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.