On the Hunt for Paul Drake’s Lamp

One of the last big rural antiques fairs in the U.S., Round Top meets the quirky shopper's challenge. 

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Purpose driven? Oh, yes. Bug-eyed with purpose, and driven 210 miles round trip.

We must have a bottle-sprinkler-thingy, and to find one we’ll leave the office on a Friday (even that) and head east through prime Texas bluebonnet country, to reach the oldest, longest, and most labyrinthine trade day of the spring.

It used to be called the Round Top Antiques Fair, but after 39 years that’s a misnomer. The event stretches the length of Highway 237 between Oldenburg and Carmine, Texas, with more little colonies of traders’ tents as far east as Bellville and as far north as Burton. Any purpose-driven visitor will likely find the lure of inscrutible stuff on tables (and the crawl of traffic)  too powerful to resist; like us you’ll ditch the road and pay $5 for parking, miles before actually reaching Round Top.

And so the hunt begins! with immediate distractions – a giant cast iron jack (doorstop), a sateen nightgown worthy of Rita Hayworth, cardboard duck decoys, and S-E-A-F-O-O-D in three-foot red letters (which might be hauled home and re-purposed as E-DOOFAS.) The possibilities!

That’s why you need a mission. We had asked friend and neighbor Margaret Adie for one, and she was quick to comply. She needed an old bottle sprinkler, the kind people used to use to moisten laundry as they ironed. 

“Do you iron!!?” one vendor asked, her mouth opening with awe. Occasionally. But this is for Margaret, who uses such thing-a-ma-bobs in assemblage sculptures “for dog noses.”

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A map of the Round Top Antiques Fair, with “fields” of vendors from Oldenburg to Carmine


Round Top’s Antiques Fair is an assemblage itself, extending for miles around the core venues of the main event.  Nearby landowners in all directions rent their highway frontage to traders for about three weeks around the sale (March 27-April 5 this year). In the burg of Warrenton alone, there are 24 such “fields,” each with scores of vendors set up under white tents.

We’d barely begun picking through the booths at “Tree Park Field” when Bill hit the bullseye. Score! Teddi and Fred Neevel had a bottle-sprinkler, peeping out among old spoons and rolling pins in their “View of the Past.”  The Neevels, of Mountain View, Arkansas, are veterans of many Round Top shows, both the spring event and the only slightly smaller fall trade fair. Last autumn, a very hot October day, Fred suffered a stroke and had to be airlifted to a hospital in Austin. But here they were back again with their impeccably organized collections of bakelite, old Christmas ornaments, and kitchen hardware.

Julie Ardery
Highway 237 at Warrenton, Texas, Friday afternoon, April 3, 2009

“I try to keep everything older than the 1970s,” says Teddi. With the recession this year, “it’s been light,” though she believes they’ve done better than the “jewelry people and crafters.” A lot of the Neevels’ customers are looking for something specific as in  “I’ve got grandma’s dresser and need to replace a knob”  (as in, Margaret needs a bottle-sprinkler dog nose). “If it’s a matter of groceries or a cutesy sign to put in the yard,”Teddi says, “you choose groceries.”

Smug as all get out, mission completed, we spent the rest of the afternoon dwelling on the real attraction here – the traders themselves. Mona Montana (“That’s what I go by”) was here from Henderson, Texas. Her whole booth had blown down in Thursday’s high winds, but with help from nearby traders, she was able to get her stacks of palm leaf hats neatly arrayed again. A whirlwind herself, Mona talked up her merchandise while shaping big Guatemalan sombreros into natty western wear. “Do I get a Spanish lesson with that?” asked one customer, seated in a wheelchair and grinning beneath his new 7 and ¼.

Bill Bishop
Trader Randy Hale discusses how his international textiles have spun off lots of side business for purse-makers and resellers.

Randy Hale, out of Missouri City, Texas, had table linens and textiles from around the world — Russian paisleys (“We got ‘em right off the women’s heads!”), Belgian lace, and German table runners embroidered with red wool. “We’re six away from retail!” Randy chirped. Is that like six degrees of separation? Mull it over while Randy tells you about his latest ventures: carving agate crosses underwater and supporting a Kenyan orphanage….

Paula and Bob Dressel “were full timing,” living in their motor home and antiquing. They loved the Round Top Antiques Fair so well and so long (and their mobile home had gotten so cram packed) that they settled in Weimar, just down the road.  Each spring and fall they bring their RV up and spend three weeks at Tree Park Field in Warrenton. “This is our 21st show on this spot,” says Paula.

Bill Bishop
Paula Dressel, of Good Times Antiques, has for sale a lamp that a 1950s private detective could love
Paula’s been at this long enough to have developed an antiquer psychology. “As we’ve gotten older, they’ve gotten older,” she says of the antiques customer. “People in their 60s are downsizing”; collectors are mostly folks in the 30 to 50 age range. Paula’s found that today’s buyers don’t have much sentimental attachment “to mixing bowls and the everyday kinds of things that evoke the memories” for people of her own generation (things like bottle sprinklers!). She’s discovered that collectors of all ages are most often looking for the things they saw in their grandparents’ homes. For somebody born in 1965, what might that be? Paula steps across her booth and picks up a retro lamp, quite hideous, an object you might have seen in Paul Drake’s bachelor pad, right next to the space age ashtray. “Something like that,” Paula says, wrinkling her nose. “But don’t ask me what it’s going to be next year.”

And don’t ask us if there was a second bottle sprinkler in the greater Round Top Antiques Fair. We kept looking and never found but one.

 

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