World’s Largest Garage Sale founders Jane LeCount and Steve Parisi shared memories Wednesday Sept. 26 about the early years of the great sale — when the event had several thousand attendees rather than a crowd of 50,000 to 80,000.
With the colossal annual World’s Largest Garage Sale approaching, two of its founders took some time this week to reflect on how the sale got started 32 years ago.
The huge sale, renowned across the northeastern U.S. for attracting crowds of up to 80,000 people, officially starts Saturday Sept. 29 — but thousands will be here a day earlier browsing through wares.
The massive event grew out of a local Chamber of Commerce committee formed to devise a way to boost local commerce, Steve Parisi recalled this week. Thirty-three years ago, Parisi and Jane LeCount, until recently a real estate broker, and Gene Magee of Thurman and Merlin Hathaway — founder of Daggett Lake Campgrounds, shared their strategies at a meeting held at Hathaway’s home.
“The idea was to figure out how to get people to stop in Warrensburg on Columbus Day weekend rather than driving right through,” Parisi said, noting suggestions like a kayak race were shared. “I thought, what do Warrensburg residents really do best, and the thought came to me — a community garage sale — Warrensburg residents don’t ski or kayak — but they love garage sales.”
In 1980, the debut edition was called the “First Annual Street Sale and Flea Market.”
In that first year, about 50 vendors were situated in one location, downtown in the Warrensburg Health Center parking lot.
By the second year, Jim Kinneally, a regional outdoors writer and television personality, suggested the “World’s Largest Garage Sale” moniker to boost the sale’s notoriety. Kinneally was a friend of Warren County tourism chief and promoter Doris Herwig, Parisi recalled.
Kinneally’s scheme apparently worked.
In the first year, about 1,000 people attended, to the delight of the committee. But in only two years, the crowd grew exponentially to 20,000 or 30,000, LeCount said.
“It snowballed, the sale REALLY snowballed,” she said. LeCount and Parisi continued to manage the sale in those early years.
One sale site with several dozen spaces soon grew to 500+ vendor spaces at six sanctioned sites, plus dozens of other private congregate sites through town. Several dozen individual yard sales through town mushroomed to 1,000 or more. Other communities from Maine to California heard of the sale’s fame, and launched knockoff events.
The early years of the World’s Largest included an auction each day, and Jim Galusha of Thurman was the auctioneer, LeCount recalled this week.
These debut years were casual and fun, LeCount said. In one of those early auctions, John Hall Sr. of Thurman, the famed area lawyer, donated a donkey to the Garage Sale committee to be auctioned, LeCount said, recalling how during this particular auction, she was near the stage and watching the action as she shared a bottle of wine with Magee.
“A man bid the donkey up to the price of $3,000, then donated the cash to the Chamber of Commerce — but he told us to keep the donkey,” she said. “We really had fun back then.”
LeCount said the purpose was not only about getting people to stop in town, but to help people pay their fall property taxes and winter fuel bills.
“We not only wanted local people to make money for the winter to come, but provide an event for the tourists during such a lovely time of the year,” LeCount said.
Succeeding years saw the crowd grow to 70,000 or more — some observers have estimated as many as 100,000 people in town over the weekend. Traffic has backed up during the sale up to two miles on the Northway to get into town on the weekend’s Saturday morning, with frustrating gridlock downtown.
The Chamber of Commerce grappled with the challenges of size, setting up out-of-town parking lots served by shuttle busses.
Back in the early 1980s, the Street Sale, also called the Whale of a Sale, grew so fast it created unanticipated problems, Parisi and LeCount recalled. Parisi said that early on, Jerry Quintal of Oscar’s Smoke House complained that the crowd in town had gotten so big the traffic prevented Quintal’s many Columbus Day Weekend customers from getting to his store.
“So we moved the sale up one week, and we didn’t miss a beat,” recalled Parisi, noting that Herwig had told the Chamber the Great Sale prompted the largest county sales tax receipts for any weekend over the calendar year.
“Within four years, the World’s Largest Garage Sale was colossal,” Parisi said.
“We created our own holiday — We pushed the right button for Warrensburg.”