We laid down the challenge: three porches, three tiny budgets. And that’s all it took for Tereasa Surratt, author of Found, Free & Flea, to steer her 1971 International Travelall 1010 to Wisconsin’s Elkhorn Antique Flea Market. Follow along as she shares thrifty strategies for using new finds—plus existing treasures—to update porches for $150, $300 and $500.
$150 challenge: The sleeping porch
When tackling a room, I think the secret sauce is to start with something you love and build your space around it. In the case of creating this sleeping porch for a song, my love interest came in the form of an antique suitcase concealing a spectacular stash of 1940s Waverly horse-theme barkcloth—all in mint condition, no less. This would be the focal point.
Made into floor-to-ceiling curtains, the fabric frames the view of a lake below our quaint sun porch. With such a view, I was inspired to let that outdoor palette continue inside. Sage greens (fauna), yellow ochre (wild daisies), and brown and gray (bark, earth, stone) were serendipitously all contained in the barkcloth.
Finding the fabric was lucky, but then I needed a unique bed frame. I considered crates and crocks to serve as a base for the bed. And then I saw it—in my backyard. A pair of garden benches housing terra-cotta pots (and three generations of field mice) would be perfect. I just needed to build a sturdy frame between the two benches for support. Sometimes the solution is right under your nose. If you can train your eyes to see alternative uses for everyday objects, you might surprise yourself and—more importantly—save some cash.
$300 challenge: The nautical porch
Everybody needs a favorite vendor at their favorite flea. My go-to guy has always been Dennis at the Elkhorn Antique Flea Market. His booth is basically the State and Main at the flea—the very first one you hit once you pass through the fair gates. Dennis’ seemingly endless stock of nautical everything didn’t disappoint the sunny Sunday morning I visited.
I had been hoping to find an anchor, life ring, maybe an oar or two—anything to help flesh out a nautical porch theme. But what I found at Dennis’ spot this time made me rethink that whole room. Shoved between trunks and a trailer, an enormous ball of weathered sisal and hemp caught my eye.
“It’s a fender that was tossed over the side of a boat to cushion it against a dock,” he said. “I picked it up at a Navy surplus auction with these.” (He rummaged in his trailer, emerging with an armload of weathered flags.)
And that was that. I knew I’d have to look no further. The blank room in my head started to materialize—those huge ship signal flags would become curtains and throw pillows. The fender was destined to be an ottoman. I’d usually have to drag my wagon through 100 booths to find treasures like these.
By evening, I’d picked up enough accents to pull this room together. I had roped retired buoys, a bamboo fishing rod, a small anchor to use as a paperweight, oars and a basket to stash old life jackets that could double as floor cushions.
$500 challenge: The library porch
Sometimes you have to find your inspiration and stalk it. The creative spark for this porch came in the form of a 1950s mountainscape jigsaw puzzle. That worn little box started a search for all manner of vintage board games, like Monopoly, Bingo and Risk. These were fairly easy to unearth at the flea, as were old books, magazines and sporting gear. I also found an ideal game showcase behind the glass doors of a $100 salvaged built-in cabinet. Because this was the largest decorative piece in the room, I opted to furnish around it.
I painted the floor a battleship gray and decided to accent with black furnishings. An old archery target collection and badminton rackets became wall art.
Finding a 1950s black-watch wool blanket for $15 was a steal. I knew it’d be the perfect remedy to give a pair of antique wicker chairs a long-overdue facelift. Other bargains included an enamelware coffeepot, a vintage radio and an old side table that I got near the end of the day. That’s when dealers are a little more willing to negotiate rather than pack something up and haul it back home.
Head mounts It’s easy to score antlers at a Midwest flea. Wisconsin, in particular, is full of hunters thinning out stock. For the best deals, go vintage. (They might be a bit rough, but hang them high, and nobody will notice.) The newer the mount, the higher the price tag.
Apple crates The sheer quantity of fruit orchards makes these a common find. Expect to pay anywhere from $15 to $50 (based on condition and collectability).
Sporting gear You can find a treasure trove of anything related to outdoor sports, including antique fishing rods, archery sets and old tennis rackets to name just a few. You’ll likely pay as little as $10 for a racket at a flea, even $5 if you score one at a thrift-store bin.
Kitchenware Farm kitchens were big and hardworking—filled with large pots and roasting pans. Items like enamelware, large cookers and vintage stoves show up here more than other regions, and prices are easier on the wallet, too.
Clothing True story: I found ’60s Red Wing boots at a resale clothing store in New York’s Soho recently (a 10! my husband’s size). But I choked on my latte when I saw the $235 price tag. Two weeks later, I found the same boots at the Elkhorn Antique Flea Market with the most beautiful price tag ever: $25. The reason is simple. Workingman boots were plentiful in the Midwest. (Had I been looking to score vintage Gucci wing tips at the Elkhorn Flea, it would have been a different story.) Moral of the story: Shop for what the locals loved and used.
1. When cruising a flea, don’t forget to lift lids. (Hidden treasures often lie beneath.)
2. Every piece has a story, which makes decorating with flea finds so interesting. Politely ask vendors where or what era something is from. Learning the history is half the fun.