News center
The company is seeking top-notch candidates.

Flea markets have long history

Jan 20, 2024

Every Labor Day weekend, the town of Hillsville, Virginia, sees an influx of shoppers browsing the flea market, filling the streets and keeping vendors busy. (Mount Airy Museum of Regional History)

This advertisement, printed in the Bull Mountain Bugle in 1970, highlights some of the goods on sale at the Hillsville Gun Show and Flea Market, along with listing the hours the market is open. (Mount Airy Museum of Regional History)

This photograph shows one of the earliest flea markets, located in Saint Ouen. The area is now a suburb of Paris, but at the time in the late 1800s, it was just outside the city limits. (Mount Airy Museum of Regional History)

For the more than half a century, every Labor Day weekend, a sea of antiques, collectables, rare knick knacks, and keen-eyed shoppers flow through the quiet town of Hillsville, Virginia. Customers travel miles from up and down the East Coast and beyond, to attend the Hillsville Gun Show and Flea Market, which is said to be the largest gun show and flea market east of the Mississippi.

From its humble beginning as a fundraising event for the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post, it has grown into a spectacle in its own right.

Flea markets can trace their lineage back to ancient times, with the idea coming from open air markets. The first ever "flea market," which more closely resembles what we envision today, is thought to have taken place in the 1800s in Paris, France. The term "flea market" comes from these early incarnations, thought to be due to the fleas that were said to infest the upholstery of furniture sold at the original French market.

It did not take long for the markets to make the jump across the Atlantic, and the first flea market in the United States is thought to have been set up in the late 19th century in Texas, though the exact location of the original American flea market is highly contested.

The Hillsville Gun Show and Flea Market was the creation of two area men, Glenn Jackson and Pierce Webb. In early 1967, the two were discussing the popularity of gun shows in the South and settled on the idea of opening their own in Hillsville. There was certainly a desire for such a thing, with both Gene Pack, the Hillsville police chief at the time, and Dennis Quesenberry, a local collector of fine guns, also considering the same idea at the time.

Jackson was a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Grover King Post 1115, located in Hillsville, and wanted the flea market to assist the post in raising funds. The organization had begun on May 15, 1935 with 27 local veterans from World War One as well as a handful of veterans from other wars. The post was named in honor of the first Carroll County serviceman killed during World War One, Grover C. King.

The post first held meetings in the county courthouse and moved into the organization's own specially built building in the mid 1950s. Only a few years later, the cost of the new building was paid off in full. But tragedy would strike not long after, when much of the building collapsed and was destroyed in 1968. This meant the VFW post would need to construct yet another building and was looking at ways to afford this new cost.

Knowing the VFW was looking for a new revenue stream and that a gun show would be a viable way of bringing in extra money and visitors to the county, Jackson approached the VFW with his idea, which was approved by the post, and the first Hillsville Gun Show and Flea Market was open for business in 1968.

Every year since 1968, aside from 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the gathering, the market has been up for four days over Labor Day weekend. The event started small, with its first year drawing in 100 vendors and 4,000 visitors. By 1989, there were 1,200 vendors and around 250,000 shoppers. These days, some estimates claim more than a half-million bargain seekers attend the market.

Jackson took a hands-on approach in the event's early years, from helping vendors set up on the day of, to driving around the South handing out flyers and sticking up posters. Jackson's marketing was such a success, and brought in so many people, that at one time some VFW members asked that the event stop being promoted as there were just too many people attending.

Another long running local flea market in North Carolina was the Sedgefield Flea Market, just a few miles south of Greensboro. Beginning operation around the same time as its Hillsville counterpart, the market was open one or two days every month. It eventually closed down in 2015.

During the 1970s, a fire broke out at the market, damaging much of the building it was housed in, and destroying thousands of dollars of inventory. At its height, the market saw thousands of customers stream through its gates, and close to 100 vendors.

In the western corner of the state, Asheville's Dreamland Flea Market opened in 1971, and closed down in the early 2000s. Nearby, ​Smiley's Markets & Malls, known as Smiley's Flea Market, was formed in 1984, and remains in operation. In 1991, owner Ben Campen attributed the popularity of flea markets to the low overhead costs for vendors, since usually spaces are rented out for a flat fee.

From France to Texas to North Carolina, flea markets have had a long history. Through their grass roots organization, flea markets often brings communities together, with people ready to both buy and sell all kinds of goods. Throughout their long history, there's always one thing flea markets have in common: you never know what you’ll find.

Katherine "Kat" Jackson is an employee at the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History. Originally from Australia she now lives in King. She can be reached at the museum at 336-786-4478.