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HILLSVILLE — This weekend's 44th Annual Labor Day Flea Market & Gun Show will transform Hillsville from a quiet town of 3,000 to one of the largest retail venues in the Southeast.
The number of vendors of new, used and collectible stuff nearly equals the number of town residents — and attracts an estimated crowd of around half a million shoppers.
Just two miles from Interstate 77, shoppers can find virtually everything — old, kitschy, useful or totally useless.
The show is considered to be the largest of its kind in the South and east of the Mississippi.
A wide variety of treats are also available. The smell of barbecued chicken, corn dogs, pizza, Thai food and hot grease for the fries and blooming onions hangs in the air.
Hamburgers sizzle on the grills, popcorn pops in kettles, and backfiring hit-and-miss engines whip up old-fashioned ice cream. Amusements for kids are available, too.
And people crowd onto the sidewalks and spill out into the street hunting bargains. So many people that the local school system has to shut down on Friday because buses just can’t get through.
All this from an event that started in 1967 as an indoor fund-raiser with just a few vendors to help finance a new Veterans of Foreign Wars post on East Stuart Drive.
The post home had collapsed that winter under a load of snow and ice. Laurel Fork native Pierce Webb, retired to Florida, had developed a gun collecting and trading hobby.
He shared the idea of a gun show and sale, popular in the South, with his friend Glenn Jackson, a VFW member. Police Chief Gene Pack endorsed the idea and Dennis Quesinberry, a local gun collector, also agreed to get behind it.
Jackson expected about 2,000 visitors that first year — but the show attracted twice that number and continues to grow.
In 2003, the flea market won the Blue Ridge Travel Association’s special events award.
The Grover King VFW still hosts gun dealers inside the post and multiple flea marketers on its ample grounds, but the event has swallowed the town whole and spread far beyond the VFW post. The VFW charges a small entry fee to the building and grounds.
Money the post raises from the flea market goes toward its operations. And much is returned to the community through donations to civic groups and people in need of help.
Two large cattle pastures — belonging to the Hundley and the Bowman families — added to the area available for vending. Twenty years ago vendors and shoppers had to work around the cow pies. Now flea market revenue is the prime source of income from the land.
Residents along Main Street rent out their yards to vendors and those along the side streets rent out theirs for parking.
Green lawns are a thing of the past after four days of pedestrian traffic.
The booths stretch from the stoplight at Main Street to the Bowman Festival lot — almost a mile of shopping pleasure.
Parking can be found from Interstate 77 to Main Street.
This year, visitors should pay attention to extensive road work between the interstate and Hillsville, as the state builds the U.S. 58 bypass. Routes and parking may be different than in years past.
Pets are not allowed, so you’ll have to make other arrangements for your furry friends.
People can start walking and shopping Friday at 8 a.m. Selling continues until 6 p.m. all days except for Monday, when selling ends at 4 — but bargains can be had from dealers who don’t want to haul their goods back home.
Labor Day Gun Show & Flea Market
Friday — 8 a.m.-6 p.m.
Saturday — 8 a.m.-6 p.m.
Sunday — 8 a.m.-6 p.m.
Monday — 8 a.m.-4 p.m.
VFW: (276) 728-2911
Gun Show: Melvin Webb, (276) 728-9810
Flea Market: Bill Davis, (276) 728-5237
Town of Hillsville: (276) 728-2128
Bowman’s: (276) 728-4340
Hundley’s: (276) 728-7172 or (800) 672-8093