By Amanda N. Wegner | Photos by Liz Hoffman
Nick and Amy Nottestad spent a long time preparing for their second act.
The Nottestads are the relatively new owners of the Elkhorn Antique Flea Market, a massive and beloved outdoor flea market that has brought pickers, antiquarians and vintage enthusiasts from around the country to Elkhorn for the last 42 years. While the Nottestads fully assumed ownership in 2020, it’s been a huge part of both of their lives for decades.
One of the largest flea markets in the Midwest, the Elkhorn Antique Flea Market was started in 1981 by area resident Nona Knapp, a friend of Nick’s mother. Both Nick and his wife, Amy, have lived their whole lives in the Lake Geneva area, and both spent time at the market growing up. When they first got married, they would shop the flea market to buy items for their home together. And about 15 years ago, the Nottestads, both teachers at the time, began working at the market.
“Because the flea market was mostly a summer event and we had our summers off, we offered to help Nona with odd jobs — traffic, parking, admissions at the gate,” says Amy. “We’d been going for years since we were young, as customers with our parents, and were happy to lend a hand.”
Through the years, Nick would joke with Nona’s husband, Skip, about taking over. “He’d say, ‘When you’re ready to pass the torch, we’d be willing to take it up,’ ” Amy says of Nick. “They laughed about it for a few years, but in developing quite a close relationship, the thought started to stick.”
Eventually, the Knapps approached Nick and said they were ready to retire, and shared that they were concerned they hadn’t taught anyone else how to do the job and thought they would have to close. “They didn’t realize that we’d been learning all along,” says Nick. “I said, ‘You may not have known it, but you were teaching us through our summers just working there.’ ” And so, the deal was sealed.
VINTAGE ITEMS, A NEW CAREER
The market runs over four dates between May and September, taking over the enormous Walworth County Fairgrounds in Elkhorn. Nick and Amy explain that despite its seasonal nature, running the market is a year-round job, requiring a great deal of planning, outreach and organization in order to manage the 550 to 600 vendors who exhibit at each show. Initially, the Nottestads knew one of them would need to stop teaching in order to run the market, so, after 14 years as a special education teacher, Amy left the education field to take on that role.
But after the first full year of running the market, the Nottestads realized it was a full-time job for two people, and Nick also decided to stop teaching after 22 years in the profession. “It had been Nona and her husband [running the market], and it really does take two people to do it well,” says Amy. “It was a tough decision [for Nick] to stop teaching, but it was time for a change of pace. We have a successful business, and it’s fun to have your own business, especially these days.”
The Nottestads worked alongside the Knapps for a few years, who taught the new owners everything they could. They are still around to help, notes Amy. “They are well into retirement age and have a booth at the show, so they’re there to help us when we need them.”
The 2023 season will be the third season of the Nottestads’ ownership. Amy handles the behind-the-scenes tasks, drawing up contracts, securing payments and assigning space to 500-plus vendors across 13 acres, like solving a giant puzzle. Nick is the set-up and operations guy, spending about three days before each market preparing the fairgrounds for visitors. They also rely on a crew of about 14 employees for each market, and are supported by local organizations that help with traffic control, parking assistance, concessions and more. “It’s not quite Summerfest, but each market is a large undertaking, requiring a lot of hours,” says Nick.
“But we’re not complaining … it’s only four weekends out of the year,” Amy adds.
BEST OF THE MIDWEST
In the first year of the market in 1981, Knapp, an antiquarian with connections to other antique dealers, brought 15 to 20 vendors to the fairgrounds, using just a small amount of space near the north gate and North Hall. Each year, the market grew larger and larger, and attracted more shoppers, some of whom would drive hours to be at the gates in the morning. Today, the show takes over the entire fairgrounds, a sprawling 99-acre site.
“There is not another like it in the Midwest,” says Amy. “Over time, it would take up a little more space, then more space, to today, where we have the whole grounds.”
The Elkhorn Antique Flea Market is considered by many flea market enthusiasts to be the best show in the Midwest, drawing vintage collectors, antique experts and even vendors who have been featured on
the TV show “American Pickers.” Many vendors are regulars who make Elkhorn a must-stop event on their annual circuit. There are even a few vendors who have been coming since the market’s first year.
Vendors are drawn to the show for its longevity and quality; the Nottestads are strict about only allowing antiques and vintage goods from the 1970s and older. “Quality control is number one,” Amy explains. “It has toallbeoldandoriginal.Wescreen out recycled and repurposed; it’s not that we don’t both love those things, but we are trying to keep the integrity of the original show intact.”
Visitors appreciate this attention to authenticity. The markets happen about once a month throughout the summer, and each one draws an average of about 10,000 to 14,000 people, many of whom are repeat visitors. “If you’re into this sort of thing, you’re into it, and our market is a must for those people,” says Amy.
The market’s location is also a draw, and Amy notes the “genius” of the Knapps in selecting Elkhorn for its central location between Milwaukee, Madison and Chicago. “[People from] all of those areas can get to us for an afternoon,” says Amy. “That is a huge benefit to us.”
The vendor lineup is relatively steady from show to show, though some vendors do switch out through the season. Despite this, vendors tend to vary what they bring, so each show is different, with new treasures to be discovered by market devotees. “Vendors tailor their merchandise,” says Amy. “In May and June, they bring stuff for camping, old outdoor stuff, decor for the upcoming season. In September, they bring things like wool blankets and items for colder weather. So you won’t see a lot of the same things twice, which keeps people coming back.”
While market weekends are chaotic, the Nottestads wouldn’t have it any other way. They say it allows them to connect with what they love most about the market: their vendors, who come from all over the United States. “They are what make the show,” says Amy. “It is a cool culture of people, and we’ve never met a group like it.”
Nick adds that he and Amy have even become personal friends with some of them, and it’s always a bit sad to say goodbye after the last show. “There is very much a personal element to this, and I think it’s one of the reasons [the Knapps] chose us,” says Amy. “Nona saw what we had done, and the connections we had built. It takes a different type of person to run a market like this and connect with the vendors, and we enjoy that.”
WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDS
Just a few years into running the market on their own, the Nottestads are holding the status quo for the time being. But they do have some ideas for the future.
One is merging the needs of the older-generation vendors with those of the younger generation coming in. Amy estimates the vendor base is about 50-50: half of the vendors are in their 60s or older. The other half is into “the new vintage picking vibe.”
“These [younger] vendors are the future, and to accommodate them, we need to modernize,” Amy explains. “We don’t take credit cards — we still have a lot of vendors who only write checks. We have vendors who want phone calls — they don’t want or have email. It’s a hard gap to bridge. We love the older generation of collectors and keepers, but we must look at what’s up-and-coming for the younger half.”
The Nottestads also realize the day will come when they have to push the timeline of the items they will accept into the 1980s. “We get pressured a lot that it’s time to start bringing the ’80s in,” says Amy. “[The concern is] once you start letting newer things in, it becomes a trickle effect, and it will be all Atari and Cabbage Patch [dolls],” she laughs.
As owners, the Nottestads can change the criteria as they see fit and note that the Knapps only changed the age-of-item criteria every decade or so. But they also realize truly vintage items are becoming more challenging to find. “Something truly antique, 100 years or older, is getting hard to find, and the vendors who have [those items] are getting older, and it’s becoming more challenging for them to load them up and bring them,” Amy says. “The day will come when we have to make a shift, but quality will always be our top priority.”
And while the Nottestads are relatively new to owning the Elkhorn Antique Flea Market, they hope it will continue to another generation of their family; their children, 17-year-old Landon and 15-year-old Delaney, work all of the shows with their parents. “We’re hoping one or both of them will want to take over the business for us one day,” says Amy.
Your Market Checklist
Amy offers this checklist to make the most of your visit to the Elkhorn Antique Flea Market:
- ☑ Arrive early. Gates open at 7 a.m. There will already be lines of people and traffic.
- ☑ Wear walking shoes. The event covers the entire fairgrounds.
- ☑ Come hungry. Each market features about a dozen local food vendors. “We have really good food,” says Nick.
- ☑ Be patient. “It’s not a fly- around sort of place,” says Amy. “Commit the time to be here; it takes longer than you think.”
- ☑ Come with a stash of cash. Most vendors only accept cash.
- ☑ If you have a list, get organized. If you’re someone with a “shopping list” for the market, work out an organizational system to keep track of what you’re looking for, where you’ve been, and what you’ve purchased. Amy notes that after each market, vendors are left with items people purchased, but forgot to come back and pick up. Maps are available for each market.
Elkhorn Antique Flea Market 2023 Details
- When: May 21, June 25, August 13 and September 24; 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., rain or shine
- How much: $5 cash admission
- Where: Walworth County Fairgrounds