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Now in its twenty-second year, the “Great U.S. Route 50 Yard Sale” has joined the ranks of other regional yard sales like the World’s Longest Yard Sale, the Lincoln Buyway, and the National Road Yard Sale. These events, spanning hundreds of miles and often multiple states, typically take place along historical routes like Route 50.
Time magazine (July 1997) once called U.S. Route 50 the “Backbone of America.” At 3,000-plus miles, it is one of the longest highways in the country. It was created in 1926 and expanded in the 1940s to run coast-to-coast from Maryland to California. Its path runs through twelve states, the nation’s capital, and four state capitals.
Shopping the sale or otherwise journeying on U.S. 50 offers a nostalgic glimpse into an earlier America. Old gas stations, drive-ins, and motor courts greet drivers as the road meanders through small towns, rural stretches, and cityscapes. By the time Route 50 reaches the desert southwest, the landscape gets so empty that Life magazine (July 1986) nicknamed it “The Loneliest Road in America.”
Origins of the Route 50 Yard Sale
Like the road, the Route 50 sale is coast to coast. The idea for the sale was hatched in 2000 in Jennings County, Indiana. Taking a cue from other popular regional sales, retired school administrator Tom Taylor proposed to his town council the idea of an extensive yard sale along the historic road to boost tourism. The sale quickly grew to an annual, national event. Participation spread to virtually every state on the route. In an interview for Bloomington’s Herald-Times, Taylor said it became an affair “for people around the country to get on U.S. 50 and go one way or the other to shop local.”
Participation has varied yearly, although West Virginia, Ohio, Illinois, Kansas, Colorado, and Nevada seem to be consistently involved. Yet, the fluctuation often leaves those interested wondering whether there will be enough sales (or, for sellers, traffic) to make things worthwhile.
The Route Yard 50 Sale Hit Some Roadblocks in 2022
This year’s sale was somewhat underwhelming, particularly contrasted against last year’s post-COVID-fueled traffic. Both vendors and shoppers expressed some disappointment in the turnout. The activity was so sparse in places that many buyers questioned whether the sale was taking place. Some sellers were even unaware that a Route 50 sale existed; they were coincidently running yard sales the same weekend. Fewer than ten sales were evident in a seventy-mile stretch from west of Athens, Ohio, to east of Parkersburg, West Virginia.
Undoubtedly, lack of promotion was a factor. The Route50.com website, the central source of information on the sale, had not been updated since May 2019. Fortunately, many local organizations like the Ross-Chillicothe, Ohio visitors bureau, and the Cañon City, Colorado Chamber of Commerce, publicized the event on their sites. Yet, even many of those relied on boilerplate text that originated in Indiana in 2019.
Social media promotion, particularly on Facebook, was scant. What seemed to be the national Facebook page for the sale was actually for Hillsboro, Ohio. The sole other Facebook page was run by a family in Brownstown, Indiana, recruiting vendors for their rented booth spaces.
A couple of Facebook event listings, including one from a church in New Hope, Indiana, were also renting vendor spaces. Mostly, there was a collection of stray 2020 and 2021 listings that left would-be attendees scratching their heads as to the status of this year’s sale.
It’s Probably Time for National Coordination for the Route 50 Yard Sale
Given the sale’s extensiveness, it could undoubtedly benefit from some coordinated leadership across all twelve states. While Taylor spearheaded things and became the sale’s chief proponent, he confessed in an interview with the Bedford County Times-Mail that “I’ve spent less than $100 out of pocket to make it happen for this many years.”
The direction that exists is fundamentally local and disconnected. In the same Times-Mail article, Beck Allen, coordinator for the sale in Lawrence County, Indiana, “the sale gets bigger and bigger every year.” Yet, growth necessitates guidance. Sellers are ultimately responsible for their setup. There are no delineated hours and no cost to participate (although some entities like schools or fairgrounds will charge a fee to set up there as a fundraising effort). “What is sometimes confusing to folks is that this is a ‘just do it’ event. Disorganization is part of the concept.” Taylor said.
Route 50 Has Some Unique Factors Making Coordination and Publicity for its Yard Sale Important
Further complicating the sale and adding to the need for stewardship is the nature of Route 50 itself.
Unlike other regional yard sales roads, Route 50 is not always a leisurely two-lane motorway. Through some states, it is mostly or entirely a four-lane divided highway. That is the case in Maryland, Northern Virginia, much of Ohio, and even in remote parts of California. As a result, sales aren’t held roadside; they are in nearby towns or down side roads. Signs, if they exist, can be hard to spot and difficult to react to when driving 55-plus mph.
Additionally, because Route 50 originated in the auto age, towns can be far apart. On pre-auto routes like the National Road, towns sprung up about every eight to ten miles to serve wagon traffic. That creates a certain density of sales. On U.S. 50, towns can be twenty-five miles or more apart.
Fortunately, portions of U.S. 50 are very conducive to leisurely shopping. One popular stretch runs along the Ohio River Scenic Byway near Cincinnati. The path offers great river views and is sprinkled with small river towns hosting plenty of easily accessible sales.
With a varied and extensive route and a sale destined to grow, there is undoubtedly a need for greater local and national leadership. Solid coordination and publicity would ensure the Great U.S. 50 Yard Sale maintains its rank among the top regional yard sales in the country.
William Flood is a mid-century antiques dealer and writer specializing in twentieth-century commercial culture. He writes for numerous antique and collectibles publications on subjects like roadside architecture, 1950s modernism, and even vintage tiki culture. He is the author of two Ohio local history guides. When not writing, you might find him enjoying a small-town Main Street or taking the great American road trip.
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