“Want to see my samurai outfit?” The man asking is dressed like an ordinary silver-haired dad—with one notable exception: He’s brandishing a two-foot-long sword with a golden hilt. The blade isn’t curved, as katanas always are, but we’re not about to split linguistic hairs with a knife-wielding stranger.
This isn’t the Renaissance Festival in Shakopee or a LARPing convention at the Saint Paul RiverCentre. This is the 60-Mile Garage Sale. After a COVID pause in 2020, the two-day summer event returns June 18-19 with sales lining the Root River State and Harmony-Preston Valley State Trails in southeastern Minnesota. Ten towns participate, from wee Whalan (est. pop.: 37) to comparably bustling Chatfield (est. pop.: 2,829), drawing deal seekers from as far away as Duluth and Des Moines.
Standing in a driveway in Rushford, Zorro is beaming. (This report is from 2019.) He just scored this sword—his second weaponry purchase of the day—for $2. His first was a three-foot-long, Colombian bush-whacking machete, which he already stashed in his van idling 30 feet away. He and his lady friend have a system, you see: She drives and he scouts. If a sale has potential, he leaps out of the van, surveys the goods, strikes a deal, and then they’re off to the next one. They’re professional pickers.
We, by contrast, are amateurs. This is our 14th or 24th or 249th garage sale of the day—we lost count hours ago—and we haven’t found a damn thing.
Zorro retrieves the machete from his backseat and draws it from its worn leather case, pointing to a reddish-brown discoloration at the blade’s edge. “Blood,” he deadpans. And with that, he climbs into his van, wishes us a nice day, and vanishes before we can even ask his name.
But the garage-sale samurai did teach us a few tricks. For one, it doesn’t matter where on the 60-Mile trail you start your hunt; what matters is when. Though the sale technically runs for two full days, the best stuff is gone by Friday afternoon.
Becky Hoff, former director of the chamber of commerce in Harmony, concurs. “I noticed a trend this year of full-day sales on Friday and shorter hours on Saturday,” she says. “We are encouraging people to extend their Saturday hours, but people who regularly shop garage sales will tell you it never hurts to get there earlier rather than later.”
As we hop from private home to church to library basement to community gymnasium, a theme emerges: Garage sales are both a window and a mirror. Go to enough of them, and you start to question your own materialism and propensity for impulse shopping.
In the endless procession of secondhand books, toys, baby clothing, and snow boots, of Thighmasters and foot massagers and miniature air-hockey tables, we catch fascinating glimpses of humanity. What fun it is to spin stories about strangers based on what they’re unloading: hand-knit Nordic sweaters and commemorative church plates, half-used Halloween makeup and $100 Red Wing crocks, C+C Music Factory cassettes and Pirates of the Caribbean soundtracks, back issues of Horse Illustrated and egg cartons packed with golf balls, rusty tractor parts and a platoon’s worth of camouflage. Every object has its story, and those stories can both uplift and devastate.
In Houston, we spy a King James Bible for sale alongside the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, with the former priced to move at $2 and the latter going for the princely sum of $10.
In Rushford, we see a tableful of Nylabones. The owner tells us she has a terminally ill son, who asked her to sell the last of his and his service dog’s worldly possessions.
In Harmony, Lutheran pastor Rolf Svanoe and his art teacher wife, Kimberly, were cleaning house in preparation for a move to Decorah, Iowa—a place they describe as “the epicenter for all things Norwegian American.” Though Rolf hosts lutefisk suppers at his church every other year—joking that it takes two years just to get the smell out of the building—he’s looking forward to an even deeper cultural immersion.
In Peterson, another heavily Norwegian town, we find ourselves hemmed in by its annual Gammel Dag Fest parade, a Midsommar celebration that blocks the main thoroughfares. We take our sweet time ambling from sale to sale here, chatting with homeowners like Milford and Donna Olson, both 85. It’s Saturday afternoon and everything in the couple’s immaculately organized garage is officially picked over. They’ve already sold $275 worth of knickknacks, flower pots, kitchen utensils, and “big-ticket” power tools, they explain—all items they’d been unable to pawn off on their three daughters, yet were unwilling to toss.
“Norwegians are tighter than all get out,” laughs Milford, a retired mail carrier. “We don’t throw anything away.” Donna, a retired school admin, chuckles when remembering a Norwegian aunt who would tuck a dollar bill or two cookies into a birthday card. “And I always had to say, ‘Oh, thank you.’”
When asked if they had done any garage sailing themselves, they shake their heads in unison. “We’re trying to get rid of stuff!” Milford says.
“Yeah,” Donna interjects. “If you see something that’s cute, it’s all, ‘Well, I guess I’ll take it.’”
Eat, Play, Stay in Minnesota’s Driftless Area
Fuel up for the hunt with an enormous Uffda breakfast wrap from Norsland Lefse in Rushford. The 35-year-old, family-run lefse factory stuffs its Norwegian-style burritos with eggs, hash browns, peppers, onions, sausage, and more, then tops ’em with hollandaise sauce. It’ll fill you up till dinner—or until you take a pie break at Aroma Pie Shoppe in Whalan. A Root River institution for more than three decades, the bakery is known for its flaky, lard-enhanced crust and 20-plus fillings, including Dutch apple, coconut cream, and Lanesboro-grown rhubarb. Toast a hard day’s digging with nitro-powered oatmeal stouts at Karst Brewing in Fountain, the western terminus of the Root River State Trail. And say hello to newborn calves while stocking up on smoked string cheese and squeaky-fresh cheese curds from the family-run Metz’s Hart-Land Creamery in Rushford.
Sale hopping is time-consuming, but it’s worth carving out an hour to visit the nonprofit International Owl Center in Houston. Modeled after the National Eagle Center in Wabasha, this is the nation’s only owl-exclusive education center. It is currently home to a pair of great horned owls, an American barn owl, an eastern screech owl, and a Eurasian eagle owl. In summer, live owl programs run three times a day, Friday through Monday, appealing to adults and children alike. Fifteen minutes west, take a moment to poke around the Rushford Area Historical Society, which presides over a charming replica of an 1867 episcopal chapel, a one-room schoolhouse, a decrepit old jail, and a log cabin.
Accommodations are limited around these parts, so book your room at least a month in advance. Lanesboro, notably, is home to a clutch of top-rated B&Bs. Habberstad House, a newly restored Queen Anne Victorian built in 1897, earns high marks for its five roomy suites with Turkish towels, plus beautifully landscaped gardens and multi-course breakfasts. For the best bargains, check in the night before the sale starts.