We Were Upcycling, Thrifting & Repurposing Before it Became Cool

I also learned at a young age how to seek out the sale racks when shopping.  They were always located in the very back of the store, of course, so you had to pass all the full-price items to get there. Our eyes were trained to focus only on the clearance sections. Price was the key factor when determining what we purchased.  It didn’t matter if it wasn’t quite our size; Mom had a sewing machine, and she knew how to use it!

Many Saturday afternoons were spent at Kmart waiting for the blue light specials.  For those of you who have never had this unique experience, let me explain.  This is when a literal flashing blue light was wheeled through the store stopping at various departments and certain items were deeply discounted.  You never knew where it was going to go next.  We usually went home with a wide variety of things, anything from underwear to garden hoses.  For us it was a fun, money-saving adventure.

I grew up believing that if you really wanted something there was an inexpensive way to get it.  To prove that point, when MIA, wooden clogs were all the rage, I wanted a pair in the worst way.  The price was far beyond our budget, so I decided to create a pair from a block of wood, fabric, and some tacks. I chiseled my little heart out, but they never saw the light of day.  It wasn’t for lack of effort. There was also the time I wanted Satellite Jump Shoes (they were adjustable and made of metal and leather.  After all they were just like walking in space (so the ad stated.) Well, once again the cost was prohibitive, so I attempted to produce a pair by tying old metal bed springs to my shoes.  You guessed it, another swing, and a miss, but I was honing my creativity, while learning how to think outside of the box.

As a teenager, it wasn’t cool to be seen at a rummage sale, or at Kmart chasing the blue light. It was also embarrassing to always be a year behind in fashion since I had to wait for the items to hit the sales rack. Looking back, however, I am thankful for the experience.  It taught me patience and appreciation.

I was married at the young age of 20 and we started out with absolutely nothing.  Our first couch was a hand-me-down from someone whose cat had very vigorously scratched one end.  Our kitchen table was a folding card table with folding aluminum, webbed porch chairs.  We eventually upgraded to a used wooden table that my mother used for canning.  I sanded off the jar ring marks and refinished it.  We used that table for many years. As our family grew, I found myself in need of a bed for my twin boys who were outgrowing their cribs.  One day I spied a bedframe in the dumpster behind a furniture store.  It had been water damaged.  I asked for permission to take it, loaded it into my car, and refinished it for the boys.

Another time I always looked forward to, living in Lewistown, was Spring Clean-Up.  This was a time designated by the borough when you could place any unused items out on the sidewalk, and it would be picked up for trash.  For me, it was a wonderful time to pick up furniture that still had some life in it.  I remember spotting an old wooden hutch someone was discarding, but I couldn’t fit it into my car.  I phoned my dad, who was there in minutes (he learned not to ask questions; he just went with it) and he brought his larger vehicle and helped me load it.  I painted it white, and it proudly held my extra towels and washcloths in my bathroom for many years.

One of my most recent curated finds came from Winchester, Virginia.  That is where we located 3,000, 100-year-old bricks that we needed to face our home’s new addition. The bricks belonged to an apple packing plant that had been razed.  Retrieving them was quite an ordeal.  First, we had to locate said bricks, then rent a skid loader just in case we bought the bricks, then drive to Winchester.  After we knew we wanted the bricks, we then had to rent a truck, load the bricks, drive them back to Lewistown and then unload them.  Worth it? We think so. You cannot replicate character.  That is what so many of these upcycled items have that draw us in: character.  The rich patina as well as each scratch, dent, and imperfection tell a story.

Today, in fact, I spent some time exploring a local demolition store, my idea of a good time!  I made several trips through the store walking the aisles, inspecting the one-of-a-kind items on display.  As I looked around, I saw beauty in the rust, the chipping paint, and the faded lettering. I saw life that had been lived, stories being told.  When I looked up and saw the hand-made wooden child’s seesaw, I could envision the children who took turns riding on it as it hung from the barn rafter; I could almost hear their laughter.  Did I make a purchase? Indeed, I did.  I came home with an antique copper lighting rod-weathervane combination that will sit proudly on my dining room table (which is also an upcycled piece).

Let’s continue our thrifting, upcycling, and repurposing.  It shows kindness to our planet, nourishes our souls, feeds our creativity, retains valuable history, and makes this world a more beautiful place. I will leave you with one last thought. There should be no shame in your thrifting game!

Rhonda S. Kelley, Executive Director, Juniata River Valley Chamber of Commerce