The most immediately noticeable thing about Main Street in Walnut, Iowa, is how quiet it is any hour of the day. On a Friday night at 5:30 there isn’t a single car in the road. Life closes down early here. Maybe time is just different.
This is small-town standard fare for the most part. Founded in 1868 around a railroad, the population of Walnut reached 1,000 a decade later and has hardly shifted since, with the most recent census count at 777 residents. Now known for its antique stores more than for its long-abandoned railroad, the city is caught in a strange crux between present and past.
In fact, in what longtime resident Lois Brix joked was the “antique capital of the United States,” time often appears to have stopped entirely. Storefronts, recently repainted with bright, nostalgic patterns to make residents and visitors feel as if they’re in a different era, line the brick Main Street. It gives off powerful hints of Mayberry, the fictional hometown in The Andy Griffith Show. It’s here that Midwestern history is preserved ad infinitum, for better or worse, by the devoted denizens of Walnut.
“We had an engineering company draw plans (for the Main Street revival) and right away they started with history,” says Trace Frahm, Walnut’s Mayor Pro Tem. “We said, ‘We want you to honor the history of our community with all of your updates.’ Updates need to be in the context of Walnut yesteryear.”
Brix’s shop, The Barn Mall, certainly looks like a relic of the past. It sits on a road off Main Street in a structure big enough to swallow most of the other antique stores in town. It’s been there since 1894, once a lumber mill, then a granary and a firehouse, and now home to what is essentially one of the Midwest’s largest time capsules. Brix has owned this building for over 30 years, since her husband bought it as a side hobby during his downtime on their family farm.
“We started on a whim,” she says. “This building had been sitting empty, and it was sort of deteriorating, and so my husband says, ‘This building can’t deteriorate.’”
The structure hasn’t been modernized once, except to include the giant mural of a sunrise Brix proudly pointed out as her newest addition. “We should have really done something,” she says. “The walls… everything is pretty primitive.”
In each stall, she houses a different antique seller’s wares. Unlike most shops here, Brix is just an aggregator, a housing unit for various travelling collectors. She doesn’t do any collecting herself.
“I don’t have time to go,” Brix says. “I’m here seven days a week or have hired help seven days a week, but I’ve just never gotten into going out and buying.”
Less than 150 yards from The Barn Mall is Corn City Antiques. Despite both claiming the same “antique” label, the shops could not be more different in their execution. In the Barn Mall, everything is neatly tucked into related categories, old furniture arranged like an IKEA showroom if it was open in the ‘50s. Corn City Antiques, on the other hand, is a considerably smaller building, so it’s difficult to tell if the haphazard jumble of mixed artifacts inside is due to spatial constriction or simply a choice by Dave Bradley, the owner.
Bradley is a man with a welcoming aura, an artist’s depiction of what Santa might look like if he kept all the presents for the 1940s children to himself. He sits behind a two-sided glass counter at the front of the store, which sprawls out behind him in three directions. Each path is a choose-your-own-adventure of trinkets and memorabilia. History is both figuratively and literally bursting through the seams of this place.
“It’s enjoyable. And so, 90 percent of my time that I’m in here or I’m dealing with people is enjoyable,” Bradley says.
He’s doing tasks for the shop roughly 70 hours a week, whether it’s communicating with old buyers or simply camping behind his desk for 12 hours a day, but he was careful to avoid calling it work.
“You have to understand we’re doing something we love doing,” Bradley says. “It’s like a guy that loves to fish. He goes fishing 70 hours a week. It’s not work. It’s doing something he enjoys.”
Bradley has forged connections during his 24 years in Walnut, and people will often notify him when they want their things picked up. That night he got a call and drove to Des Moines to pick up a collection of religious items, some of which he’d never seen before.
“If they’re happy with you one time when Aunt Mary died, well, then (when) Grandma and Grandpa dies, they’ll call you again,” he says.
Being connected is also important when finding good homes for the sensitive parts of American history. In Bradley’s shop and others, like the Granary Mall down the street, there are some antiques that stir up uncomfortable emotions from a time when African-Americans were not yet valued on equal terms with their white peers.
“Black memorabilia is kind of a touchy subject to some people, but it’s generally not touchy to black people,” Bradley says. “The black folks are the ones that buy a lot of ‘Little Black Sambo’ books and things that are derogatory.”
“Little Black Sambo” was a broadly used racial caricature of Africans from the 1840s through as late as the 1970s. These depictions have not aged well. They’re cringe-inducing to look at and offensive in every sense of the word. There’s no excuse for their creation, but Bradley defends the decision to sell them.
“We have black collectors that buy that stuff from us, and to them, that’s a part of history that even they’re saying is being erased,” Bradley says.
This is an advantage antique stores have over big box sites like eBay, where these pieces of history are banned from being sold. Bradley and his peers have an established group of collectors whose morality they’re confident in, no matter how much money less reputable buyers might offer.
“We don’t do this to get rich. None of us are going to get rich off of it.”
In fact, the lack of real money in this business poses a bit of a problem. Walnut’s antique lifestyle comes with its own set of drawbacks. Foremost, what is an antique town without collectors? Frahm expressed some concern that younger generations aren’t nearly as caught up in the antiquing wave as older ones. That could put a timer on their niche in history, no matter how they try to avoid it.
“We’re not real sure where the 100-year-old American-made antique merchants are,” says Frahm. “I don’t see young ones coming in. That’s why I’ve talked to a couple of antique owners downtown about it. I think antiques are as relevant as ever. I just think that we’re changing generations. We don’t really know.”
For now, store owners and Walnut officials like Frahm have used county grants and smart marketing as ways to draw in funding for the town, much of which is spent on keeping the idyllic small-town Main Street vision intact.
“Rural small towns have a future,” says Frahm. “It’s just convincing some adults in a town that what you’ve always heard is not necessarily true.”
Their vision keeps them relevant. They promote along the highway with giant billboards as the “Antique City” (Brix says the billboards are “the best advertisement for us”) and word-of-mouth has reached beyond state lines. Bradley has connections in Brazil and the United Kingdom. Brix gets pieces from antique hunters across the Midwest and Pacific Northwest. Bradley has even entertained some celebrity guests.
“Daryl Hannah was in town,” he says. “She came in here, she’s standing right where you’re standing and bought some things.”
Neil Young was with her. Of course, Bradley knows encounters like this aren’t commonplace, calling it “an unusually exciting day.” Still, Walnut has undoubtedly established a sort of cachet that’s rare among towns with less than a thousand residents. Buyers come in from all over the nation just to buy at Walnut’s yearly show. Bradley describes them as “interesting people… real oddballs and eccentrics.”
It’d be easy to apply the same description to the people of Walnut. Anyone selling leopard skins and fine china on the same shelf certainly isn’t a conventional thinker. But here, it’s not uncomfortable — it’s charming. The town’s residents are amalgams of the history they’ve so fastidiously hoarded. They’ve saved the history of the Midwest and in the process, become an important part of it.