Culture // 6 min Read

Antique Hunting in the Lowcountry

Written by Palmetto Bluff

Sep 28, 2018

From Vintage Markets to Estate Sales

Antiquing has long been considered a challenge involving much skill, a revered Southern sport.

With a nose for a good deal, antique hunters scour markets, estate sales, and stores across the region, taking pride in their ability to haggle and walk away with a prized collectible. Every piece they find seems to have a story, and the more colorful the history of the artifact, the more fodder for dinner party tales. Say, for instance, that you didn’t inherit the family silver—visit your local antique store and you might just find the missing pieces. From cucumber servers to forks made specifically for chipped beef, you never have to worry about what Grandma may or may not have left behind. The Lowcountry boasts a bevy of opportunities to window-shop for quality pieces from the past. A quick tour of our area from Savannah to Beaufort can yield a history lesson of the region or the next unique item, able to be passed down through future generations.

Walking into Picker Joe’s in the Starland District of Savannah is stimulating for all the senses. The store is neat and tidy—no jumble or dusty piles to sort through here. Instead, there is a thematically arranged walking path winding through aviation ephemera—a Delta attendant serving cart, 20 mm bullets fired from an F-16 Falcon, a vintage flight helmet—past wall-to-ceiling shelves with single and series history and children’s books, and culminating in the architectural room with salvaged doors, windows, and Victorian fireplaces ready to be repurposed. And that is only the front part of the store.

Quickly, visitors realize there is an enormous amount of space beyond what they first see—a “pickers” paradise, as its name would suggest. The vintage feel is punctuated by the scent of coffee in the air, provided by locally owned Savannah Coffee Roasters in a signature Kenyan blend made especially for Picker Joe’s. The streaming songs in the background are World War II-era staples like Sentimental Journey or In the Mood. The collective experience has guests raving about the store, so much so that they have attracted the attention of American Pickers, the Discovery Channel’s antiques reality show. Indeed, this antique emporium seems to mix truly valuable pieces, collectibles, and well-displayed novelties like a Victorian shower or jewelry made from recycled guitar strings.

Owner Jim Plumlee couldn’t be more pleased with the path the store has taken and he doesn’t seem to regret his career change from air show pilot to antique curator at all. In fact, as Jim was cleaning out his hangar one afternoon, he found he didn’t want to throw away the old airplane gauges. A friend suggested that he look at an antique booth, which led him to treat his antiquing as a hobby. When a bad back and shoulder influenced him to retire from the physical demands of being a stunt pilot, he looked at what he enjoyed, made the investment in a location, and opened Picker Joe’s doing what he loved. “I love going to work every day. You follow your dreams. I didn’t realize this was my dream. I found the calling.”

Crossing state lines into Bluffton, South Carolina, Stock Farm Antiques is a small store reflecting the worldly style of its owners, Teddy and Emmett McCracken. Emmett’s mother, Naomi McCracken, started the store in the early 1950s with two other ladies. She moved the shop to an upstairs room in her home in the 1960s, calling it Stock Farm Antiques after their property. Teddy remembers merging into the business with her mother-in-law, “In 1996, my husband and I moved into the house with her and moved the shop to its current location. From then on, we’ve been running the shop or it’s been running us.”

Emmett was stationed in Korea shortly after the Korean conflict in 1962 and Teddy incorporates this global influence in her picks for the store. “We had lived in Asia and went on trips to Hong Kong, Japan, and Seoul, Korea, which is an influence.” The Swillington Bridge opaque granite china and other choice porcelain bowls, plates, and teacups nestle in an ornate cupboard up against the front wall, and Teddy can tell you the origin of each piece. A variety of consignment goods is flanked by curios and china cabinets of undeniable quality from the 18th and 19th centuries, the burled wood and inlay polished to a neat and tidy sheen. There are figurines, statuary, and glass, but the customers seem most interested in cases of silver and porcelain, asking the knowledgeable Teddy about the particular background of each object. She is a fountain of information, giving a history lesson along with each sale. The quiet store is a small respite from the humid summer outside, providing a chance to buy furniture from the past.

If cluttered antique stores aren’t your taste, Southern estate sales have long been a chance to score a find—an upscale, more elegant version of their Saturday garage sale cousins. Savannah business The Mint Green Tag Sale Company saw a need in the Lowcountry community to serve a growing population of downsizers, and what started out as just an idea blossomed into a desirable service for anyone needing to sell their surplus in the area. Owners Cody and AJ Hetzel provide a complete service for downsizing a household, pricing and placing items strategically and hosting well-attended sales advertised on their popular Facebook page. They are extremely cognizant of creating income for their clients and resistant to any attempt to purchase items for less than a fair price.

Still, collectors and dealers rub elbows at the sales with the curious public to get a chance at one-of-a-kind items available from area homes. Cody says the typical buyer comes prepared, “Many shoppers come to the sale with a list in hand, or in their head, of the items they want.” Some of the more unique finds are surprising—evacuation plans for Chatham County during World War II in the event of an attack, old coins from area drawbridge services that are now defunct, and at one home, two original life jackets from the Queen Mary. The company also finds itself selling modern items such as a new sofa, a lawn mower, or even a car. Most of the sales are held in Savannah, an area that Cody finds fruitful for quality antiques, “Dining rooms are teeming with large sets of china, crystal, and sterling flatware and serving pieces. Savannah earned its moniker as the ‘Hostess City’ and these homes will show you how.”

In Beaufort, a large mall of independent vendors offers an eclectic mix of items, some old and some new. The Collectors Antique Market is a sprawling store, the kind that can easily and happily convince someone to waste an entire afternoon on a treasure hunt for that perfect addition to a house. The readers of Beaufort’s visitor’s blog, eatsleepplaybeaufort.com, voted it the Best Antique Shop of 2018 in the area, and Island News added to the accolades with the title “Favorite Antique Shop.” Owner Jane Woods Tarrance organizes the space. Each private seller she accepts brings their own assortment of goods in a cohesive display for their designated area. “I have 30 different people in here, so it’s not just my taste. They collect different things for their booths, which makes it more entertaining.” The offerings are constantly changing, ranging from true antiques to crafted items to new items with a vintage feel. There are classic tourist postcards from area beaches, pink depression glass, estate jewelry, and even elegant lace nightgowns from the 1950s. With such a large space, any person coming through the doors should be prepared to spend some quality time in the store.

In the Lowcountry, there are so many opportunities for the perfect antique to find a home. Whether it is a trip down memory lane or a quest for a specific item, part of the experience is the hunt. The popularity of antiques proves what Jim Plumlee terms “P.F.T.P.” or “Passion for the Past,” an appreciation for the times when items were purposeful and well-made, not disposable or temporary. As families have passed these items through generation after generation, they are recognized for their history and craftsmanship as well as the functionality they bring. There is something satisfying about having a connection to the past that makes the antiquing experience a lifelong pursuit.

Written by Jessica Farthing

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