A road trip on Nebraska's 300-mile jaunt for 'junk'

Nearly 700 vendors make Junk Jaunt a must for pickers and day-trippers

by Leigh Elmore

Now this was a road trip any picker would enjoy – the Junk Jaunt through central Nebraska. If you're looking for a weekend filled with treasure hunting, the annual 300-mile yard sale along some of Nebraska's most scenic by-ways is a sure winner. Mark your calendars for the last weekend in September 2014 when the people of Nebraska empty their attics, basements and garages and put it all out for sale.

The fairgrounds in Burwell attracted veteran Junk Jaunt vendors.

This was the 10th annual Junk Jaunt, which covers a highway loop in central Nebraska, which leads from Grand Island and Cairo in the southeast to the towns along Hwy. 91 for 150 miles, generally heading northwest. The route then jumps over to Hwy. 2 and continues for about 150 miles southeast through Broken Bow and back to Cairo. At least that was the route that I took to investigate just how popular the Junk Jaunt really is. "This year was bigger and better than ever," said Peggy Haskell of Burwell, the general coordinator for the event. "This year we had 675 registered vendors. When we started out 10 years ago we had 150," she said. "The reputation is definitely growing and we see a lot of out-of-state license plates."

Seen only on the Junk Jaunt: nice furniture for sale in a field near Dannenbrog. The horse trailer was not for sale.

Statistics show that the Junk Jaunt" has become a nation-wide event. Informal surveys of license plates in 2009 and again in 2011 show that it draws shoppers from 34 states, several from Canada and 79 of Nebraska's 93 counties. Conservative estimates of 'junkers' who shop the 30-35 Junk Jaunt communities has increased from 2,000 to more than 20,000 today, Haskell reported. And while this year's event was advertised for Sept. 27-29, many shoppers, especially dealers, come earlier in the week and try to make off with good deals before the masses arrive. On Friday the towns of Cairo and Broken Bow were filled with shoppers. "By Saturday, most dealers have done their thing and the by-ways and towns are attracting families and day-trippers," Haskell said.

The fairgrounds in Burwell attracted veteran Junk Jaunt vendors.

Each town along the way is free to handle the event as they see fit. In some of the smaller villages such as Dannebrog, Elba and North Loup it seems much like a day of yard sales at home. In some towns such as Cairo, Burwell and Broken Bow, vendors banded together at community centers and fairgrounds to give travelers more of an opportunity for one-stop shopping. Grand Island offered the most "urban" of settings for vendors as the two large antique malls downtown – the Heartland Antique Mall and Rail Road Towne Antique Mall – were doing good business on Friday evening.

Mother and daughter team, Pattye Fontaine of Milken and Jerrie Solomon of Colorado, sold jewelry in Broken Bow.

In Cairo, the local community center was filled with vendors inside and on the surrounding grounds. "We're seeing buyers from all over," said Jo Sydzyik. "I saw license plates from Pennsylvania and Washington. We're getting a national reputation." On Cairo's downtown strip Saturday morning Junk Jaunt Board Member Walt Sorensen was busy helping a mob of shoppers in his store, Oak Creek Mercantile. "We buy stuff all year long and put it in here," he said. "Then we open it up for the Junk Jaunt. This is the only time of the year that we're open for business." In Dannebrog, "The Danish Capital of Nebraska" vendor Bruce Schroder said, "this is the best traffic we've ever had in our four years of participating." The community was out in support and coffee and Danish (what else) were available at the historic St. Steven's Lutheran Church.

Up in Burwell on the edge of the Sandhills, dozens of vendors had taken over the fairgrounds, which also serves as the home of the Nebraska Big Rodeo. The largest vendor seemed to be a group of United Church of Christ members who were using the proceeds from their group sale to raise money for Kamp Kaleo, a not-for-profit summer camp and retreat located on the North Loup River.

Mother and daughter team, Pattye Fontaine of Milken and Jerrie Solomon of Colorado, sold jewelry in Broken Bow.

By the time I arrived in Broken Bow on Sunday morning, the mad rush was over, but couples and families were still trickling through. Mike Evans was busy directing traffic through his family's corner storefront called simply the Evans Clan. He runs the family feed business down the street, but stocks the building every year for the Junk Jaunt. "This is our 10th year participating in Junk Jaunt and we open the store once a year specifically for it. We've developed a good following and we've gotten a lot of repeat customers," Evans said.

A stately home is an attractive backdrop for a jewelry stand in Broken Bow.

And if you tire of looking at other people's "stuff" then there's always the scenery of the Great Plains. You can see for miles on the high ground above the North Loup River, which parallels Hwy. 91 as it leads travelers out of corn country into the Sandhill ranchland farther west. The sumacs had turned a blazing red along the road indicating that fall had finally arrived.

Sumac ablaze along the North Loup River Scenic Byway (Hwy. 91).

But the real indicator of the turning of the season is the Junk Jaunt itself, which brings Nebraska's people together for a weekend of fun, and draws attention to the friendliness and hospitality of Nebraska's residents as well as the beauty of the plains.

My advice if you're coming next year: come early and stay late. Drive safely and be sure to enjoy the expansive views.

Leigh Elmore can be contacted at editor@discoverypub.com