Discovering Iowa one garage sale at a time


I may have found a new way to discover Iowa. Just hit the trail for the famous Highway 141 garage sales, as I did for a whole day last week. I found it’s a fun way to explore western Iowa, check out what’s happening in the little towns in that part of our state, and snag some bargains at the same time.

First of all, you really must start out early in the morning. I was in Ankeny at 7:30 to pick up my cohort for the day, and away we went in search of the best buys. Twelve hours and 170 miles later we were back at her house, with a back seat packed with purchases that made us happy in spite of being hot, tired, and bedraggled.

Along the way in those 85 miles headed west we went to 24 sales in eight towns and at four farms along the highway. We stayed away from the large suburb towns at the east end of the route and instead hit the open highway going west.

We were quite choosy about the sales we attended and certainly didn’t stop at every one we saw. If the garage looked tired or if we could tell everything for sale was baby clothes or baby equipment, we went on by. The place didn’t get our business, either, if everything that was for sale appeared it had just been carried out of the house and heaped on to a table. Or–worse yet–piled haphazardly on the lawn.

Just as much as shopping, I like to see these little towns that aren’t in my normal circuit. The smallest communities we were in had populations of just 128 and 132. Even so, there was activity and pride there even if just for one day. One town had a big sale under an awning next to their fire station, set your own price on whatever you want, with all of the proceeds earmarked for the fireworks fund for next July 4.

We checked for the school and churches in each town. Declining population in rural areas all over Iowa has resulted in school consolidations–and sometimes consolidations of consolidations–with only three of the towns where we shopped having an operating school. Several still had their empty school buildings, often with unmowed property and small trees and weeds growing in and around it. One had a plaque showing where the school building once stood, with the lot cleared and the grass mowed. Several of the buildings that had once seen busy classrooms, teachers, students, and school activities were being allowed to crumble. It made me sad.

Churches haven’t fared much better in these communities. We saw numerous closed church buildings that may have been converted for housing at one time but now stood empty, and at least one town had no active church at all. That was sad, too.

It was a great day, but even on a day trip it’s always good to get back home.