Some couples have their most epic road-trip quarrels over where to stop for lunch. We’ve all been there. But what about the lure of the billboard that announces “Antiques,” just a mile away then down the first road to the left? After all, if the itinerary didn’t account for that stop, there might be marital distress ahead if one of you wants to go off course.

And that’s where the ninety-mile stretch of I-44 and Highway 65 between Lebanon and Branson/Hollister creates a treasure-finding, junk-hunting conundrum. More than fifty antiques stores, flea markets, thrift stores, and similar second-hand proprietors peddle their wares along that route. One of our recent favorite trips followed that route, bookmarked by a must-have mid-century lamp at the Heartland Antique Mall in Lebanon and the tempting gaze of a forty-inch porcelain doll at a flea market on Branson’s east side.

Vintage decorative tins are a staple of almost any flea market or antiques shop. These were on the shelf at Heartland Antique Mall. Photo by Jodie Jackson Jr.

From our antiquing and collecting base at Columbia, smack dab in the middle of the state, the four-day round trip, including a day exploring Springfield’s cornucopia of treasure chests, was right around 450 miles.

The entrance at the Lebanon mall is properly festive, adorned for the winter, holiday theme. My bride, Kelly, and I instinctively look at the first or second thing we see to check the price. That strategy has become a consistent barometer of cost and, at times, has stopped us in our tracks and set us on a path to the next shop. We both nod and soon part ways, separated not by shopping lists, but by interests. I’m a long browser. Kelly is a glance browser. She can navigate an aisle in quick order. I’m more prone to linger if only because old books, vintage sheet music, and anything owl-related catches my eye.

I’m also a sucker for tiny Wade Whimsies figurines.

Most antiques malls have some of the same collectibles and whatnots: Precious Moments, check; Hummel and Goebel, check; milk glass and Bavarian china, check. And books, books, and more books. But a glass case with a German military arm band with swastikas? $145.95. I’m guessing that price is right for the right person.

A Ross Perot for President bumper sticker. Already got one. Hallmark Keepsake ornaments from 1985 through 1990. I pull out my smartphone, snap a photo, and then consult eBay. Price tag is $8.50. And that’s about what they sell for on eBay—or much lower—so I move on. Although it isn’t the definitive price guide, the eBay comparison works in a pinch, kind of like Wikipedia, hardly an authoritative source, but worth a peek sometimes.

When our paths cross, Kelly mentions, “There’s this lamp,” and she leads me to the spot. I’m a lamp guy, but this one? Then she says something about how it would fit just right in a certain spot in her office. Forty-five dollars seems about right, but we move on. We still have Ozark and Branson ahead of us—and lunch at Rosie Jo’s in Ozark—so there’s not ample time for me to linger over the old sheet music. I have collected the sheet music from about half of the titles on Your Hit Parade 1940s and once passed on Judy Garland’s “The Trolley Song” for $20 at River Market Antiques in Kansas City. I later found the same sheet music in similar condition—and in a plastic sleeve—for just $2 at Columbia’s Midway Antique Mall.

Not enough time to linger? Well, look, taxidermy mounts. (Great photo opp for ridiculous selfies, so just a second here.) Also alligator heads and shark jaws with a full set of teeth. Ouch. $120.

And talk about “found art.” Here’s a framed outhouse double seat for $55. I’m amazed, so I take it off the wall and caress the sturdy, old oak, just as anyone would caress and wax nostalgic over a yesteryear outhouse seat.

Art and beauty are in the eye of the beholder. It’s the same with antiques. The definition is as varied as the pickers and collectors pursuing their next exquisite find. Is it just rusty or, as the History Channel’s American Pickers icon Mike Wolf would say, “Rusty gold?”

My phone buzzes with a text from Kelly: “Where are you?” We quickly reconvene and walk to the exit. She turns. “I want that lamp.”

I pay for the lamp.

The author Jodie Jackson inspects a unique lamp at the Heartland Antique Mall in Lebanon. The lamp went home with him for his wife’s office in Columbia. 

Sixty miles later, it’s time for lunch at Rosie Jo’s, a country-style cafe. We first discovered Rosie Jo’s a few years back on the recommendation of a vendor at Keen Eye Antiques in Ozark. (Always ask vendors and checkout folks for dining suggestions. I promise you’ll never hear, “McDonald’s.”)

Next up is a post-lunch walk and browse through Camp Flea Antique Mall in Ozark. Rick Johnson, who worked fifteen years as manager of Camp Flea, which has held other names during the store’s thirty-year history, still has five booths there. He lives just six blocks from Camp Flea.

“It’s 180 degrees from what it used to be,” Johnson tells me, bemoaning the changes in the antiques-selling business. Pottery, glassware, antique furniture? “Today you can’t give it away,” though buyers from the coasts and an auctioneer from Arizona make annual trips to snatch up treasures that fetch two to three times the price in other parts of the country, he says. “Our prices in southwest Missouri are a lot lower.”

He once had ten booths spread out over four antiques malls. But don’t be mistaken. There’s still a twinkle of antiquing passion in his eyes.

Bobcats, a red fox, a pheasant, and other taxidermic creatures are perched for purchase at Camp Flea in Ozark. No petting, please, until you get them home.

“It’s the fun of the hunt. The majority of dealers, most of us, we don’t hunt, we don’t fish. This is what we do,” Johnson says, explaining that he and his wife will drive forty thousand miles a year “junking.” Well, turns out he does hunt, doesn’t he?

He adds: “Only buy what you like. If you wouldn’t have it in your house, it shouldn’t be in your booth.”

(I think about that two-seater outhouse relic back in Lebanon. I bet we could find a place …)

There are some exceptions perhaps, but today’s shoppers, the under-forty crowd, “don’t really care about the antique aspect. They don’t care if it’s old. It’s about the look,” he says. For instance, he points out a 150-year-old Daisy butter churn,—virtually no rust, in working condition, all seals intact—for $150. There are also reproductions for $50.

“If that girl is trying to decorate her kitchen because it reminds her of her grandmother,” he says, “she’s going to buy the $50 item.”

Authentic antique furniture is becoming more difficult to find, but Camp Flea has a nice selection, including this Victorian-style settee. Some booths are fun clutter-picking spots. In this case, the simple presentation is everything. Photo by Rose Hansen.

For planning purposes, or the fun fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach, there are a half-dozen antiques shops within a stone’s throw of Camp Flea. There are fifteen antiques shops and flea markets within three miles of the Highway 65/Route 14 (Jackson Street) interchange at Ozark. We’ll either get back to some of them on the return trip or wait for another time.

Next up is the Apple Tree Antique Mall in Branson. It’s hardly off-the-beaten path, right there on the main drag (1830 West 76 Country Boulevard). Apple Tree is a good example of how antiques stores have shifted from simply vintage/antique to include a mix of newer, crafted, or discontinued items. Some items still have the Oriental Trading sticker to prove they were mass-produced, perhaps bought cheaply in bulk along with a lot or two of Dollar Store-type items.

Cast-iron skillets and pans adorn the wall at Apple Tree Mall. If you detect “gate marks,” an indication of the manufacturing process, you’ve found one made before 1880. Authentic Griswold, Wagner, Lodge, Wapak, or Richmond pieces are valuable to collectors. Photo by Rose Hansen.

Some of the crafty, repurposed items appeal to me, for instance, a comic book wreath, tagged at $24.99. I almost bought it just to have a template for doing this kind of thing myself, but there’s already a considerable backlog of “I’ll do this myself” projects back home. So I snap a few photos and add them to a Pinterest board.

Finally, before checking into a condo at Holiday Hills Resort, we spy Flea Hag Flea-&-Tiques at the corner of East 76 and Route T, across from the resort. There’s no way we would pass a shop with such a fun name. Not surprisingly, flea markets and antiques shops come and go, and the Flea Hag has already shuttered her shop. Still, it’s a typical experience.

“Yes, I’m the flea hag,” Teresa Bangma nods when I enter and ask about the name. After two decades as a bookkeeper for a local theater, she opened the Flea Hag. There were plenty of treasures to sift through.

“Pretty much everything,” Bangma says. Books, CDs, Precious Moments figurines, knick-knacks, holiday and seasonal items, Hot Wheels collectibles (cheaply priced, too), and costume jewelry. A friend makes surprisingly hefty eBay profits from his wife’s perusal of costume jewelry, because she’s got a trained eye for finding—literally—diamonds or gold.

I like the Victrola on a cabinet stand. Just $350. But I already have a portable model, about umpteen years old that needs the kind of work I don’t know how to do. I also have an interest in baseball cards, but here’s a shelf that tells a familiar tale. One box marked “football cards” next to a box marked “baseball cards.” Looks like the football cards haven’t been touched, yet nary a card remains in the baseball box.

That’s when she catches my eye. She’s simply stunning: golden locks of curls falling past her shoulders, a pink Victorian gown, and perfect nose and cheeks with a gentle, rosy hue. Her hat is also exquisite. Equally stunning: She’s only $14. Bangma tells me that the forty-inch porcelain doll is part of her mother’s collection, which the Flea Hag is helping downsize. She adjusts the doll’s headwear, shaking her head. Bangma comments that there’s a flood of collectible dolls in antiques/flea shops. “The kids nowadays think they’re creepy.”

The Flea Hag herself, Teresa Bangma, takes the rosy-cheeked porcelain doll down from a shelf for a closer inspection. Photo by Jodie Jackson Jr.

I snap some photos and check eBay and Etsy for comparison. Similar dolls have sold for $100-plus. On the other hand, exact matches—this very doll—are sitting on shelves or in storage, listed for months with no bids or no sales. But this one still has the original box and the Certificate of Authenticity. I assure the Flea Hag that I’ll think about it. The next booth over has new, novelty throw pillows, one with an image of the It clown ($10) and another featuring characters from The Walking Dead ($7.50).

Now I’m shaking my head. Kids today think porcelain dolls are creepy?

On the trip home, after getting the most out of our lodging experience and enjoying time away together, we go through Springfield to check out a few shops there, sort of scouting out options for our next trip.

Oh, and before leaving Branson, we return to the Flea Hag. Where else could I buy the eight-track of Don Fransisco’s “Brother of the Son” for $3 and a well-worn paperback of Roger Kahn’s baseball classic, The Boys of Summer, for $1?

And what about that porcelain doll?

She’s in the back seat.

When you go

These treasures are at STD Flea East. Photo by Rose Hansen.

The annual fold-out map and guide, Antiquing We Go, is a must. You can find it in most antiques/flea shops and online at The guide lists 116 antiques shops, flea markets, home decor, tea rooms, and thrift shops in fifty-eight towns in southwest, central, and southeast Missouri. But keep your eyes open along the road, because the guide lists sixteen such shops in Springfield alone, though I can name at least four, including the largest of them all, Relics Antique Mall, that aren’t in the guide.

Also don’t miss: In Hollister, Kendall’s Treasures (it was Hennessey’s when we went) at #1 Downing Street and Olivia’s Heartland Antiques and Furniture at 135 South Town Boulevard. You’ll also find Downing Street Pour House just a couple of blocks away if you’re ready for a five-course dinner, and if you’re lucky to catch the dinners offered every other month or so.

Springfield is obviously worth a day or two exclusively. Don’t miss the city’s old industrial quarter and the STD Flea East (1820) and Central (505) stores on East Trafficway. Don’t snicker at the name: STD was the moniker for the Springfield Tool and Die Co.

Ozark is also worth a whole day. At the corner of Highway 65 and Route 14 alone, five shops combined provide almost 100,000 square feet, including this mish-mash of treasures: Breyer furniture, taxidermy, industrial salvage, quilts, retro kitsch, clocks, dishes, home decor, and vintage advertising signs.

Buying tips: Don’t feel sheepish about making an offer lower than the asking price. Most dealers are open to that if it’s reasonable. And always ask about a cash discount. Many shops give a discount if you don’t pay with plastic, which increases their costs. In fact, the occasional shop will not accept debit or credit cards, so always bring cash. Check first with shop staff if you’re bringing in food or drink. And expect to see a sign or a request to leave purses and backpacks in your vehicle. Not only do those accessories sometimes knock shop treasures off shelves, but it’s an anti-theft measure, too.

Where to stay, where to dine

Music and a meal? Welcome to Mel’s Hard Luck Diner in Branson on 76 Country Boulevard. Watch for singing servers carrying microphones, who might saunter by and tag you to sing the next line. Photo by Rose Hansen.

White River Lodge Bed & Breakfast

Becky and Bill Babler, owners • 417-779-1556 • 738 Ozark Hollow Road, Blue Eye

Every guest room serves up a 180-degree, breathtaking vista of Table Rock Lake and authentic rustic charm, the result of Colorado Engelmann Spruce logs handcrafted to build Bill and Becky Babler’s 10,000-square-foot log bed-and-breakfast just twenty minutes south of Branson. If those aren’t reasons enough to visit the luxurious White River Lodge B&B, just wait until you savor one of Becky’s signature breakfasts: Lemon poppy seed pancakes with blueberry amaretto syrup, scrambled eggs, fruit and yogurt, and Nueske’s apple wood smoked bacon.

“I actually retired to come and do this,” Becky says, reflecting on a nearly thirty-year career in education, most of it as a first grade teacher in Kearney. Bill Babler, a former Water Patrol officer, grew up along Lake of the Ozarks, and he offers a guide service, River Outfitters, for guests’ fishing interests: trout on Lake Taneycomo; bass fishing on Table Rock Lake.

The bed-and-breakfast was completed in 2005 and showcases ample natural light, local Amish-made furniture, and decor that features antique and vintage fishing equipment and other rustic pieces gleaned from area antiques shops. Relaxing at the lodge is easy, with a game room, theater room, sauna, and an outdoor hot tub that is used year-round. Just a short drive away: all of Branson’s attractions, shopping and antiques, horseback riding, Big Cedar Lodge, and Top of the Rock restaurants. Dogwood Canyon Nature Park is just ten miles away and is on the way to Persimmon Hill Farm at Lampe, where Becky finds that blueberry amaretto syrup, among other delectable treats.

White River Outfitters:
Persimmon Hill Farm:
Dogwood Canyon Nature Park:

The Cabins at Stockton Lake

Natalie and J. R. Oldham, managers • 417-808-0730 • 706 East Oak Street, Stockton

Stockton Lake is an hour west of Springfield and fun for your southwest Missouri antiquing trips. With cabins named The Crawdaddy, Skinny Dipper, Tarzan and Jane, and The Crappie Bed—among many others—the Cabins at Stockton Lake are cozy, comfortable quarters for getting away for a few days or longer. Natalie and J. R. Oldham have managed the rental program for six years, watching the property grow from nineteen cabins to fifty. Thirty-two of the privately owned cabins are in the rental program. (Tip: shoulder- and off-season rates and multi-night discounts are great.)

There’s no real off-season for the cabins, though. “We’re open 365 days a year,” Natalie says, and some special occasions are especially tempting, such as a free tote, chocolates, wine, and roses for Valentine’s Day. A walking trail provides easy access to the lake cove. Guests also have access to the lodge, set up with a forty-three-inch TV, free Wi-Fi, and a bring-your-own bar. Outdoor options are a nine-hole putting green, lawn games, outdoor fireplace, basketball court, and sand volleyball area.

Most cabins are pet-friendly, for an additional fee, and not all cabins have Wi-Fi access. Cabins are fully furnished.

Nearby antiquing options are available at Alline’s Antiques just a mile from the town square and Fair Play Antiques and Furniture in nearby Fair Play right off Route 32. Dining choices in Stockton include Stockton Lake Restaurant and Tavern, The Boathouse, and Enrique’s authentic Mexican Grill, as well as Ken’s Kafe in nearby Arcola.

Find Alline’s Antiques, Ken’s Kafe, and Enrique’s Mexican Grill on Facebook • Fair Play Antiques:

Rosie Jo’s Cafe

Rosie Jo and Vince Griffin, owners • 417-581-6047 • 1711 South 15th Street • Ozark

If all the chicken figurines, statues, teapots, and lamps don’t give it away, the menu will. Rosie Jo’s serves up fried chicken that brings some regulars in two and three times a week. Looking for local art? Dozens of caricatures adorn one wall, featuring regular customers, the county sheriff, and anyone else with local notoriety.

Rosie Jo’s daughter, Kaysie, delivers two heaping plates of fried chicken and mashed potatoes then asks for our drink order. Her shirt reads, “Beware of Attack Waitress.” She laments the cafe’s move two years ago from its spot off Jackson Street, but it’s clear that the regulars also made the move.

Kaysie says her sister and two of her three brothers work at Rosie Jo’s. At this time, Rosie Jo was at home, a rare day off, taking care of Kaysie’s kids, “Otherwise she’d be here ninety hours a week,” she says. Kaysie’s dad, Vince, affectionately known as “Mr. Rosie,” had been sitting with the couple who ordered the fried chicken and mashed potatoes.

That’s exactly the atmosphere that keeps diners coming back, Kaysie says, noting that her parents’ home and the cafe are mirror images.

“It would be just like coming here. There’s no difference between here and her house,” she says. “Except there, you don’t have to pay for it.”

Mel’s Hard Luck Diner

417-332-0150 • 2800 West 76 Country Blvd, Suite 103In the Grand Village Shops, Branson

If you’re looking for a “touristy” dining experience that’s affordable, entertaining, and tasty, well, flip a coin if you’re in Branson or blindly put a finger on the map. There are oodles of options. But Mel’s Hard Luck Diner is an easy choice with five-course entertainment as the home of the singing servers—and sometimes cooks and bus staff. The 1950s-themed diner has been featuring local talent—some known, some yet undiscovered—for twenty-
five years.

The meal is affordable and there’s no cover charge. That’s what they call a win-win. On a particularly busy day or season, you can expect to wait before you’re seated and waited on. The menu is all-out Americana, complete with grilled cheese and bacon on Texas toast, with hand-cut fries. Dessert? Your gaze might melt on Mel’s Chocolate Nachos. “A huge portion of cinnamon sugar tortillas topped with M&M’s, marshmallow topping, chocolate and caramel syrup, vanilla ice cream, whipped topping, cherries, and sprinkles.

And just as appetizing: The price is $10.99. That’s a song with a sweet sound.

Nonna’s Italian Café

417-831-1222 • 306 South Avenue, Springfield

The only thing in Nonna’s Italian food is … Italian. The popular eatery has graced Springfield’s historic downtown area since 1995. There’s ample dining room, but expect a parking crunch during busier, peak times. The city parking garage is just half a block away, though.

Need a menu recommendation? Try the Nonna, a signature sandwich of heaping roast beef smothered in provolone, roasted garlic, and honey Dijon on a toasted baguette with au jus, for $9.99 or deep fried for an additional $1.99.