A man on a small tractor manages a tight squeeze through a pair of porta-potties positioned near the center of the Wise County Sheriff’s Posse Grounds. Old steering wheels dangle on wires like an odd form of modern art, and piles of polished metal hubcaps reflect like silver pools in the sunlight.
It’s another year at the Wise County Swap Meet.
Among the odd characters and even odder items is a rich tale of America’s automotive history. Every vendor, every item, tells a story. The collection of rusty volumes is read by historians as grizzled and weather-worn as the items they peddle.
“This is history,” said John Chadwell. “That’s what all this is. There’s not a swap meet I go to where I don’t learn something new. I’ve been in the car business for a long time, and I still learn something new every time.”
Chadwell’s white van pulled a trailer full of history south to Decatur from his home in Wichita Falls. A well-known collector, he was featured two years ago on History Channel’s “American Pickers.” He never misses the Decatur swap meet, which is in its 36th year.
A long, white metal object that resembles a missile rises up among his smattering of items.
“I was worried hauling this down here that I might get pulled over by police thinking I’m carrying a bomb,” Chadwell said while his long, white beard blows almost sideways in the wind.
The item is actually a fuel tank from a 1948 American jet called the T-33 Shooting Star. Its sleek design makes it perfect for people looking to transform cars into racers for the Bonneville Salt Flats in northwestern Utah.
“You put some tires and an engine and cut out a place to sit and you can turn this into a speed car,” Chadwell said. “It’s real aerodynamic, just a little weathered on the outside.”
He found the tank on a picking trip to Electra. He hopes to get $650 for it this weekend.
A couple of rows down, stepping over some mud puddles and dodging men zipping around on miniature motorcycles and golf carts, one can find Mike Ward, of Rogers, Ark., lounging in front of a trio of antique truck bodies. He’s been drawn here every year since the 1970s.
The rusted trucks have long grills that look like bars on a prison cell. Headlights bug out like a salamander’s eyes. The trucks are Ford Cab-Over-Engines, built in the 1930s and 40s. He explains how these were some of the first trucks used to haul commercial goods across America.
“These are the precursor to the semis,” Ward said. “The V/8 engine was underneath the seat. Anybody carrying anything from coast to coast used one of these. They carried 28- to 32-foot trailers instead of the 53-foot trailers you see today.
“They are pretty Spartan. No power steering, no air conditioner, no radios. You earned your money driving one of these. They are pretty hard to find.”
He’s hoping to get $3,500 each.
Meanwhile, halfway across the posse grounds, somewhere amid the 3,700 spots and more than 2,000 vendors, Skinny Pruitt has an even older and rarer version of the commercial truck in America for sale – a 1923 Ford model double-T truck. One of the first vehicles able to haul freight, it had a wide range of uses from delivering parcels for the U.S. Postal Service to hauling hay.
Pruitt, of Brownwood, helped restore this vintage truck to near-original condition almost 40 years ago – about the same time the swap meet started in Decatur. It still has its wooden and tin frame. Even the spokes on the tires are made of deep-stained wood.
“I hope if I live to be 90 I’m in as good a shape as this,” Pruitt said.
He’s hoping to draw $9,500 for his restored piece of four-cylinder history.
It’s easy to get lost in the stories hidden in the rust.
The event doesn’t only bring history to life, the crowds it draws serve as a major boom for the local economy.
“This is the first swap meet of the year,” said Randy Genzel, treasurer of Wise County Antique Auto Club, which sponsors the annual meet. “People have been working on their projects all winter. They meet or find vendors here who supply the parts they need to finish their winter projects.
“We’ll have 20,000 to 30,000 people walking through here on Saturday if there is good weather. An economic study done a few years ago showed that the meet adds $2.7 to $3 million to the local economy. We fill up every hotel between here and Bridgeport.”
The meet is one of the most popular in the region and the first held in the South. It runs 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday through Sunday, Feb. 24. It’s free and open to the public.