Market-goers rummage through tables of goods at the Princeton Flea Market. Joe Schulz photo
by Joe Schulz
At 5:58 a.m. Saturday mornings, Princeton City Park is deserted except for one man brewing coffee in the food stand.
Mike Jacobi has been organizing the Princeton Flea Market for 38 years and every morning at 6 a.m. he hears the familiar sound of cars arriving, within minutes the park fills with vendors.
The Princeton Flea Market is the largest outdoor flea market in central Wisconsin, running every Saturday from 6 a.m. until about 1 p.m. and featuring more than 100 vendors.
Jacobi noted the market is never the same two weeks in a row, as new vendors come each week. Admission and parking are free at the event.
When the market began in 1975, it originally was down the street from the Princeton City Park. It was across the street from Piggly Wiggly on Fulton Street and only had about 15 vendors. Within a few years the market had outgrown its original location and was moved to the park.
In 1982 Jacobi was serving on the Princeton Chamber of Commerce, when the person running the flea market quit.
“No one else wanted to do it, so I got drafted,” Jacobi said.
Jacobi continued to organize the market because he still has fun doing it.
“I’m an organizing kind of person, an organizer,” he said. “I like to organize.”
When he began organizing the market there was no plan; vendors would set up wherever they wanted.
One of the first things Jacobi did was map out the park and give specific spots to vendors staying for the entire year, and other spots for vendors only coming for the day.
“All those people that stay for the year are what we call ‘seasonal,’ they know where they’re going because their spot has been predetermined,” Jacobi said. “And then, what we call ‘dailies,’ they are parked across the street in the parking lot. And I go down the line and assign them one of the spots that we have available.”
Jacobi likes to have a variety of vendors, some selling used products, others offering new merchandise and even folks who peddle ready-to-eat food.
“At some point in time it may have been all old and used [stuff], but that’s totally changed in today’s world, where some markets end up being all new [stuff],” he said. “I’m down in Florida for a couple of months in the winter and the flea markets there are virtually all new.”
Community groups take turns operating the food stand, with proceeds from the day’s food sales going toward the organization running the stand.
The Shops of Water Street managed the food stand at the June 22 Princeton Flea Market. Pictured are, front row, from left, Oliver Greget, Owen Greget, Emmet Zodrow, Megan Dunlavy; second row, Jenna Zodrow and Elliat Zodrow, Tina Zodrow, Angela Zodrow; back row, John Zodrow, Jess Greget and Matt Greget. Joe Schulz photo
“The flea market in large part is their primary source of income, like the Lion’s Club for example, or several school groups, and they can do whatever it is that they do as a community group in large part because they have made money at the food stand,” Jacobi said.
The market’s reputation draws people into Princeton, which in turn benefits the local economy by increasing traffic in local gas stations and restaurants.
“We draw a lot of people from urban areas that want to spend a day in the country, and it’s like, ‘Oh, let’s go to this cute little flea market in this cute little town,’” Jacobi said. “On the way they might go through Ripon and stop there. So, it’s not just Princeton, surrounding towns will benefit too by bringing in the additional people.”
The flea market also helps fund the Princeton Chamber of Commerce. Most chambers of commerce are funded through a room tax; Princeton doesn’t put a tax on lodging facilities.
“We pay the city rent to use this park,” Jacobi said. “While most chambers get funded by some level of government, we are paying our local government to be here.”
While many make a day out of going to the market, for those who go to the market week in and week out there’s a sense of community.
“I mean a lot of these people know each other and they see each other here and they see one another other places and it’s like a big extended family to a degree,” Jacobi said. “It’s not only among the sellers but among the people who just come here.”