If you walk around the Hickory American Legion Flea Market on an early Thursday morning, you’re bound to see some interesting things for sale.
There’s military gear. Piles of used tires. Comic book collections.
Miniature cacti farms. Live animals. Basically, if the flea market had a motto, it would probably read — “You want it, we sell it.”
But if you look past the famous baseball card collections and homemade jewelry stands hard enough, you will quickly realize there are few professional hagglers roaming the American Legion Fairgrounds. You will see that vendors selling their various goods are just normal people trying to make an extra buck or two in hard economic times.
Robert Starnes, of Caldwell County, was The Ice-Cream Man at the fairgrounds Thursday and used a 1906 Hit and Miss Engine to churn out homemade ice cream for the large crowds. But watching Starnes effortlessly operate and show-off the custom-rigged ice cream machine, you will never believe the former Newton native used to work in construction.
“I used to lay rock for a living,” Starnes said. “But I had to find something else to do when all these foreclosures started happening.”
Starnes said as the economy started to decline in the mid-to-late 2000s, he had a harder time trying to find work.
Since January 2005, there have been more than 5,500 foreclosures start in Catawba County alone, according to state records. That total is about 13.7 percent of the homes that were owner-occupied in the 2000 census, records show.
Some economists and recent statistics suggest that more positive financial times are to come, but the foreclosures due to faulty bank loans and unsteady incomes are still occurring.
In May 2011, there were 36 foreclosure starts in Hickory — that’s about one in every 997 homes, according to realtytrac.com.
With home building stalled and foreclosures still occurring, Starnes and his wife, Jill, turned to making homemade ice cream at fairs, sales events, social events and parties across the area. On Saturday, Starnes will travel to Jamestown, Va., to sell his vanilla, strawberry, butter pecan and peach ice cream flavors. His 1906 Hit and Miss Engine powers his ice cream machine to make 10 gallons of cream at a time in 35 to 40 minutes, he said.
“I had to do something to make a little money,” Starnes said. “But it seems to bring a lot of joy to people, and I enjoy it.”
‘The poor man will survive’
A few stands down from Starnes, several vegetable vendors sell tomatoes, peppers, corn, potatoes and other various goods.
Jackie Wilson, who lives between Newton and Maiden, sells tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, potatoes and honey that he grows in his home’s garden.
“I’m out here to help the poor people, as well as myself,” Wilson said, adding that he sometimes gives his excess crops away if he cannot sell or eat all of them.
Wilson sells his goods for a low price — not more than a few dollars a pound. He said that the struggling economy is not going to change until the federal government and upper class give in.
“The rich man is going to have to squeal before it gets better,” Wilson said. “America has sold out to everyone overseas — you show me where she hasn’t.”
Wilson said if he tried to grow crops for a living, he wouldn’t survive, adding that a lot of days he has to give crops away so they don’t go bad.
“The government and rich might be able to get the poor man down on his knees, but he’s going to get back up again,” Wilson said. “The poor man will survive.”
From pubs to puppies
Most vendors at the flea market are looking for supplemental income.
Richard Strickland, of Hickory, sells pit bull puppies at the flea market from time to time. His Strickly Bully pups range from $300 to $1,500 and are full-bred pits from award-winning lines of descent.
Strickland said he used to own a bar in town, but said “it didn’t work out” when the economy turned south.
“Because the economy sucks, I’m trying to find ways to supplement my income,” Strickland said. “Right now, with the economy, I’m going to school and selling puppies to get by.”