PINELLAS PARK — After nearly 55 years, the Wagon Wheel Flea Market will close down for good.
Or rather, it will not reopen. The Wagon Wheel, one of the biggest, oldest flea markets in Florida, shut down on March 15 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The owners had hoped to reopen in March, then April and May. But on Wednesday they announced on Facebook that they are closing down permanently. They did not disclose why they are shutting down, but retail sales plunged during the pandemic as governments restricted non-essential businesses to slow the spread of the virus.
“Thank all of you for your patronage and support. This has been the most difficult decision we have ever made as a family. We wish you all the best. It is with tears and fond memories that we say goodbye and thank you,” wrote the Huntley family.
Kevin King, 41, grew up helping his grandfather with his firearm booth at the flea market at 7801 Park Blvd N. His grandfather would give him a few dollars to buy a bear claw at a nearby fresh pastry booth, before promptly returning to work.
The gun vendor died when King was 17, so their time together at the market is his fondest memory of his grandpa.
“To think about a place as iconic as the Wagon Wheel going away, a place that endured so much, it’s an iconic landmark. It was never not busy,” King said.
“This is the worst news, I have been going there for 26 years and feel bad for the vendors. I hope they can all find a different way to sell their goods. I will miss it but thank you for all the years that I did enjoy it,” wrote Deborah Barone Jonneaux on the market’s Facebook page.
The flea market was founded by Hardy Huntley, who hitchhiked to Florida in the 1950s after dropping out of high school in Rutherfordton, N.C. He opened his own drive-in restaurant, which is where he met his future wife Janet, who was a roller-skating waitress.
He also owned a used car lot on the side of two-lane Park Boulevard. And he fixed and sold the stuff his wife found at garage sales.
But he needed a place to sell that stuff, according to the story told on the Wagon Wheel’s website. So in 1966 he set up a roadside stand next to the car lot.
“Next thing he knows he is being asked if he wouldn’t mind some company — there was someone else who wanted to sell some stuff on the side of the road,” according to the website. “Well they both sold a whole lot of stuff that day so the word spread that there was this great roadside location to sell your stuff …”
The Wagon Wheel grew into a massive flea market in central Pinellas County that attracted vendors and customers from all over the country. It has 2,000 stalls on 125 acres, according to fleamapket.com, and 1,300 of those are indoors. In 1986, a New Year’s Eve fire burned down the concessions and the main office.
Hardy Huntley worked there nearly every day since he founded the Wagon Wheel, directing traffic or working at the concession stand. When he died at the age of 77 in 2013, the flea market and his real estate investments made him wealthy. He left behind five children and the family continued to run the flea market.
“So much of what our family did revolved around the Wagon Wheel Flea Market,” daughter Dawn Huntley Mattox told the Tampa Bay Times in 2013. “When you own your own business you work seven days per week to build it. He was always there, right in the middle of everything.”
Vendors whose property remains on the grounds will be allowed in to remove their merchandise. But sales will still be prohibited.
The market will be open on the following dates, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.: June 15-19, June 22-26 and June 29-30. No one will be allowed on the premises after June 30. Refunds will be issued when the booths are completely empty.