Last month we embarked on a three week road trip through the heartland of America. Three weeks became four when the new cargo trailer we picked up en route was totaled—hit from behind while we were stopped for a red light—in a state that shall remain nameless but is full of bad drivers, turnpikes and boardwalks.
Their insurance company ordered us a new trailer, and with the damaged one still roadworthy, we taped up the smashed-in rear doors to seal out rain and continued on, using just the side door after that. Pulling a long trailer through 19th century towns is one thing, but road construction forced us to cross Manhattan on 42nd Street, so nothing was daunting after that. Well, nothing except Route 1 in Jersey at rush hour.
Over 8,000 miles, we filled the duct-taped wonder with antiques and collectibles from North Dakota to New York before the wreck, and from Virginia to Nebraska afterwards, enough to stock the shop for the next year or so.
Mostly we hit estate sales at farmhouses and barns full of beautiful desks, spinning wheels, oil lamps, Art Nouveau sideboards, Arts & Crafts cabinets, walnut tables, old advertising art, family heirlooms from Scandinavia and Europe, and American mid-century modern furnishings in amazing condition—not to mention all the California pottery you could want. Buying what’s undervalued in each region turned out to be a good strategy.
But what was the most fun was seeing these beautiful treasures in their settings—in Prairie Style homes and Arts & Crafts farmhouses of families whose great grandparents came from Sweden or Norway or Germany. We are so accustomed to placing a special heirloom or newly discovered antique as an accent piece in late 20th century southwestern homes that we forget what it was like to have all the furnishings blend with the home’s period architecture and built-in details.
One Nebraska dealer spends winters here in Green Valley, where she buys Midwest antiques to bring back to their place of origin, only to be sold again (we let them stay put).
Funky finds included a mint condition pink, white and aqua Maytag wringer washer, spinning wheels, and a treadle sewing machine in a beautiful wood cabinet with its original accessories.
We stopped at a lakeside shop in Wisconsin that the owner had just re-opened for the summer with the goal of selling off everything half-price to close the shop by Labor Day. The pre-2008 level of summer visitors had just never returned. Hall tables of reclaimed barn wood and hall benches fashioned from old spindled headboards jumped into the trailer to join us on our circuitous trek. I felt sad her loss was our gain. Her husband came down to the shop to chat. Having seen our trailer parked out front, he assumed we were moving into the vacant shop next door. After talking antiques a while, he said he wished we were the ones moving in, because there weren’t many “of us” left there.
To add to our personal collections, we stopped at a 116,000 sq. ft. antique mall in Ohio that took most of the day to walk. Although we avoid buying from other dealers for resale, some were there restocking their spaces and sold to us for a fraction of the marked price.
Capturing the Moment. The secondary goal of the trip was to photograph the farmlands, landscapes and cityscapes of the heartland. We chose scenic, historic routes over freeways, capturing the images that touched our hearts: the beautiful family farms and towns that served them, many reinventing themselves in one way or another to survive; the old westward expedition routes along rivers, now dotted with vineyards.
Many Midwestern farms have gone co-op, or have been leased out, but some are still family-run and struggling. A friend who inherited his family’s Iowa farm told us thieves sneak onto farms at night, clearing old growth stands of walnut and “salvaging” the wood from 19th century historic barns, even those not collapsed yet. Learning that, we sought out the identity of woodcrafters of any barn wood pieces.
The people were so friendly in the heartland that we talked of retiring there—until driving for hours in Nebraska under a tornado watch, through a massive thunderstorm with some pretty scary cloud formations.
Somewhere in Time. The economy had not recovered anywhere along our route. The downside was that our infrastructure is in an abysmal state of disrepair, specifically highways and bridges. The upside is that we rarely needed reservations for a hotel. Dining at the Grand Hotel overlooking Lake Huron on Mackinac Island was every bit as romantic as the Christopher Reeve film suggested. Mackinac is the Valhalla of cyclists (no cars allowed anywhere), so we rented a tandem to pedal around the perimeter of the island. At least the bike path was smooth.
Staying within walking distance of Niagara Falls, we crossed on foot to Canada for a gourmet meal overlooking the changing lights on Horseshoe Falls and setting up tripods after dinner to shoot the enormous mid-July “Honey Moon” rising over the falls. Most of the tourists along the railing were from other countries.
We even snagged last-minute tickets for a special tour of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater in Pennsylvania that allowed us to photograph indoors. With fewer visitors, we were also able to shoot exterior images without waiting long for people to clear the scene.
If you haven’t taken that summer vacation yet, I highly recommend a road trip of mid-America to refresh your spirit, reignite hope, and contribute to the challenged economy of a beautiful region. The roads should be better soon…I’m pretty sure that since our loaded trailer cut fuel mileage by 1/3, we shelled out enough gas tax to fund their highway construction…well, maybe enough to fill a couple of vintage potholes.
A professional member of IIDA, Diana earned her specialty LEED credential for Interior Design + Construction in 2013, having earned her LEED AP in Building Design and Construction in 2006. She worked for Del Webb Corporation designing semi-custom interiors, and spent thirteen years with a local builder supplier before returning to work as an independent designer. She also operates an antiques dealership and teaches sustainable design, space planning, materials and estimates, and color theory at the college level. In creating livable interiors, she is particularly sensitive to not allowing our high-tech lifestyles and the interior walls of our homes to divide us from one another, and has been focusing on Mid-century Modern design in recent years. Diana can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org