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"If you can pile it deep and sell it cheap, that's Canton, Texas'

Anything you can think of you can buy here.

Anything.

Cookie jars and combat helmets. Barber's chairs and bear traps. Fine art and license plates. Even a lock of a founding-father's hair.

If someone wants it, sooner or later, they're going to find it at First Monday Trade Days.

First Monday is thought to be the nation's largest flea market, a 300-acre hodgepodge of who-knows-what-you'll-see-next that is to browsers what a marathon is to distance runners. Placed end to end, the zigzagging rows of tables, tents and booths chock-full of stuff would stretch 30 miles.

The hectic scene draws up to 7,000 dealers and 200,000 tourists to Canton during the Friday-through-Sunday before the first Monday of every month. The otherwise tranquil Texas town of 2,939 is a one-hour drive east of Dallas on I-20.

"This is a mess, madness _ join the madness," Kenneth Conard, 65, a veteran dealer of self-described "middle low-end junk" said during a recent First Monday extravaganza.

Hand-me-down glassware, trophies, guitars, military uniforms, wagon wheels, clocks and glossies of Humphrey Bogart were strewn on folding tables around Conard's well-worn mobile home. The clutter itself was impressive.

"I don't have anything outstanding," said Conard, from Shreveport, La. "But there's a face for everything I've got _ if the face shows up. Everybody's got different tastes."

Kansas City area antique dealer David Lane had heard tales about a Texas bazaar so bizarre it had to be seen to be believed: a colossal swap-and-shop overflowing with trekkers on a journey to the center of the flea market universe.

"They told me that 15 miles away you could see the dust coming up in the middle of summer from people tramping around and looking for stuff to buy," said Lane, owner of Memory Lane Antiques, in Mission, Kan.

It's where Lane has sold trinkets and treasures alike, from a miniature plastic Fresca bottle for a buck to a Tiffany lamp that fetched $4,700.

"The crowd almost feeds on itself, where you get people just panic-stricken that someone else is going to get the bargains before they can. It's an experience that anybody who's an antiquer ought to go through at least once."

Visitors have been traveling to Canton since the early 1850s. The tradition grew from the circuit judge coming to town on the first Monday of every month. Crowds began horse trading and bringing extra crops and other goods for sale and trade.

"They hanged people every first Monday," said J.G. Littlepage, 71, a First Monday regular for 25 years. "So people came in and traded guns and horses and knives. And they just turned it into a flea market around the old courthouse square. It just grew and grew."

And grew. First Monday attendance climbed to 5,000 a day by the 1950s. In 1965 the city of Canton purchased the event's 6 acres and divided it into spaces for a small fee. Today 15 operators maintain the sprawling grounds as separate "villages." Since 1991, 15 all-purpose pavilions have been built, as well as a 30,000-foot civic center occupied strictly by antique dealers for the monthly flea market.

It's seemingly endless.

"You couldn't see it all if you stayed two weeks," said Glenn Morris, a longtime vendor of vintage jukeboxes, pinball machines and other coin-operated amusements who works from his wheelchair.

"If they ever made one of them, it's probably out here somewhere," he said. "And it's cheaper."

A 1920s Flexible Flyer snow sled that might cost $60 in Dallas _ if you can find one _ runs only $25 from a dealer who comes all the way from New England to sell horse-drawn sleighs, blanket boxes, lobster traps and fishing nets.

Wheeling and dealing at Canton is what it's all about to Tommy Townsend of Fort Worth.

Wearing a red bandanna and a beaded necklace, Townsend operates under a large tent that attracts those seeking shade as well as a few dollars off. He turns his inventory every 90 days, whether it's 19th-century books, costume jewelry, wicker baskets or antique furniture _ whatever he can pluck for a good price at auctions or elsewhere and then resell.

Just anticipating being at First Monday gets his capitalistic juices flowing.

"I'm so nervous the night before, I can't sleep," he said. "I'll sell anything. If you can pile it deep and sell it cheap, that's Canton, Texas."

Rusty Maisel from Aledo, Texas, believes he attracts a slightly higher clientele _ folks who want to inspect his signed Marc Chagall prints, first-edition King James Bible or 10 colorless human hairs supposedly taken from the head of George Washington and framed under glass.

Maisel can't resist the impulse to buy, either, like the time he rummaged around for old license plates. "One Christmas, I gave everybody a license plate from the state and the year of their birth," he said. "That went over big."

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