BUNKER HILL, W. VA -- Here along the western edge of the Shenandoah Valley, a lengthy drought and an infestation of that insect horde known as the 17- year locusts have conspired to cut into the pocketbook.
The backyard garden patches that usually help sustain many families living on the edge of a shaky economy and help bring in a few extra dollars from makeshift roadside produce stands have been alternately baked and defoliated. So the resilient folks of the West Virginia panhandle have turned to other ways of making money.
The resurgence in domestic tourism that began when foreign terrorists knocked down the Twin Towers in New York has helped. Along U.S. Route 11 -- a road that runs from the Canadian border to the Gulf of Mexico and was part of Main Street U.S.A. before the interstate highway system was born -- the signs of transient dollars abound.
Heading northeast up through Front Royal, Middletown and Winchester, Va., then across the state line to this hamlet and neighboring Darksey, Leetown and Inwood, the signs of ingenuity are everywhere -- stands peddling fireworks just before you cross from Virginia, where they're legal, into West Virginia, where they're not; craft shops; RV shops; fast-food stands; Civil War souvenir stands -- and the everpresent yard sales.
To someone from the Northeast interested in "antiques" and odd, old pieces of furnishings, those yard sales look like the promised land. Back home, it long ago became impossible to find a bargain, what with everyone jacking prices up unmercifully to take advantage of the New York City types who haunt the upstate Albany/Saratoga area and New England and think the inflated prices charged for such quaint country items are a steal.
Pulling the car off the road behind a pickup truck so the New York license plate didn't tip off the amateur vendors, we stopped at one likely looking sale. A grouping of wooden furniture and a stack of dishes had caught our collective eye.
One piece in particular triggered a flood of memories. It was a smoking stand, the sort many of us had in our homes 30 years or more ago -- a boxy stand on four slim legs, with brass-plated ashtray, pipe- and match-holders on top, and a drawer that opened to provide space for pipe tobacco and other smoking equipment.
Pieces that remain in good condition are hard to find. We had seen some in our home area -- the kind cranked out at one time in the Bennington, Vt., area, and throughout New York's Hudson Valley where I live, but they were overpriced at $40 or so. This one looked like a bargain.
"I sure hate to part with it," the woman said. "It belonged to my granddaddy, and he used it right up to the day he died in our house. But times are tough, and we just had to sell our house and move into a trailer behind my uncle's place, so a lot of our stuff has gotta go."
We expressed appropriate sympathy, then asked how much for the stand.
"Well, it's hard to put a price on something like that. It's been around my whole life. Probably made down here in the Valley. Most of the good ones were. But I guess I could let it go for $35."
Tempting, but not good enough.
"Well, it is gettin' late, and maybe nobody else'll come by today that wants it. How about $25?"
Still tempting, but still not good enough. How about $15?
"You're tough, but we need the money, so ... well, OK. But take good care of it. It was my granddaddy's."
Three 5's and a smoking stand changed hands.
We looked at the stack of dishes that would have rounded out a collection of mismatched but unusual pieces we had for casual use at home. The prices were low and the hard-to-find dishes were selling fast. This would be a one-time-only chance.
The problem: the trunk of the car was so packed with vacation-travel paraphernalia that space was at a premium. It was the stand or the dishes. My computer-like logic analyzed the problem: a Shenandoah Valley smoking stand was worth $75 to $100 compared to the $40 value of one made up north near home. I'd paid $15. The smoking stand won the last spot in the trunk.
Days later, back home in Upstate New York, I was cleaning up the stand and reveling in my good fortune. Missing out on the dishes was a disappointment, but a genuine Shenandoah Valley smoking stand was great consolation. Just one more bit of grime to rub off the bottom ... What was this? A sticker that read: "A Cushman Furniture product, N. Bennington, Vt." -- a 20-minute drive from my house.
Estimated value: $15-$25 dollars.
Maybe the woman did spot the New York license plate after all.
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