Hi-Way 13 Market brings vendors, visitors and sustainability to museum

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The Hi-Way 13 Vintage Market includes vendors with handmade and homemade items or re-purposed antiques and furniture. The spring event will be held Friday and Saturday, April 26 and 27, at the George Maier Rural Heritage Center in Elkader.

By Willis Patenaude, Times-Register


On any Sunday stroll around Elkader, you will almost certainly run into some piece of history or antique from another age—daily reminders of what life was like in simpler times, before the arrival of modernity and progression of technology. In no other place is this more on display than the George Maier Rural Heritage Center, which houses a collection of thousands of items dating as far back as the 1850s. 


Even the building that holds the “four shoveled gopher,” a wooden cultivator that is the oldest item on display, is a remnant of the city’s past. In 1919, it served as the livestock pavilion during the long-defunct Elkader Fair, before it transitioned to the Elkader Sales Barn in 1946. That lasted until 1998, when the last auction was held. 


This opened the door for an opportunity, seized upon by Clayton County native George Maier. He was a World War II veteran with an affinity for history and its preservation, and also a bit of a hoarder, accumulating a majority of the items on display in the museum over a 50-year period. 


Where some saw a piece of junk, Maier saw the story behind rural American life, especially the struggles of early farmers, something he had firsthand knowledge of growing up on a farm. It’s something he felt strongly people should be reminded about: to remember those pioneers now gone.


But preserving history and maintaining the vision set forth by Maier, who passed away in 2014, requires funding beyond the admission fee to the George Maier Rural Heritage Center. In recent years, one method has been the Hi-Way 13 Vintage Market. It popped up in 2019 after conversations among board members looking for ways to continue building upkeep, improve displays and promote the museum in a way that generated exposure and brought in more yearly visitors. 


The market, which is held in the spring and fall, has attracted between 600 and 1,000 people since its inception, providing a slight uptick in regular visitor traffic as well. The museum approaches between 1,200 and 2,000 people annually. 


Just as important as foot traffic is what the market has helped fund. According to board member Roger Thomas, money has repaired walls and supports to hold the building up, as well as window and clock restorations, while also helping to pay for construction of the breezeway built seven years ago. Added displays include a new pre-electricity bedroom with a rope bed, a Whistlin’ Bit Saddle Club display and numerous projects put together by Central students, like an arrowhead and vintage Valentine’s Day cards. 


Starting a vintage market just doesn’t happen. It takes time and effort and is a “huge commitment,” said Thomas. He knows a thing or two about that commitment, having been a vital part of traveling around the state looking for vendors, often through visiting other markets and in face-to-face conversations. Many weekends have been consumed in the pursuit of the market, and it also includes his wife Rosemary, who works on the posters. Thomas’s daughter, though she resides in Des Moines, is often posting on the museum social media pages. The preservation of history is a “family affair,” Rosemary joked. 


There is some criteria in what the museum looks for in vendors. That includes not duplicating vendors, as well as seeking out vendors with handmade and homemade items or re-purposed antiques and furniture. Even the odd item is welcome, like the time a vendor showed up with a tortoise shell, never believing he would sell it. The shell was purchased by a kid Thomas remembered walking through the market carrying the shell with the biggest of smiles. 


Among the 20 or so vendors for this year’s market are Vivaciously +, a mobile boutique that has something for everyone, Tiffany & Weller with wood engraved signs made on their family farm along with a line of soaps and lotions. More Than Sheds will have quality outdoor furniture on display, and River’s Edge Gems has diamond and gemstone jewelry.  


Returning to the Market are vendors like Live Edge Wood Creations by MPCI with end tables, coffee tables, signs and benches made from various woods. Brickyard Wines, LLC will have samples of their newest flavors, and 8Twisted Designs is the place for one-of-a-kind unique pieces of forged metal, Steampunk, repurposed Victorian and wire jewelry. 


The market also welcomes new vendors like Henry’s Kin, which specializes in up-cycled and re-imagined metal art and decor with whatever random pieces of junk they can get their hands on. According to the museum, “their workshop is a 100-year-old barn and everything is hand-drawn, hand-cut and each item is a little different.” 


Local Dancing Shamrock Bathworks will display handmade artisan soaps, bath bombs, body products and more.


However, securing vendors is only half the battle. The other is getting the building ready by cleaning, organizing it and setting it up. It sounds simple enough until you realize the building for the market stores some of the museum’s antiques, like numerous tractors, wagons and large pieces of farm equipment, the majority of which no longer runs. 


Accomplishing this monumental effort relies on another piece of history: more specifically, an old Allis Chalmers 5020 compact utility tractor, circa 1977-1985. Riding atop a piece of recent history, Thomas hauls pieces from yesteryear out of the building to make way for more modern items or refurbished antiques. The task is not simple, so one has to wonder why Roger and Rosemary continue to do it when they could be off enjoying retirement. 


It obviously has to do with history and preserving it, since so much can be learned from the past. There’s also the element of “potential” Thomas referenced, for the museum and the impact it has and could have on Elkader. This drives Thomas to support it and find others who will do the same so it can be so much more. 


The museum is part of the town, and even though it doesn’t reside on the other side of the bridge, in downtown, it has a positive impact. At least that’s what travels through the small-town grapevine during market time, when other businesses attest to an uptick in shoppers. The market is as much about preserving history as it is about preserving the town in which it resides. 


“I’m committed to the idea. I care about the value of history and telling the story of rural America, and I hope the local citizens realize how lucky they are,” Thomas said. 


The spring Hi-Way 13 Market will open this weekend, Friday, April 26 from 3 to 7 p.m., and Saturday, April 27 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. 

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