We snicker at the green eagle and snap its picture with my iPhone. There he stands, 18 inches tall, head held high, near an enormous latch-hook rug of a grizzly bear and among stacks of books about O.J. Simpson’s murder trial. Three dollars, and he could be ours.
Amanda considers it.
She’d been looking for green glass pieces to put in a display case in her living room. But she wants classy. This is so … 1970. Especially once she realizes his head comes off and the regal eagle actually is a decanter.
It’s a no.
We continue our browsing spree on the Lincoln Highway’s Scenic Buy-Way, an annual Ohio event with roughly 1,200 garage sales across 300 miles. Other sales take place along the Lincoln Highway from New Jersey to Nebraska; similar ones line other Midwest routes.
Amanda and I aren’t yard salers, aside from an occasional hunt for kids’ toys or cute dresses. But even we can see the appeal of 1,200 sales along a scenic byway, and we like the idea of taking a break from the sales to see historical sites and small towns we’d probably never visit otherwise. We start just west of Van Wert and follow the L signs along the byway, which hopscotches over, under and along US-30 across northern Ohio through Canton. We slow to a crawl when we see five or six cars parked along the shoulder near a carefully tended farmhouse. We step inside the garage to find brand-name baby gear that looks barely used: furry winter coats for $10, shoes for $5, Halloween Onesies for 50 cents. I think of a friend hoping to adopt a baby and grab the Halloween stuff.
High from the quality and the deals, we press on, singing along to dance tunes between stops. We hop out at another stop to find boxes of 50-cent Bibles, religious figurines, beat-up purses and stained 30-year-old coffee makers that I’m not sure even Goodwill would accept these days. Our spirits sag.
“It’s like gambling,” Amanda says after we trudge back to the car. “You keep going, thinking the next one is going to be the jackpot.”
We break for lunch at Balyeat’s, a 90-year-old coffee shop in downtown Van Wert known for its pie, and surrender to plates of meat loaf, mashed potatoes, dressing and gravy. Eighty-year-old owner Dale Davies carves steaming roast beef to order; servers recite a list of available pies. We count 13 when we arrive; by the time we scrape the last gravy from our plates, the list has dropped to six. We order classic apple a la mode and butterscotch topped in meringue. When was the last time we ate like this? But we can’t stop. It’s as if the stuff on these yard sale tables—much of it in our homes a generation ago—has unleashed a torrent of memories that seem to pair perfectly with pie.
Seventy miles east in Upper Sandusky, Carmen Baker welcomes shoppers to her three-car garage on Duck Pond Road, built practically in the shadow of a beautifully preserved red barn with Mail Pouch Tobacco painted on the side. Today, the barn houses the Steer Barn steak house, but when Carmen was little, that icon belonged to her dad, who raised beef cattle. Her grandkids sell lemonade on the front porch for 50 cents, competing with kids down the street selling loaves of fresh-baked bread and breakfast burritos.
A box of signed baseball cards at her neighbor’s house has the potential to make my husband’s day. I pull out my cell phone and call him. “They want $8 for a 1968 Mickey Mantle card. Is that a good deal?” I ask. He practically jumps through the phone. I hand over the cash and tuck it into my purse, glowing at my find.
A couple of hours later, we pull off the byway in Mansfield and find ourselves face-to-face with the Ohio State Reformatory, the prison-turned-museum that served as the set for The Shawshank Redemption and hosts countless ghost hunters. “Will we see anything paranormal today?” we half-jokingly ask the ticket seller. She smiles.
“I can’t promise anything,” she says. “But things have been pretty unpredictable around here lately.”
We creep through the crumbling, paint-peeling behemoth, stopping to touch kiosks and learn about the movie filming, the dark shadows, the sounds and smells of frying bacon no one can explain. We step into cells and listen intently, craning to hear a whisper, a shuffling footstep. I feel a stabbing pain in my neck that disappears when I step out of the room. Coincidence?
The next morning at Wooster’s Spoon Market Cafe, a locally sourced wonder housed in a historical building, we celebrate our scores. Between us, we’ve spent only $25 at the sales, and we have just one regret. Of everything we saw—the prickly plastic Halloween decor my parents owned during the ’70s, the gas station glasses from the ’80s, the Beanie Babies from the ’90s—we wish we’d spent the $3 on that green glass eagle. Like the warm childhood memories evoked by these garage sales, that one kitschy piece would remind us of our carefree weekend in Ohio. Sometimes, a photo on your iPhone just isn’t enough.
Click ahead for a two-day itinerary plus a list of similar sales in other states.
This journey stretches from Van Wert to Wooster (between Mansfield and Canton); follow the L signs on the old Lincoln Highway Historic Scenic Byway to find the sales and sights.
The Van Wert County Courthouse, built in 1876, practically begs for pictures. New tours this year showcase its restored stained-glass ceiling. (877) 989-2282; visitvanwert.org  Comfort food reigns at Balyeat’s Coffee Shop. (419) 238-1580
Barns and farmhouses along the byway between Van Wert and Lima offer some of the route’s best shopping.
We spent the night in Lima at the sleek, comfortable Marriott Courtyard Lima, which has a friendly staff and cooked-to-order breakfasts in the lobby cafe. From $99. (419) 222-9000; marriott.com 
While in town, see the Lincoln Park Railway Exhibit’s impressive locomotive engine and placards explaining Lima’s train-manufacturing history. The touching Lima Firefighters Memorial Museum nearby honors the fallen and the town’s fire fighting history.
Time for more sales! It’s a 50-minute drive to Upper Sandusky, where homes along Duck Pond Road have quality finds.
Farther east, cool 3-D murals, including the 134-foot-long Great American Crossroad Mural, deck buildings in Bucyrus. Cooper’s Mill makes apple butter in copper kettles out back and sells it, along with Amish baked goods and other jams and jellies, in a country store. (419) 562-4215; www.coopers-mill.com 
At the nearby Ohio State Reformatory, take a self-guided tour of the creepy but cool prison, or sign up for one of the many nighttime, adults-only ghost hunts held throughout the year. (419) 522-2644; ohiostatereformatory.org . Lighten up with a $1 ride on the whimsical Richland Carrousel in downtown Mansfield. (419) 522-4223; richlandcarrousel.com 
The byway from Mansfield to Wooster includes some of the state’s most panoramic farmland scenery.
For dinner in Wooster, try City Square Steakhouse, which has stellar burgers, seafood and steaks. (330) 262-2489; citysquaresteakhouse.com 
The new 12-guest-room St. Paul Hotel pampers visitors with modern decor, heated bathroom floor tiles, TVs in the bath mirrors and en suite breakfasts. From $125. (330) 601-1900; stpaulhotelwooster.com 
Before you leave town, swing by Spoon Market Deli; part deli, part grocer, part butcher shop, it sells locally roasted coffee, bagels and unique breakfast sandwiches. It’s also the place to find other regional foodie treats, like Zingerman’s coffee from Ann Arbor, Michigan, as well as Boar’s Head meats and imported cheeses. (330) 262-0880; spoon-market.com 
Hit the road
100-Mile Garage Sale This sale (May 1–4, 2014) runs along the Mississippi River: from Winona north to Red Wing in Minnesota and from Fountain City north to Prescott in Wisconsin. Great stops include the Alexander Mansion B&B in Winona and Flat Pennies Ice Cream in Bay City, Wisconsin. (612) 309-3995; mississippi-river.org/100-miles-of-fun/sales 
100-Mile Yard Sale Travel Missouri’s State-25 from Jackson to Kennett in search of deals; more than 1,000 visitors stop to shop in the parking lot at the Living Water Worship Center in Bloomfield. May 23–25, 2014. (888) 501-8827; 25yardsale.com 
The 127 Corridor Sale This 690-mile trek (August 7–10, 2014) runs from Michigan to Alabama, with the best stuff—and scenery—in Kentucky between the Gallatin County Fairgrounds and Owenton. (800) 327-3945; 127sale.com 
The Lincoln Highway Buy-Way August 7–9, 2014. (419) 468-6773; olhhc.org 
Michigan’s Longest Garage Sale About 500 vendors line 180 miles along US-12 from New Buffalo to Detroit. The sale (August 8–10, 2014) snakes past Fernwood Botanical Garden and Nature Preserve in Niles and the Henry Ford in Dearborn. us12heritagetrail.org 
US-36 Treasure Hunt A 400-mile journey across northern Kansas winds through at least 30 towns; Sabetha and Scandia had the best sales, and the Kansas Creek Inn near Concordia is an excellent place to stay. September 19–21, 2014. See reviews.  (785) 282-3548; ushwy36.com 
Nebraska’s Junk Jaunt Nearly 40 towns along two scenic byways host this sale (September 26–28, 2014). You’ll find pretty views, antiquing in Grand Island, and a restaurant and soda fountain called The Country Neighbor in a former Burwell schoolhouse. (308) 346-4815; junkjaunt.com