 30-acre “mountain” as a western theme park, complete with characters dressed in period costumes, musicians, gun-fighters and teepees for rent. It took off like a gunshot through the crown of a Stetson.
Three phases-Pioneers, Settlers, and Frontiers-are now open, with 500 western-style shops and four restaurants along trails winding up the hillside. Among the shops featuring collectible dolls and unusual crafts are working artisans-blacksmiths, a stone carver, a glass blower, a dress designer and a silversmith. Some take commissions for special projects. Stone carver Odis Matthews III often makes mantels and tables of Texas shale and limestone for Dallas homes. In his shop, a small entry table of thick limestone with an iron base sells for $75.
If Martinek bas his way, Canton will reach a critical mass that will make it a weekend destination not just for shoppers, but those looking for year-round entertainment. Instead of three or four days a month, Martinek s mountain is open for the 10 days leading up to First Monday. He’s building a 1,000-seat Branson-style theater, scheduled to open this summer, where country-western stars will perform. Construction is underway on Phase IV, called City Slickers-a shopping area dedicated to the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, also dubbed the “Bonnie and Clyde Days to the Route 66 Era. ” And Martinek has plans for a Hopalong Cassidy museum, hotels and movie houses.
It’s wacky and wild, and will only add to the fun. But longtime Canton lovers know the entertainment is already there: Eat, walk, shop, spend-then find your car if you can. The drive back to Dallas takes about an hour, long enough to remember what you forgot to buy and make plans to come back next month.
Attention, Shoppers: Things to Know About Canton
1 When to Go. First Monday Trade Days take place the weekend of the first Monday of every month. But if you wait until Monday, you’ll find empty booms. First Monday now opens on Thursday, when designers looking for the hottest trends shop. By late Sunday afternoon, vendors are packing away their goods-making it a good time to bargain. They’d rather sell it than take it home.
2 Payment policies vary. Many vendors take checks or credit cards, some don’t. Some collect sales tax, others don’t. Dickering over prices is perfectly acceptable, even expected. Want to get the best deals? Be prepared to pay cash.
3 Parking is an art in Canton, Most lots cost S3; follow the signs at the Canton exits. For the cheapest lor, take the Highway 17 exit and go right at the ostrich farm. Follow the signs to the S2 lot near Wild Willie’s II Mountain. Shop the crafts and artisans at Wild Willie’s, then catch the $1 shuttle (it runs every 30 minutes) to the east and main gates of the Trade Days grounds.
4 Getting Around. Buy one of the $1 maps at the honor-system stands located near the entrances. Note the locations of air-conditioned pavilions and indoor bathrooms. (Port-a-potties are everywhere.) And if you know you are going to be buying, bring a child’s wagon or rent a pull cart for $5.
5 Refreshments. There’s food you would find at the State Fair-corny dogs, turkey legs, sausage-on-a-stick, funnel cakes and “tater” twisters. But you’ll also spot que-sadillas, grilled chicken, fried catfish, Cajun boudin, barbecue ribs, gyros, New York cheesecake and-God help us-cappuccino and Italian sodas. Note: The “Margarita Ville” Mexican food kiosks do not sell frozen margaritas. Canton is dry, meaning no beer, no wine, no mixed drinks. The best thing to slake your thirst: fresh-squeezed lemonade-shaken, not stirred-available at booths scattered around the grounds.
Some Best Buys Spotted at Canton
● Bunch of red dogwood branches for floral arrangements…$10
●Hall-price Brighton leather belts…$24
● Kilim clogs..$80
and (16-inch) pillow covers…$27
● Uruguayan stamped leather backpack…$29
● Horseshoe log holder…$24
● Cowhide rug…$129
● Silver-and-amher earrings…$19
● Stripped aspen or cedar (queen-size) headboards…$200
● Deer antler table lamps…$50
● Carved wooden Santos (saints) from Central America…$8-$10
● Handmade wedding-ring quilt…$150